Monday, June 3, 2013

Good Pope John

Fifty years ago today - June 3, 1963 - Blessed Pope John XXIII died. By the time he was beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 2000, today's date in the Church's calendar was already claimed by the Ugandan Martyrs (canonized by Paul VI in 1964). So Blessed John XXIII is commemorated not on the anniversary of his death but instead in October on the anniversary of the Council he had convened in the hope of what he fervently called "a new Pentecost."
It was in fact Pentecost Monday (which we still celebrated in 1963 in the as yet unreformed calendar) when Pope John died. To an impressionable 15-year old with a perhaps more than average interest in religion, it seemed as if the whole world were assembling in a vigil at his deathbed. That evening, a special Mass was celebrated in St. Peter's Square for the assembled crowds, and it was shortly after that Mass's end that the Pope died. (Earlier, he had received the sacrament of Extreme Unction from Bishop Peter Canisius Van Lierde - the same Bishop who had confirmed me six years earlier).

The Pope's death set in motion the traditional rituals of ecclesiastical mourning. Those rituals were augmented by an unprecedented degree of popular interest and participation. I remember watching the evening news with a high school classmate as the Pope's body was brought out of the basilica into the square at the end of his lying-in-state to give the huge crowd a chance to pay its respects. I recall how the news commentator commented that in the early Church this would have amounted to "canonization by acclamation." Not quite - but at least he's finally been beatified and now lies in honor unde an altar in St. Peter's!
John XXIII's legacy is simultaneously simple and complex. His down-to-earth, human saintliness was what made him so popular with ordinary people and is still remembered by those of us who are old enough. Think of the continued appeal of his 1962 Discorso della Luna! His Journal of a Soul still merits reading even if the language - and the spritiuality - seem somewhat dated. At a time when the papacy had finally fully re-emerged from its post-1870 isolation, John gave the Church a remarkably attractive human face. Who knows how many may have been more disposed to hear the Church's message because they had come to like the messenger? The modern media-driven emphasis on personality and charisma has likely done the Church and the world more harm than good overall, but it is undeniable that an attractive personality who can lovingly project the joy of disicpleship is great gift not to be minimized.
That simple side of his legacy is what, I suspect, accounts for his continued popular appeal. And that appeal has survived the complex and conflicted history he inadvertently set in motion with his Council. Pope John was a true traditionalist, who loved the Church and its liturgy, and who knew its history well. His northern Italian background and historical study had disposed him to appreciate the accomplishments of the Council of Trent and the reforming zeal of the likes of St. Charles Borromeo (whose heart he went to venerate in preparation for the Council's opening). He had great hopes for the spiritual renewal the Council would facilitate. Neither he - nor, for that matter, the Council Fathers - could have anticipated the moral and cultural revoluton that was just around the corner in the late 60s and how so much of the Council's promise would get derailed by the spirit of the age. It is almost impossible to separate one's evaluation of John's successor, Paul VI, from one's evaluation of that tragic time in the Church. But John died in time to be spared that fate and can be remembered and admired for what he personally embodied without reference to the chaos that came about during his successor's reign. (In that regard, he resembles John F. Kennedy, who died less than six months later, and who can sitll be invoked by anyone who wishes to do so - on whatever side of the late-60s battle lines).

Immediately following his election in 1958, the new pope experienced being carried aloft on the sedia gestatoria for the first time. He reminisced about how as a child he had been carried on his father’s shoulders. Then he added: “The secret of everything is to let oneself be carried by God, and so to carry him to others.”

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