Sharing the Vision of Saint John XXIII

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Daily Theology invited Randall Rosenberg to reflect on his motivations for writing The Vision of Saint John XXIIIand what he discovered along the way.  

By Randall Rosenberg

On the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John XXIII, Pope Francis reflected that “the wise and fatherly guidance of Pope John, his love for the church’s tradition and his awareness of the constant need for renewal, his prophetic intuition of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council and his offering of his life for its success stand as milestones in the history of the church in the 20th century and as a bright beacon for the journey that lies ahead.”

I never expected to write a book on Pope John XXIII. I was asked, as a stroke of good fortune, to deliver the keynote lecture at the 2nd Annual Newman Academic Convocation in the presence of Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, and the presidents, theology faculties, and many students of Saint Louis University, Fontbonne University, Aquinas Institute of Theology, and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. This event planted the seeds for The Vision of Saint John XXIII.

My book is not a biography. There are many good biographies (See Massimo Faggioli’s new biography, John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy!). Rather, I try to capture – with a general audience in mind – some of the key elements of his vision (pastoral, bridge-building, ecumenical and interreligious, political, joy and humor, etc.). Mindful that most college students, along with those well into their 30s, 40s, and 50s are largely unaware of Pope John, I retrieve his memory with special attention to the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis, hoping that college educators and pastoral workers might find this useful.

Friendship with the Modern World

John XXIII significantly broadened the Catholic imaginary, and this broadening is illuminated by the metaphor of friendship. He helped to reframe in significant ways the Church’s relationship to modern economic, political, social, and cultural developments; the way we think about the papacy in more evangelical and less bureaucratic terms (along with a healthy dose of humor); the way we tacitly understand our relationship to other Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.; the way we think about social justice in global terms; the way, indeed, we think about the church in global terms. At the heart of his deepening of the Catholic imaginary, I suggest, is his loving, yet critical, friendship with the modern world. As Pope Francis recently noted, John XXIII made “firm friendships everywhere.”

Pope John is often caricatured as a jolly nice guy. He was indeed full of good humor and his personality was warm and inviting. He certainly was inclined to emphasize what unites us rather than what divides us. The metaphor of “friendship” enables us to acknowledge this. But, friendships in the deepest sense of the term are constituted, not merely by accommodation, acceptance, uncritical flattery, or good humor. Rather they are marked by openness to the other as other, by wishing the good of the other; these relationships involve growing together in virtue, love, and vulnerability, but also critically and charitably challenging one another to blot out the biases and blind spots that hinder full human flourishing.

Pope John was not blind to the dark side of human history; he served as a military chaplain during World War I and played a part in helping to save thousands of Jews during World War II. He emerged as pope when the world was dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust, a global war that wiped out over 50 million lives, the atomic bomb, and the Cold War. He acknowledged in his opening speech at the council that human history includes “a cloud of sorrows” shot through with “bitterness in human relations” and “the constant danger of fratricidal wars.”  The inspiration for his most important contribution to Catholic social teaching, Pacem in Terris, can be traced to October 25, 1962, the day on which Pope John wrote his appeal for negotiations during the Cuban missile crisis. So, St. John was a loving friend to the modern world in the deepest sense of the term.

Rooted in the Communion of Saints

If John XXIII has brought the Church into a deeper, more open conversation with the modern era, and if he has expanded the Catholic imaginary, he did not do so in spite of his commitment to prayer, his ongoing spiritual practices, and his lifelong friendship with the saints. Rather, his pastoral style and call for reform are rooted deeply in the wisdom of some of the great reforming saints: Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Francis of Assisi, Charles Borromeo, Francis de Sales, Ignatius Loyola, among others. Pope John embodied in significant ways the aggiornamento and ressourcement for which he called.

Let me offer a few examples:

Perhaps the deepest influence is from St. Francis de Sales. De Sales’ emphasis on gentleness, humility, and doing small things with deep love marked in significant ways the way John XXIII he governed as Pope. I think one can detect the influence of de Sales in Pope John’s admonition in the opening speech at the Council to engage the world with the “medicine of mercy” and not the “weapons of severity.” In other words, this call to mercy was not a matter of just being tolerant; it was a way of embodying the holiness of the saints.

Pope John was influenced heavily by St. Gregory the Great, especially his Pastoral Rule. As is well known, Gregory the Great’s preferred title for pope was “servant of the servants of God,” an emphasis that influenced Pope John’s more evangelical and pastoral style of governing.

Finally, John XXIII was inspired as well by a lifelong love of Francis of Assisi. In fact, as the Second Vatican Council neared, Pope John decided to visit Assisi. Trips like this were not common for popes at this time. On this pilgrimage, he drew attention to the life of St. Francis as a model for renewing the Church according to the Gospel. Francis modeled, for Pope John, key markers for any authentic reform. In light of Pope John’s hope that the Church might be imbued with the spirit of Francis of Assisi, it is fitting to acknowledge that his current successor chose the name Francis.

John XXIII for New Generations

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One of the more interesting questions that emerged for me in writing this book is how to retrieve Pope John’s memory for the younger generations. In terms of generational experience of Vatican II, William Portier highlights two narratives (and there are certainly many other narratives not captured here): one from those living in times before the Council and another from those who grew up after the Council with the dissolution of the American Catholic subculture.[1] The former group might center on Vatican II “as liberating a whole generation from an immigrant Catholic world that was sufficiently narrow and authoritarian that by mid-century it could be plausibly referred to as a ghetto.” The latter group moves the “post-Vatican II politics of liberals and conservatives to the back seat.” In fact, this classification is largely foreign to them, since they were not, on the whole, raised in a Catholic subculture. Their story is more about “learning how to be truly Catholic in American pluralism without a subculture.”

Surely, the former group’s applauding of the breakdown of the ghetto mentality, the tearing down of walls, the vision of Catholics as co-partners with all people of good will for the protection of human dignity and work for social justice, the emphasis on collegiality, and so on, are key elements of John XXIII’s pastoral vision. The latter group – the younger and even middle-aged generations – might also retrieve from John XXIII a commitment to the flourishing of a Catholic life that is enriched by a nurturing of the Catholic imagination and a commitment to a regular set of spiritual practices.

The North American liberal-conservative divide that emerged in the post-Vatican II era is not an explicit part of the Catholic imaginary of younger generations, however their tacit assumptions might be shaped by the remnants of this divide. For these generations, a thicker sense of Catholic identity seems indispensable – not in order to foster a new ghetto mentality or to erect new bastions – but to acknowledge that in many contexts, human identity and the human desire for meaning, truth, goodness, beauty and communion are massively shaped by the forces of global consumerism.

The younger generations are not simply looking for dispensers of information, but news-bearers with messages and habits of being that may potentially open more enriching, challenging, and holy ways of living in the modern world – ways rooted, not in the images and practices of global consumerism, but in the images and practices of a Catholic form of life. John XXIII is a news-bearer, a friend, and a saint who offers one such way.

Randall S. Rosenberg, Ph.D. teaches systematic theology at Saint Louis University. Parts of this post are taken from his newly released book The Vision of Saint John XXIII (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014) “Introduction” and “Conclusion.” Used with permission.

[1] William L. Portier, “Here Come the Evangelical Catholics,” Communio 31.1 (Spring 2004), 51.