The first two are TV shows; the last is utterly real. This week marks the (optional) memorial of Pope St John XXIII, “Good Pope John.”
When elected, he was asked how many people worked in the Vatican. “About half of them,” he teased. But he also greatly increased the salaries of those workers, and when he was told the increases were impossible because they would reduce the monies for papal charities, he replied, “That’s too bad; they’ll just have to be cut. These increases are simple justice, and justice comes before charity.” Raised in a peasant household himself, he knew the value and importance of hard work.
During World War II, the Vatican City State had a formal policy of neutrality (as did, among others, Switzerland and Portugal). No doubt this colored the reticence of Pope Pius XII to condemn Nazism vigorously, and (then) Archbishop Roncalli had to do the same. But it didn’t stop him, while papal ambassador to Greece and Turkey, from confronting the German ambassador on the point of the Shoah.
His vision for Vatican II was three-fold: to update the Church’s sense of self and approach to the world, to encourage ecumenism, and to foster reconciliation with the Jews. In order, his comments were that he wanted to open a window and let in some fresh air, realizing that ‘the deposit of the Faith is one thing, and the form of its expression is another’; that he wanted no trial of the past, only to say ‘Let us make an end to our divisions’; and to a delegation of Jews, ‘I am Joseph, your brother.’
He once wrote: “Authoritarianism truly suffocates truth by…rigid exterior discipline…It arrests lawful initiative and is incapable of listening for it confuses inflexibility with firmness. Paternalism is a counterfeit paternity. It takes its objects into custody in order to preserve its power of authority. It makes its liberality felt by everyone, but fails to respect the rights of its subordinates. It speaks in a tone of protection and refuses to accept collaboration.” Sadly, we can see this spirit all too alive and well in the Church today…
He was never without his sense of humor (his comments were as legendary as the off-the-cuff remarks that characterized so many of the press conferences of President John F Kennedy). In responding to a criticism that he left the Vatican too much during the day, he said, “Very well—I shall start going out at night!” And he was never without a sense of purpose, as he remarked during a conference while he was Patriarch of Venice: “The road to unity between the different Christian creeds is love—so little practiced on either side.” Finally, he knew the purpose of his priesthood, as he spoke to an American bishop: “My dear man, when you face Jesus Christ in eternity he is not going to ask you how you got along with the Roman Curia but how many souls you saved.”
This is the pope, the saint, we celebrate this Thursday. How about an extra effort to attend morning Mass to honor him, to celebrate him, to ask his intercession for the Church now suffering from so many divisions and opposition?