Saturday, October 11, 2014

Good Pope John

Today, the Church commemorates "Good Pope John," Pope Saint John XXIII (1881-1963). Elected Pope in 1958, John famously convoked the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). In fact, his feast is observed not on the anniversary of his death (June 3 - already occupied in the calendar by the Ugandan Martyrs), but today on the anniversary of the opening of the Council on October 11, 1962. At that time, of course, October 11 was the feast of the Maternity of Mary, established in 1931 by Pope Pius XI to commemorate the 15th centenary of the Council of Ephesus (which had affirmed Mary's title as Theotokos). Ironically, the post-conciliar liturgical calendar of Paul VI abolished that feast n favor of the more ancient feast of Mary, Mother of God on January 1 - thus effectively freeing an especially fitting space on the calendar for Pope John after his beatification by St. John Paul II during the Jubilee Year 2000.

St. John Paul II beatified John XXIII in the same ceremony with Blessed Pius IX (1792-1878), the longest reigning Pope (1846-1878), who convoked the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). St. John XXIII would certainly have appreciated being linked that way with his long-reigning predecessor and that earlier council. On retreat in 1959, Pope John wrote, " I always think of Pius IX of sacred and glorious memory and, by imitating him in his sufferings, I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization" (Journal of a Soul, 63).

Obviously, I have no personal memory of Pius IX, but I have very vivid recollections of John XXIII. His predecessor, Pius XII (Pope 1939-1958) had been the first modern media pope - appearing in public to enormous audiences and on film to even larger audiences around the world. This media-centric personalization of the papal office would be brought to previously unimagined levels by John Paul II (Pope 1978-2005). John XXIII was, of course,more old-fashioned than his theater-trained, media-sensitive successor, John Paul II. But the coverage he got was almost uniformly positive. It was his personality - outgoing, people-friendly, kind, and fatherly that got most of the attention. I was only 10 when he was elected and 15 when he died and probably paid more attention to church news than the average boy of my age. Even so, my impressions were also largely formed primarily by his attractive and engaging personality, and secondarily by his boldness. No one, of course, was anticipating the dramatic changes ushered in by - or at least in the name of - Vatican II. But the mere fact that he had called a council and devoted his pontificate to preparing for it marked his as a bold and active leader, which at the time added to his attractiveness.

At the time, I more or less just expected poes to be holy. Pius XII had seemingly set the bar quite high in that regard. (I remember, after Pius XII's death in October 1958, one of my aunts saying to my grandmother that there could hardly be a holier pope.) But the combination of John XXIII's personality and his evident piety more than fulfilled the expectation that a pope should be very holy. In the afterglow of his pontificat, I found reading about his life and then reading his spiritual journal intriguingly inspiring, even as the world around me was changing rapidly and radically undermining the world John had lived in and the piety he had professed so steadily.Yet, after all that has happened, the witness of his sanctity continues to shine through the confused character of our age. He remains a remarkable example of goodness in a committed man of the Church.

As he wrote on November 29, 1940, while serving as Apostolic Delegate to Greece and Turkey, "if we do our best the Lord continues to give us his grace, the grace of feeling we are his for ever" (Journal of a Soul, 48).

No comments:

Post a Comment