Blessed John's Call

On Sept. 11 we remembered the hole blasted in our world a year ago. On Oct. 11 we remembered the trumpet blast with which Blessed Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council 40 years ago. His speech on Oct. 11, 1962, set a direction and tone for the church and the world in our era that can help us respond to Sept. 11.



By the end of 1962 the world had dug itself into the pit of a cold war. The nuclear arms race, the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis and the beginnings of the Vietnam conflict generated gloom around the world, yet Pope John opened the council on Oct. 11, 1962, with a humbly confident sense that “in the present order of things, divine providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by man’s own efforts...are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. It is easy to discern the reality if we consider attentively the world of today....” “Easy,” he said, even as others talked of war.

During his pontificate, John used several terms to express what he meant by this new order of human relations: pastoral, convivenza, new Pentecost, union of heaven and earth, aggiornamento and signs of the times. His explanations culminated in the encyclical that stands as his last will and testament, Pacem in Terris (1963). “There is an immense task,” it asserts “incumbent on all people of good will, namely the task of restoring the relations of the human family in truth, in justice, in love and in freedom.” This is a most exalted task...of bringing about true peace in the order established by God.” It remains our task today.

When Pope John was installed on Nov. 4, 1959, he declared his intention to be above all “pastoral.” He meant that he wanted to communicate the Gospel to the people of his time in a way they could understand, so it would penetrate their consciousness and consciences and enable them to apply the Gospel to their daily lives. To be pastoral meant using “new forms of approaching the whole world with the doctrine and grace of Christ.” To be pastoral was to adapt the teaching of the Gospels for the good of individual persons and of society. To be pastoral was to be concerned with the well-being of those who belonged to “the church” and of all people. “The good of persons”—all persons, all humankind—was the heart of the matter.

Though seldom referred to, convivenza was John’s clearest term for the new order of human relations he saw emerging. The Italian word has no exact English equivalent. Literally it means “living together,” coexistence. But it suggests more: “real coordination and integration, a fraternity of love,” community rather than mere society, communion rather than mere community. Convivenza evokes intimacy, not just togetherness.

John’s notion was grounded in the experience of his peasant family in Sotto il Monte, Italy, but for him convivenza embraced the whole world. He envisioned the church working with other institutions to find solutions for the human community’s problems. He called the council to enable the church to do that more effectively.

John’s vision was not something he thought up or a product of human endeavor. It arose from faith, and he experienced it as a work of God, an inspiration of the Spirit. As such he promoted it confidently, even when it met resistance. He persisted because he was convinced that only through the conflictual sacrifice that such confrontation entailed could he and the church render a genuine service to the modern world. Convivenza, for him, would be an outcome of the “new Pentecost” he spoke about and wanted to see. He harbored no illusions about its attainment: “The church does not pretend to expect each day a miraculous transformation such as occurred in the Apostles and disciples on the first Pentecost.... But she works for this and asks God without ceasing for a renewal of the prodigy.”

A similar theme is John’s notion of the “union of heaven and earth.” He first used this image on Jan. 25, 1959, when he announced his intention to call a council. As he reviewed the situation of the world, he felt “sad in the face of the abuse and the compromise of man’s freedom which turns entirely to a search for the so-called goods of the earth, not knowing that the heavens are open....” To meet the situation, John announced his extraordinary plan to convene a council for the benefits it could bring “even in reference to the well-being of life here below, an abundant richness from the dew of the heavens and the fertility of the earth” (Gen. 27:28). He returned to this image in his opening speech to the council on Oct. 11: “The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council prepares...and consolidates the path toward that unity of mankind which is required as a necessary foundation in order that the earthly city may be brought to the resemblance of that heavenly city where truth reigns, charity is the law, and whose extent is eternity.”

No term in John’s rhetoric became more famous than aggiornamento. It stands still as the symbol of everything he was about, an emblem of his program, its slogan or motto. Literally aggiornamento means “updating.” It was John’s word for pastorally motivated changes in ecclesiastical discipline and legislation. He used the term in 1953 to describe the results of the synod he convened as patriarch of Venice. When announcing his papal program on Jan. 25, 1959, he used aggiornamento specifically to state what he proposed to do with the Code of Canon Law. Aggiornamento’s primary meaning was the updating of laws in order to bring them into greater conformity with contemporary life and practice.

In spite of that technical meaning, aggiornamento quickly came to connote much more. People grasped that John intended to update not only the church’s legislation but its meaning and role as well. The meaning of the term expanded even for John. By June 1961 he saw aggiornamento as part of God’s desire for “the recomposition of the whole mystical flock of Our Lord.... It will take a great deal before all the nations of the world take perfect account of the Gospel message.... No little effort will be needed to change mentalities, tendencies, prejudices, all of which have a past behind them. Indeed, in some way we will have to examine what time, traditions and usages have sought to establish, setting themselves over against reality and truth.” John’s original meaning is still there, but it is not limited to legislation.

This fuller notion of aggiornamento was both advantageous and disadvantageous. On the one hand, it helped make Catholics aware of the need for continuous reflection on their own “mentalities, tendencies and prejudices.” Indeed John’s aggiornamento shook the static, closed and self-assured mentality of many at that time. That was good. On the other hand, some distorted what John meant, receiving and interpreting his rhetoric subjectively. The term continues to characterize both John and Vatican Council II and continues to be variously understood.

John’s talk about signs of the times flowed directly from of his concept of aggiornamento. If the church was to “update” for the sake of greater service to convivenza, it had to do so in terms of what was happening in the world. John regularly took stock of the contemporary situation through the “signs” it presented. He read the signs with hope, distancing himself from “distrustful souls [who] see only darkness burdening the face of the earth.” He preferred confidence based on faith: “We seem to see now, in the midst of so much darkness, a few indications which augur well for the fate of the Church and of humanity.”

Near Easter of 1963, a few days after the publication of Pacem in Terris and shortly before his death, John spoke about “Generous service to human and Christian convivenza”:


In this noble enterprise, Catholics are present and active, and I am confident that the number of those who apostolically undertake this service will increase.... The gift of peace will give to each a sense of his responsibility and of his limits.... In that way it will be less difficult to enter with a resolute mind into the complexity of human problems and relationships in order to extend the pax christiana which puts everything together in due order and eliminates the sources of social and civic disturbance.


John was one of the 20th century’s few international leaders to talk about global unity with conviction. He made it believable. Humankind heard its deepest yearnings in John’s words and knew he meant what he said. John’s sweeping vision of planetary convivenza, expressed in Pacem in Terris, won an unprecedented international reception.

Our era needs to recover John’s penetrating and optimistic sense that God is bringing forth a “new order of human relations,” a convivenza grounded in truth, justice, freedom and love culminating in peace. We need to keep updating our efforts in its pursuit and service. The vision Blessed Pope John XXIII articulated on Oct. 11, 1962, and the process he started then remains a challenge to us who face the task of building a new global civilization in the aftermath of 9/11. His insistence that the church has a significant role to play in bringing this new order forth remains valid today. Our continuing response to John’s vision and call is vital to humankind’s future.

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