For some decades, there has been in the Church a curious phenomenon that one might call “the conciliar caricature,” part of which is a tendency to speak as if Angelo Roncalli (1881–1963) came from outer space to bring deliverance and freshness to an antiquated Church that was serving out the stale bread of yesteryear. On the contrary, Pope John XXIII, elected supreme pontiff on October 28, 1958, was in many ways utterly traditional—arguably more so than his more philosophically adventurous and intellectually wide-ranging predecessor Pius XII. One need only read Blessed John’s beautiful diary, later published as Journal of a Soul and still in print, to discover the simple, hardy, and thoroughly traditional Catholic piety that nourished this man in the entire journey of his life.
To his dying day John was convinced that the Church was possessed of a greater vitality than ever; that this vitality demanded of her a tremendous missionary effort for the leavening and transformation of the world; and that the Second Vatican Council he convened was going to bring about a deepened commitment to the religious life, a more forceful presentation of doctrinal truth, a more inspiring appeal to live the demands of the Gospel (see the Bull of Convocation of the Council, Humanae Salutis of December 25, 1961, and the address to the opening of the Council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia of October 11, 1962). He was convinced, in short, that he was setting in motion the greatest missionary thrust since the age of the Apostles.
That he would have been sorely distressed by the aftermath is unquestionable. A pope who, in the face of many demands for vernacularization, issued the apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia (February 22, 1962) unequivocally reaffirming the centrality and permanence of the Latin language in the Church’s life and liturgy, or who in an apostolic letter shared with the world his consuming devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus (June 30, 1960), was not the kind of man who was ready to throw out tradition.
Probably the best way to appreciate how profound a lover of Jesus Christ and His Church was “good Pope John” is to read again his now largely forgotten encyclicals, several of which are truly outstanding for their rhetorical power, comprehensive approach, and sound pastoral wisdom. There were eight in toto, beginning with Ad Petri Cathedram (June 29, 1959), subtitled “On Truth, Unity, and Peace in a Spirit of Charity,” and ending with Pacem in Terris (April 11, 1963), over which the ailing pope labored tirelessly, so great was his desire to see it promulgated before his death. Here I wish to draw attention to five of the eight.
Ad Petri Cathedram sound like an anticipation of Vatican II: “The Catholic Church is forever young and is indeed a standard raised before the nations. From her come a pervading light and a gentle love which reach all men” (n. 2). He announces his main plans: to summon an ecumenical council and a Roman synod; to revise the Code of Canon Law and to “issue a Code of Canon Law for the Church of the Oriental Rite” (n. 3).
John XXIII immediately states his fundamental conviction, so contrary to the rampant relativism already characteristic of his time: “All the evils which poison men and nations and trouble so many hearts have a single cause and a single source: ignorance of the truth—and at times even more than ignorance, a contempt for truth and a reckless rejection of it. Thus arise all manner of errors, which enter the recesses of men’s hearts and the bloodstream of human society as would a plague. These errors turn everything upside down: they menace individuals and society itself” (n. 6).
Yet, the pope goes on to say, God has made it possible for man to know truth, both by the light of his reason and by the light of faith. If we do not embrace the truth God grants us to know, we are rejecting the highest good and losing our sanity. If we reject the Gospel, we reject “the very foundations of truth, goodness, and civilization” (n. 8). These are sobering words, a wake-up call for a drowsy world.
The remainder of the encyclical has the same tone. The sheer vehemence of style is reminiscent of Leo XIII, who is frequently cited with warm approval. John XXIII speaks of men who have “wandered pathetically far from the teaching of Christ” (n. 10), of the truth-attacker who “engages in an altogether despicable business’ (n. 11), of the movies and television programs that lead people into “loose morality and ignoble behavior, to treacherous error and perilous vice” (n. 14). He says we must fight with “weapons of truth” against these “weapons of evil” (n. 15) and error. The first error he castigates is the idea that “one religion is just as good as another” (n. 17). Not long after, he is critiquing the cult of progress and technology (n. 19) and underlining the duty of politicians to embrace the cause of truth if they wish to see any true peace and prosperity in their communities (nn. 21–22).
The entire document sounds the note of rallying around the See of Peter for the fearless proclamation of the Faith. What is perhaps most surprising, in light of the “Roncalli myth,” is the uncompromising apologetic in which John XXIII engages on behalf of the unity and unicity of the Church, refuting Protestant and other errors and pleading with separated Christians to reunite themselves to the Church founded by Jesus Christ. No milquetoast minister he: the duty of every non-Catholic to convert and join the one true Church is emphasized again and again (see nn. 59–91).
Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia (August 1, 1959), following hot on the heels of the inaugural encyclical, reveals the deepest yearning of John XXIII’s heart—building up the sanctity of the clergy, enkindling their zeal. He quotes St. Pius X: “Nothing is more needed to promote the kingdom of Jesus Christ in the world than the holiness of churchmen.” The encyclical is a beautiful recounting of the life and virtues of St. John Vianney on the occasion of the centennary of his death, interwoven with reflections and exhortations concerning the priesthood. While addressed, as custom dictated, to the bishops, it is clear that the pope had in mind each and every one of his priestly sons, whom he beckons to the heights of perfection, as well as young men discerning a vocation. This wonderful meditation on priestly life should be obligatory reading for the ordained or those aspiring to ordination.
Mater et Magistra (May 15, 1961) and Pacem in Terris (April 11, 1963) would require little comment, if there had not been in the past forty years a serious neglect of the full scope and depth of Catholic social teaching—a neglect manifested by a narrow and superficial conception of the subjects it concerns, not to mention a Judas-like willingness to set aside major elements of this teaching whenever it becomes inconvenient or uncomfortable. In continuity with Leo XIII, a pope he dearly loved, Pope John XXIII recognized that the ultimate root of many economic injustices was a skewed understanding and perverted practice of politics. That is, the only viable solution to the “social problem” was the reconstitution of governments according to Catholic wisdom.
Even if some particular descriptions or proposals in these two encyclicals seem dated to us in 2014—hardly surprising given the mutability of human affairs—their sound principles, systematic analysis, and biting critiques remain perfectly relevant to our day and age, and well deserving of our study. This pair of encyclicals simply must not be left unread by any Catholic who is concerned about doing his part to promote justice and peace.
Then there is Aeterna Dei Sapientia (November 11, 1961), the encyclical with which John XXIII commemorated the fifteenth centenary of Pope St. Leo the Great’s death in 461. After recounting St. Leo’s doctrine and holiness, Pope John XXIII turns again, as he did in his first encyclical, to the subject of Church unity, and gives us a brief and compelling treatise on the true Church of Jesus Christ and the ineradicable, irreducible role the papacy plays therein. The Pope then states his hopes for the approaching Council: “We are fully confident that this solemn assembly of the Catholic hierarchy will not only reinforce that unity in faith, worship, and discipline which is a distinguishing mark of Christ’s true Church, but will also attract the gaze of the great majority of Christians of every denomination, and induce them to gather around ‘the great Pastor of the sheep’ who entrusted His flock to the unfailing guardianship of Peter and his successors” (n. 62).
A pattern has thus emerged: in spite of his failings—of which no pope, or no Christian whatsoever, can be completely free in this life—John XXIII ought to be remembered above all for his fearless and articulate defense of all that is distinctively Catholic, as well as for his persuasive and positive way of presenting it. We would do well to return to these sources of sound doctrine; we might even promote the encyclicals mentioned above as readings in parish groups or among friends. It would be a small but effective step towards appropriating the legacy of a pope whose real teaching and real sanctity have been largely forgotten.
[A different version of this article appeared in the May-June 2007 issue of Lay Witness.]