Years ago when I still had all my hair and all of my teeth and was still a student in grade school, a new rotund little Italian Cardinal was elected pope. His name was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the son of sharecroppers. He became the Patriarch of Venice and eventually was elected Pope. He took the name John, the twenty-third pope to use that name. Immediately he departed from the more formal almost rigid style of his predecessor Pius XII. There was something different with this guy. With his humble beginnings and great sense of humor one could almost feel there was a different attitude in the air, that maybe something was going to happen. Today, I am experiencing, like Yogi Berra said, deja vu all over again with Pope Francis. There is something new in the air. After the long reign of Pius, I imagined that the old guard college of cardinals who elect popes were looking for an “interim” pope who could hold things together until a “real” pope could be elected, like a place marker in a book. What they didn’t expect was a pope who would eventually turn things upside down by calling a great council in Rome. I have a theory which probably cannot be substantiated (which is why it is a theory) that the calling of a council to “open the windows” of a dusty old institution gave rise to the ferment of the ’60’s outside of religion. The notion of “question authority” unheard of for millennia in the Church was now OK. I think that idea spilled over into the political scene, especially in America, leading to the anti-war movements of the late ’60’s. I think the message of the council resonated with young people who were encouraged to even “question the authority” of governments. It was a protest not out of a lack of patriotism but because of it. We are still feeling those reverberations even today. Maybe it’s the natural course of things when my baby boom generation came of age all at the same time and not the council, but down deep I feel it was the permission given to the council in Rome to put everything on the table and re-evaluate it that spilled out to the general populace. If ancient things and practices were to be questioned why not everything else? Things like traditions and mandates and rules and regulations. Being able to ask the question “why” became an mantra. That permission can have very messy consequences as was sadly demonstrated in Chicago in the summer of ’68 and later at Kent State. Of course this is only a theory.
So today, the 27th of April and the second Sunday in Eastertime, John XXIII will be canonized a “saint” along with the recent John-Paul II. Both were giants and both very different. John opened the windows and John Paul tried to make sure they were caulked and almost airtight. (Although you can still feel a slight breeze blowing through John Paul’s windows) Both were very intelligent and great statesmen but their styles were far apart. Much as been said about how Ronald Reagan “won” the cold war, but I think it was the Polish born John Paul who eventually pulled the last Jinga piece out causing the Soviet Empire to collapse on itself. Rather than belabor the point about their differences I would like to focus briefly on John.
There is his humor and his spiritual growth found in two books I read long ago, “The Wit And Wisdom of Good Pope John” and his own “Journal of a Soul.” These two books present to us a human being struggling to understand purpose and direction in his life. Below are some of my favorite quotes.
When asked by a journalist about employees at the Vatican:
“How many people work in the Vatican?”
“About half of them,” said His Holiness.
Upon visiting a hospital (named after the Holy Spirit) John came across a nun who introduced herself as the director of the hospital:
“Holy Father,” she said, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”
“You’re very lucky,” said the pope. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”
Visiting a hospital he asked a boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy said either a policeman or a pope. “I would go in for the police if I were you,” the Holy Father said. “Anyone can become a pope, look at me!”
When a cardinal complained that a rise in Vatican salaries meant a particular usher earned as much as the cardinal, the pope remarked: “That usher has 10 children; I hope the cardinal doesn’t.”
A Vatican official told the pope it would be “absolutely impossible” to open the Second Vatican Council by 1963. “Fine, we’ll open it in 1962,” he answered. And he did.
And some of his more thoughtful quotes:
“Men are like wine-some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.”
“If God created shadows it was to better emphasise the light.”
“Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential.
Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”
There is still more work to do and the possibilities that there is still more time in which to do it. I am inspired to try to see the possible in the impossible. What was once a high mountain is now climb-able and very much worth the effort. So on this 27th day of April, I welcome both St. John XXIII and St. John-Paul II different men, different missions but with a common goal. Doing out of love.
and so it goes…