Monday, April 07, 2014

A New Series: Pope John XXIII in His Own Words

(1) Introduction

With renewed attention being paid to the Pope who summoned the Second Vatican Council and, on its very eve, promulgated the last editio typica of the traditional Roman Missal (1962), it seems important that we strive to understand this man better, lest we lazily accept the mainstream media’s depiction of him as the herald of the “contemporary church.” (See my article last week for several compelling reasons to think that this could be the Caricature of the Century.)

Reading, many years ago, his spiritual diaries, published as Journal of a Soul, innoculated me against the now-common portrait of John XXIII as a proto-modernist. I highly recommend this eye-opener of a book. The reader will discover in John XXIII a thoroughly traditional Catholic—one who would be vastly more at home today in a Fraternity of Saint Peter parish or an Institute of Christ the King chapel than in the overwhelming majority of postconciliar Catholic parishes. Indeed, inasmuch as Journal of a Soul conveys a coherent Catholic worldview and sensibility regarding life, culture, and religion, a unified vision that has largely perished, it seems to me fair to say that Blessed John XXIII would not have recognized, and would strongly repudiate, much of what has been done over the past half-century in the name of the Council he convoked.

I will also wager that few if any progressives, liberals, or modernists will be citing from this book (or, for that matter, from John XXIII’s papal encyclicals, much less his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia) in all the chatter surrounding the April canonizations. After all, it is so much better for their cause to quote obiter dicta, informal remarks, balcony speeches, and other casual expressions of the mind of John XXIII, while generally ignoring his interior understanding of what he was doing and his formal pronounce¬ments that he knew bore great weight as expressions of the Magisterium. It will therefore fall to sites like New Liturgical Movement to perform a search and rescue operation for Papa Roncalli.

My plan is to publish weekly installments during April of texts I have gathered over a number of years, but I would like to ask NLM readers also to send me any passages from John XXIII that particularly appeal(ed) to them in their intellectual journey or spiritual life. If all goes well, it should be a wonderful opportunity to get to know aspects of this saintly pontiff and of his teaching that are at risk of being ignored.
As a teaser, let me offer two passages.

The first, courtesy of Rorate, surely merits a more widespread diffusion. Here is how Pope John XXIII spoke on January 25, 1959, when he first publicly announced that there would be an Ecumenical Council. Based on the past 50 years, one might have guessed that the announcement would sound a cheery note of rapprochement with modernity together with a desire to adapt (read: water down) Catholic practice and doctrine to suit the people of our time, much as Cardinal Kasper and his allies are advocating right now, in the name of “mercy,” a soft-pedaling of the Commandments and the Gospel. But that’s not quite what John XXIII had to say back in 1959 in his allocution to the Cardinals at Saint Paul Outside the Walls:
All of this—we mean, this [modern] progress—while distracting from the pursuit of higher gifts, weakens the energies of the spirit, leads to the softening of the structure, of the discipline, and of the good ancient order, to great detriment of that which constituted the strength of the resistance of the Church and of her sons to errors, which, in reality, always in the history of Christianity, led to fatal and pernicious divisions, to spiritual and moral decay, to the ruin of nations.
        This assessment awakens in the heart of the humble priest, whom the manifest choice of Divine Providence led, though most unworthy, to this highness of the Supreme Pontificate, it awakens, we say, a resolution influenced by the memory of some ancient forms of doctrinal affirmation and of wise orientations of ecclesiastical discipline which, in the history of the Church, at times of renewal, brought forth fruits of extraordinary efficacy, for the clarity of thought, for the compactness of religious unity, for the livelier fire of Christian fervor, which we continue to recognize, also in reference to the welfare of life down here, as an abundant wealth “de rore caeli et de pinguedine terrae” (Gen. XXVII, 28).
        Venerable Brothers and our dear children! We pronounce before you, certainly trembling somewhat out of emotion, but also with humble resolve of purpose, the name and the proposal of the double celebration: of a Diocesan Synod for the City [of Rome], and that of an Ecumenical Council for the universal Church.  
Here the Pope referred to himself as “the humble priest” who seeks “clarity of thought, compactness of religious unity, and the livelier fire of Christian fervor”—and it is not hard to see, in an entry in Pope John’s diary almost three years later, the very same genuine humility, clarity, and fervor:
It gives me joy to keep faithful to my religious practices: Holy Mass, the Divine Office, the whole rosary, with meditation on the mysteries, constant preoccupation with God and with spiritual things.
        In order that what I say may be not superficial but full of substance, I wish to become more familiar with the writings of the great Popes of old. In recent months I have felt very much at home with St. Leo the Great and with Innocent III. It is a pity that so few ecclesiastics study these writers, who abound in theological and pastoral doctrine. I shall never tire of drawing from these sources, so rich in sacred learning and sublime and delightful poetry. (Journal of a Soul, 319, between 26 Nov. and 2 Dec. 1961)
It is not surprising that we see Pope John’s encyclicals shot through with brilliant quotations from the Popes of the past, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church: they were the authors he read and loved and promoted. It is not surprising he strongly mandated the study of Latin and the dignity and splendor of the liturgy. This was his spirituality; this was his faith; this was the Tradition he cherished. It was left to others after him to transmogrify, repudiate, or even proscribe the very things Papa Roncalli himself thrived upon.

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