Friday 6 December 2019

'It is fitting that he is to be canonised by a man, elected, like him, at the age of 76, who also chose an unexpected name and who is clearly not a caretaker either'

Of good council: Pope John XXIII called the Ecumenical Council three months into his papacy
Of good council: Pope John XXIII called the Ecumenical Council three months into his papacy

Bishop Donal Murray

On the day of his beatification, Pope John Paul II described the impact John XXIII had made on the world: "How many people were won over by his simplicity of heart, combined with a broad experience of people and things! The breath of newness he brought certainly did not concern doctrine, but rather the way to explain it; his style of speaking and acting was new, as was his approach to ordinary people and to the powerful of the world."

Those words could easily be applied to Pope Francis.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born in the small village of Sotto il Monte, about 20km from Bergamo in northern Italy. During his studies he developed an interest in church history, which he retained for all of his life. After ordination he became secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo for 10 years. He worked for a time in Rome, then for nearly 30 years in the diplomatic service of the Holy See, as the papal representative in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and finally in France. He became Patriarch of Venice and a cardinal at the end of 1952.

So his 'broad experience of people and things' involved close contact with his own family of tenant farmers, wide experience of the life of the diocese in which he grew up, contact with the world of Islam and of Orthodox Christianity, dealing with very delicate issues in France in the aftermath of the war and the deep divisions that had arisen in French society.

In all of these sometimes fraught situations he was able to maintain a natural friendliness and humour.

Some of the examples of his humour may be apocryphal. As one writer put it: "It is difficult to say if all the bon mots attributed to him are authentic." But they tell us something about a person who was relaxed and informal. He was said, for instance, to have remarked on how during the boredom of diplomatic receptions, when a particularly striking woman entered the room, he noticed that "everyone turns and looks at me".

In October 1958, he was elected Pope just a month short of his 77th birthday. It was assumed that he would be a 'caretaker Pope', who would just keep things on an even keel for a few years. Those who thought that had seriously underestimated him. The first indication that they were wrong was when he chose the name 'John'. No Pope had taken that name for over six centuries, partly because of confusion about previous claimants of the name.

Three months later came a far greater surprise. He decided to summon an Ecumenical Council. He made the first announcement to a group of cardinals gathered in the Basilica of St Paul. The news was greeted with total silence, which the Pope was later kind enough to describe as "devout and impressive", but which can hardly have been what he was hoping for.

The prolific John Paul II wrote 14 encyclicals in 26-and-a-half years. John XXIII wrote the astonishing total of eight encyclicals in less than five. Among these, two particularly stand out. 'Mater et Magistra, holds an important place in the history of social encyclicals. He writes that being concerned only with people's spiritual welfare is not enough: the Christian must also be concerned with their general well-being, health, education and so on. "The economic prosperity of a nation is not so much its total assets in terms of wealth and property, as the equitable division and distribution of this wealth" (Mater et Magistra, 74).

Less than two months before his death, he published his second great encyclical, Pacem in Terris.

Real peace requires "that the fundamental principles upon which peace is based in today's world be

replaced by an altogether different one, namely, the realisation that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust" (Pacem in Terris, 113). He was to be Pope for just four and a half years.

During the last year of his life, he was aware that he was dying of cancer.

He survived to see only the first of the four sessions of the council.

But with his decision to call the council, he was – as Pope John Paul II put it – "turning a new page in the church's birthday. It was generally history."

It was an apt phrase to describe the achievement of someone with a deep interest in history.

It is fitting that he is to be canonised by a man who was elected, like him, at the age of 76; who has chosen an unexpected name, Francis; who is clearly not a 'caretaker' and who will, please God, also turn a new page in church history.


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