Pope John XXIII had positive impact on present, future church

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns

Pope Pius XII died on Oct. 9, 1958, after more than 19 years in office. Fifty-one cardinals gathered for the conclave that would elect his successor.

Although a month short of his 77th birthday, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, Patriarch of Venice, was considered a viable candidate from the start. There were, after all, 24 cardinal-electors who were older than he was.

In John XXIII’s posthumously published Journal of a Soul, he noted that the conclave had wavered back and forth over the course of three days. His main opponent was Cardinal Gregory Peter Agagianian, an Armenian who had worked in the Roman Curia for many years and who was regarded by some, including fellow Eastern-rite Catholics, as more Roman than the Romans.

In a talk at the Armenian College in Rome three months after the conclave, the new pope admitted that his name and Agagianian’s "went up and down like two chickpeas in boiling water." It was not until the 11th ballot that then-Cardinal Roncalli exceeded the two-thirds required for election.

That was on Oct. 28, 1958, 50 years ago this coming Tuesday.

The newly elected pope took the name John XXIII even though there had been an antipope of the same name and number during the Great Western Schism in the early 15th century. He did so because John was his father’s name; it was the name of the parish church where he had been baptized; and it was the name of numerous cathedrals around the world, including the pope’s own cathedral, St. John Lateran.

He also pointed out that he loved the name John because it was borne by the two disciples closest to Jesus: John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Finally, he wanted to renew the apostle John’s exhortation that we should love one another.

Breaking precedent, he preached at his own coronation Mass on Nov. 4, the feast of his hero, St. Charles Borromeo. He insisted therein that he wanted to be, above all else, a good shepherd. When he took possession of his cathedral almost three weeks later, he pointed out that he was not a prince, but "a priest, a father, a shepherd."

That Christmas he revived the custom of visiting prisoners at Regina Coeli and patients at a local hospital. He also made visits to various parishes in the Diocese of Rome, convalescent homes for the elderly, other hospitals, and various educational and charitable institutions.

On Jan. 25, while speaking to a group of Rome-based cardinals at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, he announced his intention to call an ecumenical council -- an announcement that was greeted with stony silence. The council, he said, would be a "new Pentecost."

In his opening address to the council on Oct. 11, 1962, he made it clear that he did not call Vatican II to refute errors or to clarify points of doctrine. The church today, he insisted, must employ the "medicine of mercy rather than that of severity."

He rejected the opinions of those around him who were "always forecasting disaster." He referred to them as "prophets of gloom" who lacked a sense of history, which is "the teacher of life." Divine providence, he declared, is leading the world into a new and better order of human relations. "And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church."

The pope guided the council through its first session, but died of stomach cancer before the second opened. He said to a friend, "At least I have launched this big ship -- others will have to bring it into port."

His encyclicals reflected the pastoral and ecumenical tone of his pontificate and his commitment to social justice and peace. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, he broadcast a message over Vatican Radio urging both parties to proceed with caution. It was said at the time that it gave the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, the opportunity of backing down without losing face.

He established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, was the first pope to meet with an Archbishop of Canterbury, extended greetings to the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarch of Moscow, approved a Catholic delegation to the World Council of Churches, and removed the offensive "perfidious" from the prayer for Jews in the Good Friday liturgy.

When Pope John XXIII died on the evening of June 3, 1963, the whole world reacted with profound sorrow. Even the Union Jack was lowered to half-mast in the bitterly divided city of Belfast.

No pope in history was so beloved nor had such a positive impact on the present and future church, or indeed on the world itself.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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