As part of this blog, I have written about spiritual mentors — persons whom I never met yet whose lives and writings impacted my life. Recently I have also become interested in the topic of protest within the Catholic Church and noticed that most of my mentors were at times dissidents, protesting political issues or even matters within their own churches. I also have become aware of a movement with the Catholic Right Wing to do away with many of the changes initiated 60 years ago with Vatican II. The architect of that revolutionary event was another dissident but a quiet gentle one — Pope and St. John XXIII.
Pope John was Pope for only five year, succeeding Pius XII. Many assumed that, because of his age, he would be an “caretaker” Pope, i.e., one who would fill the space until a more acceptable candidate would emerge. However, early in his papacy he noted that the Catholic Church was in need of renewal and so chose to “throw open the windows” of the Church to let in fresh air. The result was Vatical II which in turn resulted in sweeping changes in multiple aspects of the Catholic faith. The most visible change for me as a young Catholic was changing the Latin Mass to the local languages. With that came new liturgies and new music. It was during this time of renewal that I first heard the African Missa Luba. Here is an excerpt in Latin but with a decidedly invigorating twist
Pope John was born Giovanni Roncali in a large family in Bergamo Lombardi. In reading his Journey of a Soul, one can see that he felt called to service and to the priesthood at an early age. His long journey to the papacy included a time during World War II when he worked tirelessly to save Jews from the Holocaust. He maintained a consciousness of the damage done to Jews and eliminated negative references to Jews made in Good Friday litany. He noted the impact of Catholic judgment and persecution of Jews: “We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognise in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we know not what we did.”
Similarly, in his efforts at ecumenism, he welcomed Jewish visitors in this way: “In 1960, receiving a delegation of American Jewish leaders, he was presented with a Torah scroll to express gratitude for the Jewish lives he had saved during the Holocaust and replied: “We are all sons of the same heavenly Father. Among us there must ever be the brightness of love and its practice.” He concluded: “I am Joseph, your brother” (Genesis 45:4). In using his baptismal name, the pope was not only quoting the biblical self-revelation of Joseph to his brothers in Egypt, he was also making an unprecedented gesture of filial warmth toward all Jews, who he considered deserved their full dignity as descendants of the Patriarchs of the Bible. It was a statement pregnant with theological implications.”
He at times functioned with a twinkle in his eye. Once a reporter asked him how many people worked at the Vatican. His response was “About half.”
Yet these days he and his efforts have come under attack by a Right Wing movement in the Catholic Church that is growing and includes more than a few Catholic Bishops. Pope John would, I believe, welcome such criticism in a spirit of dialogue, something sorely lacking these days.
It is no accident that he is known as “The Good Pope”. To me he is also The Good Dissident.
Further Reading: In addition to his own Journal of a Soul, there is a very good collection of his writings in the Modern Spiritual Masters series. I can also recommend The Good Pope by Greg Tobin.