Today Fr. Chuck returns to Houston for three weeks then its off to Maryland again until January. It will be good to have my old friend back. Fr. Chuck and I have been friends ever since he came to Texas in 2002 and I feel rather bereft when he is away. When I refer to Fr. Chuck as “old” I do not infer “elderly” rather, I use it as a term of endearment. “Old” is not derogatory although some may connote it as such. Of late, I find myself remembering St. John XXIII whenever someone is dismissed or discounted simply because they are “old”.
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was 77 years old when he was elected Pope; an age when most are inclined towards retirement if not already there. Taking the name, “John XXIII”, he was the oldest Pope to be elected in more than 200 years. After the whirlwind pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the Cardinal electors thought Roncalli would be a simple Pope, one who would slow down the Church and be a Pope of transition— instead they introduced a revolutionary. He could have been content with just blessing people and having a few ceremonies in St. Peter’s but instead he surprised a group of 17 cardinals on January 25, 1959 when he announced that he intended to convene an ecumenical council. “Trembling with emotion and yet with humble resolution” he said, “we put before you the proposal of a double celebration: a diocesan synod for Rome and an ecumenical council for the universal Church. I would like to have your advice.”
The cardinals simply stared at him without a word. There were a number of reasons for this. Some of the cardinals were shocked that a Pope whom many saw as merely a “transitional” figure, holding down the fort, as it were, until a more dynamic Church leader might come along, was proposing something so monumental. After all, there were only twenty such councils in Church history; the last had been the First Vatican Council (so called because it took place within the Vatican) in 1870.
But the main reason that the cardinals withheld their approval was that they were members of the Roman Curia. The Curia—curia from the Latin word for “court” – is the administrative arm of the Holy See. They run the departments, or congregations, of the Church on behalf of the Pope. Pontiffs came and went but the Curia lived on. They had a vested interest in protecting the status quo. Now, here was this elderly Pope, only three months into his pontificate, and he was acting in an entirely unexpected way—at least to them.
The other thing unsettling the cardinals was that in the past, the great councils had been called to condemn heresy but what John was proposing was a pastoral council, a council in which no heresy would be expunged, no dogma reasserted, rather it would be an “updating”, aggiornamento, of the Church.
As the council was announced to the whole world a flame of enthusiasm swept over the entire Church. “This holy old boy”, wrote Cardinal Montini, “ understood immediately, perhaps by inspiration, that by calling a council he would release unparalleled vital forces in the Church.”
The third of 13 surviving children born on November 25, 1881 to a family of farmers in the tiny village of Sotto il Monte in the region of Bergamo in northern Italy, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was always proud of his down-to-earth roots. Even after he became Pope he eschewed the trappings of his position and refused to take advantage of it either for himself or his family. He left his personal “fortune” to the surviving members of his family – they each received less than $20.
When Roncalli entered the major seminary in 1895, the fourteen year old began to keep a journal upon the advice of the school’s spiritual director, Canon Luigi Isacchi. The journal, kept in a series of black academic notebooks with stiff covers, was a way to stay in touch with his spiritual goals. He would continue this practice for the rest of his life, ending up with thirty-eight notebooks and folders which were published after his death in the volume titled, Journal of a Soul.
Pope John, stout as he was, sat lightly upon the papal throne at exactly the moment when such a position would be critical for the very survival of the Catholic Church in a brave new world. Setting the tone for his successors, he moved the Church in a new direction in its relationship to Jews and to non-Catholic Christians and to a whole new attitude on the part of clergy, the hierarchy and the laity. Pope John XXIII stood with his feet planted firmly in the swiftly flowing river of history and helped the Church move safely from one bank to the other without being swept away by the raging currents beneath.
John did not get to see his Council to the end. He died of stomach cancer on June 3, 1963. He had been Pope for just under five years but accomplished an extraordinary amount. In his moment of history, Pope John stood at the pinnacle of an ancient religious hierarchy during an era of secularism and ideological conflict. With both a prayerful humility and an iron will, he moved a massive institution toward a more open relationship and engagement with the world. Unblinking and with a smile, he sought to reform and reclaim his cherished Church.
Anyone who associates aging with dysfunction does not know the story of St. John XXIII and so many others like him—and among us. In a partisan culture such as ours there is no shortage of “divisions”: religious and secular, the ninety –nine percent and the one percent, red America/blue America and young vs. old. Sitting on my desk is a paperweight with a quote from Abraham Lincoln which reads: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” I picked this up for myself and derive inspiration and courage from it to challenge those ready to marginalize people simply because of advancing years. And when I look at an image of St. John XXIII, I can imagine him saying to the world: “You ain’t seeing nothing yet!”