By Martin, sx
We have just begun the year of Faith, a year made colorful by the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. Anyone who ponders upon the grace-filled event of Vatican II cannot forget the figure of a great man whose loving and blessed memory shines forever in Christian history. Blessed Pope John XXIII, the incredible pioneer of the second ecumenical Council was a man of exceptional human endeavors. Though his pontificate was very short (less than five years!), it is described by historians as one of the most effective.
Why was Pope John XXIII a good leader?
To begin with, Blessed Pope John XXIII was a man of God. He opened himself to God’s grace and sought in all times to fulfill not his will but that of God. He made use of all the spiritual means in order to remain under God’s guidance. He prayed his rosary every day. He devoted quality time to the Divine Office and met regularly his confessors. The Word of God and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist had priority in his life. All of this made of him a true Pontiff, meaning a bridge between God and his people. The principle that governed his entire pontificate reveals a lot about his profound self-abandon to God: “My guiding principle remains the same: humility in everything, especially in my speech, union with God and the will of God, and not my own in all I do.”
Second, John XXIII was a person with an extraordinary humanity. He allowed everyone to approach him without fear. He abolished the mystery that surrounded the person of the Pope and showed himself as a man. He addressed people using the words “brothers and sisters” and looked at himself as a brother among brothers. No wonder why when he died, people talked of “A death in the family”. Yes, the strong sense of humanhood that radiated from John XXIII had indeed conquered the heart of the whole world so much so as people felt comfortable to call him “Good Pope John”. Among the many events that speak of his great humanity, I would like to underline two of them. They happened shortly after his pontifical election. He spent his first Christmas as Pope visiting a hospital for children and the famous Queen of Heaven jail. The speech he delivered at the jail proved how human he was. He said to prisoners: “My dear brothers…you could not come to me, so I came to you…I looked into your eyes with my eyes. I have put my heart near your heart…” At the eve of the Council, he greeted people saying: “When you go home, give a warm hug to your children for me…The Pope is with you”. A great sense of humor was always on his lips and therefore people were at ease in his presence. He knew how to laugh at himself and this enabled him neither to be intransigent nor merciless towards others. He lived out what he dreamt of the Council he convened: “It is far better to make use of the medicine of mercy than of the rod of punishment.”
Finally, Blessed John XXIII was attuned to the signs of time. He knew that God speaks in human history and his will cannot be understood outside that history. He successfully appeased the contention between John Kennedy of the USA and Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR. Thus, he spared the world of a nuclear war that would have precipitated the end of the world. Among his few writings, Pacem In Terris stands as a refined reflection on the value of peace. Indeed, Pope John XXIII was a man of peace. One evening, from the window of his room, he saw a man arguing for a while with a woman. Then they reconciled, embraced each other and left together. This simple event strengthened his determination to convene an ecumenical Council that would gather the fragmented Body of Christ; a Council that would be truly ecumenical, having representatives from all the continents; a Council which would dialogue with the world without issuing any condemnation; a Council which would bring in the Church “a little fresh air”.
As we journey in this year of faith marked by the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, it may be of greater importance for us to make ours the legacy of Blessed Pope John XXIII. In a time of crisis of Faith both inside and outside the Church, perhaps John XXIII’s remarkable pontificate may show us the Way. Three lessons are to be learned from him.
First, we cannot preach Christ’s Good News to human beings without being ourself human. Christ’s heralds have to develop a great sense of being in touch with humanity as it is and not as they think of it. Humanity cannot be reduced into books, theories and philosophies. Humanity is not a metaphysical entity well-built in the mind. Humanity is the man and the woman that is right here before my eyes. John XXIII knew it well! Right after his pontifical election, he answered with humor to bishop who complained about his frequent visits outside the papal palace: “I don’t want to be imprisoned”. See? For Good Pope John, it was absolutely necessary to get connected with men and women. For “Humanity is the way of the Church”. It has been said again and again that our world listens much more to witnesses than to teachers. Though the slogan still valid, it has however to be nuanced: The world listens to human witnesses. And blessed John XXIII stands here as a perfect model for everyone.
Second, the signs of time have to be taken seriously. Otherwise, heralds of the Gospel run the risk to arrive late in a world already old. What are those signs that impel our attention today? To mention a few of them: Migrations. Thousands of people are on the move every year. How to bring Christ’s word to men and women who are constantly on their way? Technology and the culture of science. Does Christ have something to say to a more and more wired humanity? The rising of new religious denominations. This is not a new phenomenon but it has indeed increased since the beginning of the 20th century. How does Christianity understand itself in the context of multireligion world? Gay movement. What place do gays have in the Church and society? The considerable decrease of priestly vocations. Can Christianity survive without sacraments?
Lastly, though committed into building God’s kingdom, we should never forget that the Kingdom belongs to God. It is God’s initiative, God’s achievement, God’s grace. Our collaboration in God’s plan may prove important. But we remain useless servants. Accordingly, humility and firm confidence in God must always prevail in the hearts of Christ’s heralds.
In 1959, Blessed Pope John XXIII wrote in his Journal: “Since the Lord chose me, unworthy as I am, for this great service, I feel I have no longer any special ties in this life, no family, no earthly country or nation, nor any particular preferences, with regard to studies or projects, even good ones. Now, more than ever, I see myself only as the humble and unworthy ‘servant of the servants of God’. The whole world is my family. This sense of belonging to everyone must give character and vigor to my mind, my heart and my action.” This is the legacy of Blessed Pope John XXIII to Christ’s heralds of our time. This is perhaps the right mindset that may lead to a new spring of evangelization.