Blessed Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council
Since his early youth as the son of a poor laborer, all Blessed Pope John XXIII wanted was to be a parish priest, but God had other plans for him. Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, he served several diplomatic missions – during which he helped many Jews escape the Nazis – and he was also Patriarch of Venice before becoming the Successor of Peter. Today, we observe the 50th anniversary of the death of this remarkable pastor of souls.
The world faces many issues today. There is widespread discord, alienation, and unhappiness as previously accepted understandings of marriage, family, objective right and wrong, the common good, and the sanctity of human life have been washed away. However, these problems did not spring into being overnight. The roots of these ills extend back to the ideologies of the 19th century and before. While the Church tried to address them in various ways, still the world endured many grave anxieties and horrors. Pope John saw what the underlying cause of so many societal crises was: “The most perniciously typical aspect of the modern era consists in the absurd attempt to reconstruct a solid and fruitful temporal order divorced from God, who is, in fact, the only foundation on which it can endure” (Mater et Magistra, 217).
It was in this setting that Pope John asked, “What should the Church do? Should Christ’s mystical barque simply drift along, tossed this way and that by the ebb and flow of the tides? Or is she not instead expected not simply to issue a new warning, but to offer also the light of a great example?” The answer for him was the Second Vatican Council.
Given a world that had stopped listening to what the Church had to say, in opening the Council, it was proposed by Pope John that:
“What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith . . . What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms.”
One can see in these words the roots of the New Evangelization. Yet, in the years following Vatican II, there was a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion which resulted in much harm, including years of manifest poor catechesis or miscatechesis at so many levels, as well as aberrational liturgical practice. Entire generations became disassociated from the practice of the faith and, for many, the Gospel lost its freshness and luster. Some people have blamed the Council for these problems, but that is based on interpreting it within the defective lens of discontinuity, accepting the erroneous idea of a rupture between the Church’s teaching before the Council and anything that followed after.
The proper understanding of Vatican II, as confirmed by every Pope from John to Francis, is one of continuity in and strengthening of the Catholic faith. The Council was called because John wanted the ancient faith to be exactly preserved and yet proclaimed in a way in which it could be heard and embraced in our age and circumstances. Blessed John Paul II put it this way at the Beatification Mass for Pope John,
“The breath of newness he brought certainly did not concern doctrine, but rather the way to explain it; his style of speaking and acting was new, as was his friendly approach to ordinary people and to the powerful of the world. It was in this spirit that he called the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, thereby turning a new page in the Church’s history: Christians heard themselves called to proclaim the Gospel with renewed courage and greater attentiveness to the ‘signs’ of the times.”
What Pope John envisioned was a new Pentecost, a renewed and lively apostolic fervor in spreading the Gospel. “The Christian faithful, members of a living organism, cannot remain aloof and think that they have done their duty when they have satisfied their own spiritual needs; every individual must give his assistance to those who are working for the increase and propagation of God’s kingdom” (Princeps Pastorum, 40).
In this Year of Faith, as we cry out “come Holy Spirit” in the work of our Archdiocesan Synod, let us take this moment to praise God for the gift of Pope John, who, inspired by the Spirit, now inspires us to go out and be “a glowing point of light in the world, a nucleus of love, a leaven of the whole mass” (Pacem in Terris, 164). In this way, we bring “good news” that can transform lives.