Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 15, 2012

Pope John XXIII: Patron Saint of this Blog

John-xxiii-2Being a lifelong Catholic, and appreciating the human need to make meaning from our experiences as I do, the tradition of patron saints just feels “right” with me.  I realize that tradition isn’t as comfortable a fit with all Christians as it is with Catholics, Episcopalians, Orthodox and others, but I think it’s in the realm of our nature as a species to identify people who serve us as role models.

There is a debated passage of Christian scripture located at Colossians 1:24 that may help to demonstrate my point.  Though this particular epistle is probably not directly from the apostle Paul, it reflects his influence.  In the cited passage we encounter a curious reference to Paul’s suffering as a way of making up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the church.

Along with Paul and his first-century followers, Christian theology is generally shy of allowing any imperfection in the work and suffering of Christ.  So what could this passage mean?  I prefer to think that its meaning is related to historical reality.  Jesus of Nazareth–whom Paul and his followers understood to be the “anointed one” of God, the Christ–was but one person in human history.  The redemption he wrought may have no limits, but the particulars of his historical reality certainly did have limits.  He came in time, to a particular place, a particular culture and religion, and with what might adequately be called particular self-imposed limitations.  As a man, he could not be a woman.  As a Jew he could not also be a gentile.  As the son of a poor family, he could not simultaneously be rich.

The ugliness of Christ’s suffering may have no limits in the beautiful results it brings to the cosmos, but there are forms of suffering which he did not experience.  Perhaps the author of Colossians is alluding to this with his comment.  If it can be true for suffering, can it also be true for positive examples?  Can Christ remain the divine agent par excellence, the master teacher of all teachers, the perfectly-obedient son of God, while still leaving room for the possibility that the example and effort of others may strike a chord in our hearts so yearning for examples by which to live?

Yes, I believe so. And for a blog entitled Less Roman, More Catholic, what better example and patron can I invoke than Blessed Pope John XXIII?  It was John–baptized Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli–who announced the Second Vatican Council shortly after his election as pope.  It was to be an ecumenical council, the highest authoritative body in the Catholic Church.  His announcement came during the 1959 Week of Christian Unity.  That was no coincidence.

The announcement was not just a surprise, but a shock to the Roman ecclesiastical establishment or Curia (the papal bureaucracy).  A man of tremendous goodwill and overflowing humility, Roncalli knew that it was time to update his beloved church.  As he spoke it in his native Italian, it was time for aggionamento.  The windows and doors of the church had been closed long enough to the grace of God in the world, and the fortress mentality had reigned too long with regard to ecumenism, interreligious understanding, and religious liberty.

He was elected as a “transitional pope”–someone of advanced age who was expected to refrain from rocking the boat, and in this case that boat was the barque of Peter!

He was also a trained historian with an in-depth understanding of church history and doctrinal development.  He was a Vatican diplomat with experience among Muslims in Turkey and Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria.  Rather than allow human failings to lead him to despair and retreat, Roncalli seemed to greet the world as a grace-filled horizon of divine possibility.  His intentions met resistance immediately.  It came from within his own papal organization, the curia.  There had not been an ecumenical council in almost a hundred years, and that previous council had promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility.  Many in the Roman Curia believed that future councils were unnecessary in light of this development.  Roncalli proved them wrong.

With assistance from this affable pontiff, a new breeze was blowing in the Vatican.  It would soon break from those medieval walls and bring changes to the Catholic Church, demolishing ideological barriers that prevented dialogue with the world.  John set the stage in his opening speech to the council on October 11, 1962.  This was to be a council of openness, not condemnation, of possibility instead of crisis.  A pope of largesse and goodwill wanted to talk to the world; he wanted his fellow Catholics to have that opportunity as well.  It so frightened some Vatican bureaucrats that the first version of the speech printed in L’Osservatore Romano  (the Vatican newspaper) left out portions considered to be problematic by those whom John had labelled “prophets of gloom.”

The council met for four sessions, in the fall of each year from 1962-1965.  After the first session ended, but before the second could begin, “good pope John” was dead from the effects of stomach cancer.  He had expected to call the council, but he surprised himself by living long enough to open that council.  His successor would be Paul VI, Giovanni Montini, whom John had made a cardinal.  Montini would continue the council but would pull from discussion the difficult issues of mandatory priestly celibacy and artificial birth control.

A favorite story of John XXIII is a great way to end this post in his honor.  During the Second Vatican Council, official observers were invited to be present.  These included ministers of other churches and ecclesial communities.  They could not speak during the debates, but they were treated with great respect and had access to the bishops between daily sessions in the Basilica of St. Peter.  (This itself is remarkable if you remember that the last time a dissenting cleric attended an ecumenical council he was burned at the stake; that was Jan Hus at the Council of Constance in 1415.)

It is documented that at some point during the council John XXIII had a conversation with a Protestant bishop who was present as an observer.  “Your holiness,” the bishop wondered aloud, “when do you think we will be in communion together?”

“My dear bishop,” replied the pope, “you and I are already in communion.”


  1. As usual you make excellent choices and John XXIII is the best. Could there be any other for this blog?
    It makes me sad to go back and re-read the Documents of Vatican II and see how we have drifted away from the original goals and visions. I hope that doesn’t make me a “prophet of gloom.”
    Peace my brother!

    • Thank you, Pat … I’m glad we agree on his choice as patron for the blog. As for Vatican II, you are right on the money. It’s promise is temporarily shadowed, I believe, but cannot be tarnished forever. There is still much fruit to be harvested.

  2. Do you suggest that there would have been changes in the position of the Church on issues such as the two you list? There are things that I don’t understand yet and challenges that I face because of Church law in entering into full participation with this faith. But I have mixed feelings about seeing some things being different. I am here partly because of the extreme watering down of other faiths. My respect for and appreication of the Church arises in a large part out of its adherance to some basic principles. As our secular American society has been through changes in moral standards and has been weakened by these. Thhe Church may also be weakened if it does not hold fast to some basic beliefs and laws. Is this perhaps the reason those in authority resist changes of any type?

  3. As always, Jim, I’m grateful for your comments, your questions, and the dialogue we share. We’re not always meant to agree. In fact, DISagreement is “part and parcel” of what it means to be human. As hermeneuts (meaning-makers), we’re forever asking the meaning of our experiences and the meaning of life, our existence, etc.

    Obviously, we turn to our religious communities to help us do that (other tools that we use include culture, philosophy, politics). In finding our answers in our religion, however, I believe it’s important to keep a balance. Just as my blog suggests that we have to balance our Romanism and our Catholicism, we must also keep a balance between the embrace of what we’ve discovered and the need to continue searching. We have to fight the temptation to condemn others as “unchristian” or “not truly Catholic” because they may see things a bit differently. If only perfect Catholics are good Catholics, then there really are no good Catholics at all!

    Regarding the two issues I briefly referenced in my post (mandatory priestly celibacy and condemnation of artificial birth control), yes, I think these could be different today if different paths had been taken at the time of the council. One example is the birth control commission. It was composed of theologians, bishops, scientific experts, and married lay people. The majority of the commission reported to Pope Paul VI that the church should allow more freedom to married couples with regard to the use of artificial birth control. Paul VI overrode their decision. But what if he hadn’t?

    Regarding mandatory priestly celibacy, I think the process is already started for moving us toward a wider allowance for married priests. The numbers of Anglican clergy coming to the Roman Church have started a process that will eventually help our leaders see a new paradigm with this regard for the whole Church (in my humble opinion).

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