March 5, 2013
In this Year of Faith when we recall the vision of Pope John XXIII in convoking the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago, the papacy is again in focus with the conclave to elect Pope Benedict’s successor about to start.
The cardinals gathering for the conclave this month would do well to choose someone with Pope John’s vision, diplomacy, hospitality and humour for these challenging times.
Many saw Pope John XXIII as a fill-in until someone more like Pope Pius XII emerged. At 76, Pope John was expected merely to keep the machinery of Church governance ticking over. Instead his pontificate spawned the most significant event in the modern era of the Church.
Born in 1881, Pope John entered the seminary in Bergamo at age 12. A scholarship took him to Rome to finish his seminary studies and he was ordained in 1904. While continuing studies in canon law he became secretary to the bishop of Bergamo where he gained a broad understanding of the problems of the working class.
As papal nuncio in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey he made friends with the Orthodox Churches and the Muslim religion wondering at how distant the Church was from them. ‘Could he do more to open up the Church?’
As Mgr John Broadbent says in his new book Vatican II: between the lines, Pope John showed a facility for getting alongside people from all walks of life. While in the garden, he chatted to the gardeners and on a visit to the Regina Caeli prison in Rome he began his sermon, ‘I have often visited this prison before, because I had a cousin in here as an inmate…’
In a divided France after the Second World War, Archbishop Roncalli’s diplomatic skills were well honed. Several Vichy bishops had sided with the Nazis during the war and the new government wished them to be tried as traitors. Roncalli ‘quietly spoke to three who resigned and won government approval for the rest’.
As well as convoking the council, Pope John’s five-year papacy included a diocesan synod for Rome, revising the Code of Canon Law, boosting the number of cardinals and reducing the percentage of Italians and appointing a number of bishops in Asia and Africa.
His encyclical on social progress, Mater et Magistra (Mother and teacher), was issued in 1961 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (On new things). Pacem in terris (Peace on earth) advocating human freedom and dignity as the basis for world order and peace, came out in 1963.
‘Since his death in June 1963, much has been written and said about the warmth and holiness of the beloved pope. Perhaps the world’s view was best expressed by a newspaper drawing of a shrouded earth with the simple caption, ‘A Death in the Family’.