Vatican II at 50
On Oct. 11, 2012, the church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first session of the Second Vatican Council. Throughout the fall the Prairie Messenger will include essays and features that examine the story of Vatican II and how it continues to have an impact on the church and the world today.
The following editorial, Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), by Rev. Andrew Britz, OSB, is included in his collection of editorials, Truth to Power, in the chapter Heroes of the Faith. The editorial was originally published in the Prairie Messenger June 6, 2001.
The Romans never take their religion too seriously. But they are proud to belong to Rome, the primatial See of the Catholic Church and are ready to take family visitors to see St. Peter’s Basilica.
To North American eyes these visits resemble a family picnic more than a pilgrimage to a holy place. They talk, they laugh, they visit. When they fill St. Peter’s Square it is a festival. How else, they ask, should one celebrate one’s faith?
Things were different this Pentecost Sunday. Thirty-eight years after his death, Pope John XXIII was solemnly carried through the square to his new resting place on the main floor of the basilica. A few people started to clap, but they soon noticed that this was not considered the appropriate response.
The people of Rome stood silent as their favourite pope, perhaps of all time, passed by. The stillness, the reverential awe of the occasion was broken only by the Romans silently crossing themselves.
It seemed right to them to stand in respectful silence, privately making a personal act of faith. In a way they were welcoming John home, to a place of prominence in the largest church in Christendom.
For years they had carried flowers down to the crypt under St. Peter’s, only to have them immediately removed by one especially hired for that purpose. But the curial move to prevent a “cult around John XXIII” from developing was doomed to failure.
The Romans also saw through the smokescreen of beatifying their hero together with the pope (Pius IX) they had come to hate with a common passion. It was as if Pius IX was not part of the ceremony; it was John, and only John, they wanted to see honoured in a special place in St. Peter’s.
John had imaged a church they could identify with and love.
Good Pope John followed one of the most respected popes in the long history of that office. Pius XII stood perfectly erect, with not an ounce of fat on his ascetic body. Pius ate all his meals alone, in silence.
POPE JOHN XXIII OPENS THE COUNCIL — Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 11, 1962. The council’s four sessions and its 16 landmark documents modernized the liturgy, renewed the priesthood and religious life, enhanced the role of lay Catholics, opened dialogue with other churches and non-Christians, and identified the church as the People of God attuned to the problems and hopes of the world. The 50th anniversary of the opening of the council will be marked by Pope Benedict XVI when he kicks off the Year of Faith with an Oct. 11 mass in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)
According to the books on classical ascetic theology, Pius XII was the saint — and the Curia was anxious to raise him to its altars. But not the people of Rome.
While many throughout the church were shocked to hear that John lasted but four days in eating alone in silence, the Romans understood why John needed a bottle of wine and friends at his table.
While North Americans had bought into the image of holiness Pius so painstakingly manifested, and thus were a wee bit scandalized at the fat and jolly pope who succeeded him, the Romans celebrated their new pope. They now had a bishop whose very humanity celebrated life — and faith.
The Romans understood perfectly well that strange passage in Luke’s Gospel: “They are like children in the marketplace chanting, ‘We played pipes for you and you wouldn’t dance; we sang dirges and you wouldn’t cry.’ For John the Baptist comes, not eating, not drinking wine and you say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Son of Man comes, eating and drinking and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ ” (Lk 7:32-34).
Ironically, much of the church community had over two millennia come to see John the Baptist as the higher image of holiness. And in the process had so recreated the image of Jesus that any accusation of gluttony or drunkenness made no sense at all.
While we do not know much about the personal life of Jesus, this passage from Luke makes it clear that Jesus liked a fine meal — with a goodly supply of wine. It is not an accident of history that Jesus was often invited to parties. He certainly was not a spoilsport or a wet blanket; people enjoyed his company.
While Pius XII reminded the Romans of John the Baptist — who could be admired from afar — John became the embodiment of a Christ who came to call people to the banquet of the kingdom. And they knew the Lord could not do that as a killjoy. Their Jesus, they were certain, knew how to party.
The people of Rome could not believe their good fortune in getting a pope who knew how to make his faith a down-to-earth celebration. While they too would have been scandalized if their pope had returned to the ways of the Renaissance popes, whose courts intentionally sought to outclass those of any mere earthly king, the Romans were tired of the super seriousness of a century-long parade of men who seemed afraid even of smiling too freely.
It’s interesting to hear John speak about why he called the Second Vatican Council. He did not give any high philosophical or theological reason. He had no special agenda that he wanted to introduce in the church.
His reasoning was much more basic, much more human in the way the Romans had come to understand and appreciate it in their pope.
John told them he had called the council because he felt he was “in a sack.” He was suffocating in the Vatican. In a thousand little ways, the Curia was asking him to eat alone, in silence, while they would, with years of professional expertise behind them, take care of the church.
His gut reaction told him that this was wrong. The pope should never be in a sack. His famous images of throwing open the windows to allow fresh air in and of giving the Spirit the freedom to blow where she will were not abstract concepts. For John, they were experiences of daily life — experiences that soon rang true to people everywhere. Not only to Catholics.
Before Pope John it was unheard of for a religious leader of any other branch of Christianity to grace the steps of the Vatican. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Arthur Michael Ramsey, was the first to come calling on Pope John.
His visit was ignored by the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. When John complained about that, a one column-inch story on the back page noted that a certain Mr. Ramsey had come to visit the pope.
With the calling of the council, John made it clear that leaders of Christian communions were not only welcome at the council but were to be given prime seats. Many a Catholic bishop, seated almost out of sight of the proceedings of the council, was envious of their special placement.