When he was elected in 1958, the 78-year-old Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli appeared to be a “transitional pope.” He did in fact become transitional—in unexpected ways. As Pope John XXIII, he inaugurated a new era for the Roman Catholic Church when he prayed for a “new Pentecost.” He opened the windows of the church to the modern world and laid the foundations for its passage into a new century. He heralded a dramatic shift from a law-centered church to a life-centered church, from defensiveness to dialogue and from static ideas to historical development. John affirmed that “we are witnessing the unmistakable opening of new horizons.” He understood it would be tragic for the church to remain intransigent and fearful. On the 40th anniversary of the opening of the council he convoked (Oct. 14, 1962), what inspiration can be drawn from this “shepherd to the modern world?” Let me suggest 10 lessons.
1. Reaffirm the vitality of the laity and assert their full participation in the life of the church. A 19th-century theology manual dismissed the laity as “neither priest nor monk.” A Victorian clergyman, Monsignor George Talbot, stated their province: “to hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical affairs, they have no right at all.” Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose vision anticipated the Second Vatican Council by a century, countered, “The church would look foolish without them.”
Pope John encouraged the laity to embrace the universal call to holiness and affirmed the unique dignity of their baptismal priesthood. The “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (1965) later echoed this vision: “Let it be recognized that all the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence.” In John’s estimation, a new era of the laity had dawned, as they consecrate the world itself to God.
2. Strive to read the “signs of the times” and continue to bring the church up to date. In his opening address at the council, John stated that the church’s teachings and practices “should be examined and explained in a way that meets the needs of our time.” He embraced the concept of aggiornamento, of bringing the church into more effective contact with the modern world. On his deathbed he said: “It is not that the Gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have...were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and to know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.” In this respect John mirrored Newman, who wrote: “God speaks to us primarily in our hearts. Self-knowledge is the key to [all] precepts and doctrines/” John met challenges and opportunities by opening his heart to the aspirations of the modern world.
3. Avoid condemnations, and use the “medicine of mercy” to validate doctrine while engaging in open and honest discussion. The church is not a debating society. It has the right and duty to declare authoritatively those doctrines it puts forward as Catholic. But Pope John described the new attitude he embodied as a “preference,” as opposed to the “severity” reflected by certain of his predecessors: “Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnation.” John eschewed the former “fortress mentality” entrenched in some Vatican circles. His openness broke down stubborn barriers.
In a commentary on the postconciliar “Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communication” (1971), the journalist Richard Ostling suggested: “Secrecy is impossible. Information will get out eventually, so the choice is between a timely, full, accurate, honest, useful report available to everyone; and a distorted, inaccurate hearsay account which gets to some people much earlier than others.” Dysfunctional secrecy and harsh condemnations don’t work: the combination should be discarded as a vehicle of communication within the church.
4. Acknowledge an inevitable degree of conflict and strive to manage and resolve it effectively. John perceived his office of bishop of Rome as a sign of unity and an instrument of peace. The reforms of Vatican II, like those of all church councils, led to a time of upheaval. As Newman wrote in 1870, “There has seldom been a Council without great confusion after it.” John also embodied the virtue of patience. At the end of his life, Pope John inscribed one of his books to Cardinal Pericle Felici, Ubi patientia, ibi laetitia (“Where there is patience, there is joy”). Pope John Paul II echoed this mind-set in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint: “It is necessary to pass from antagonism and conflict to a situation where each party recognizes the other as a partner... any display of mutual opposition must disappear.”
5. Repudiate the sinful structures of clericalism. One of the most dramatic moments at Vatican II came during an intervention by the Belgian Bishop Emil de Smedt. He contrasted the hierarchical model of the church that embodied the triad of “clericalism,” “legalism” and “triumphalism” with one that emphasized the “people of God,” filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and radically equal in grace. “No mother ever spoke this way,” de Smedt remarked of the antiquated expression of the church. This is a viewpoint further accentuated by the great theologian of the council, Karl Rahner, S.J.: “First, I am a man; then I am a Christian; only then am I a priest.” A culture of creeping clericalism has re-infected Catholicism in the postconciliar era. It needs to be both recognized and repudiated.
6. Retain a sense of openness, mutuality, dialogue and respect for divergent viewpoints. Pope John set the tone that affected the entire organism of Catholicism by embracing the concepts dialogo (dialogue) and aperta (openness). In his encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, he cited St. Augustine: “Whether they like it or not, they are our brothers. They will only cease to be our brothers when they have ceased to say, “our Father.” As Cardinal Leo-Josef Suenens noted: “Pope John would be happy to bless any human being,” a stance that extended even to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, of whom John said: “If this fine gentleman came to Rome and asked to see me, why should I refuse? I would listen to him.” One of the most articulate spokesmen from the English-speaking world at Vatican II, Abbot Christopher Butler, O.S.B., commented, “The most important result of the council will be that we learn to treat one another as adults.”
7. Appreciate the redemptive, purgative value of suffering and patience. John XXIII saw the church moving toward “a new order in human relationships which, through the operation of people, and, moreover, above and beyond their own expectations, are tending towards a fulfillment of higher and unforeseen designs; and everything, even human adversity, is ordered for the greater well-being of the church.” Change is often painful and exacts a price. Once, in the garden at his summer palace in Castelgandolfo, Pope John said to Cardinal Suenens: “Oh, I know what my personal part in the preparation of the council will be...it will be suffering.” The French Dominican and council peritus, Yves Congar, O.P., (who, like many practitioners of the “new theology,” was silenced by the Vatican in the 1950’s) invoked this spirit: “Patience is a certain quality of mind, or rather of soul, which takes root in profound convictions. Only through the Cross do we ourselves achieve authenticity and depth of existence. Nothing is worth doing unless one agrees to pay the price.”
Patience and suffering can yield positive fruits when one entertains dreams and pays the price to make them come true.
8. Maintain a tempered, optimistic spirit. In his famous inaugural speech at the council, Pope John responded to those “prophets of doom who continually announce baleful events as if the end of the world were impending.” During the council’s first session, the pope met with the French bishops. He confided: “Yes, there’s an argument going on. That’s all right. It must happen. But it should be done in a fraternal spirit. It will all work out. Moi, je suis optimiste” (“As for me, I am an optimist”).
As grim as some situations presently appear, the prophets of gloom and doom will eventually be overcome. In the end, “all things work together unto the good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:27).
9. Cultivate a sense of humor and use it when things go wrong. Pope John was fond of saying that “without a little holy folly the church will not enlarge her tabernacles.” Humor can cut through cant and be a healing balm. When he became pope, he altered the lion in his papal coat-of-arms, representing his see in Venice, to “make him look more human,” so that it “wouldn’t frighten anyone.” When asked how many people worked in the Vatican, he replied: “About half of them.” Even in the face of his imminent death, he told his brothers: “My bags are packed; I’m ready to go.”
10. Trust the Holy Spirit’s unflagging role as comforter and guide in the church. On the day Pope John summoned the council, the archbishop of Milan at the time, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (later Pope Paul VI), called upon a trusted spiritual guide. He said: “This holy old boy doesn’t seem to realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.” “Don’t worry, Don Battista,” replied Passionist Father Giulio Bevilacqua. “Let it be, for the Holy Spirit is still awake in the church.” As John prayed in his Christmas message of 1961: “Renew, O Lord, your wonders in our time, as though for a new Pentecost...increase the reign of the Divine Savior, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace.”
“Good Pope John” scrutinized the signs of the times, discerned the opportunities and moved forward into a new and challenging reality. He bore witness to the light, made the rough ways plain and prepared a path, revealing Christ to the world. Let us seek his guidance during these troubled times, and pray that the Holy Spirit will be awake and effective at every level in the church, ushering in a new order as part of the divine plan.