Thursday, September 5, 2013

Blessed Pope John XXIII: A Man of Surprises

JohnXXIIIPope John XXIII was a man of surprises. Less than three months after being elected Pope he announced on January 25, 1959, that he was going to call an ecumenical council of the Church. Even the cardinals of Vatican Curia were unprepared for this announcement. This new council was to be called not to respond to a crisis but to promote, “the enlightenment, edification and joy of the entire Christian people” including the “faithful of separated communities.” Somewhat later, Blessed John XXII was to name the council Vatican II to signal that it was not merely a continuation of Vatican Council I. His intentions in calling the council are reflected in his opening speech of to the council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Latin for ‘Mother Church Rejoices’).

Rival interpretations of this opening speech of Pope John XXIII where immediately put forward at the council. There were those who wished to see the council as a means to further codify very specific scholastic interpretations of doctrine current in the Roman schools of the day. Truthfully there are segments of the address which appear to touch on this theme. The Pope talks of the duty "to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion," and admonishes that "it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers." Pope John XXII does not have an ‘either or schema’ in mind as he continues with the balancing statement, "But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate." He notes,

The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

Without implying, in any way that the Church was departing from the doctrines once taught, there is a desire to find new ways of presenting these truths to the modern world.

A second interpretation of this speech by the council saw in it a call to have a ‘pastoral character’ to the new council. Pope John XXIII remarks, "The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity." A completely different style is envisioned which has an evangelistic focus. This question is especially important to the cause of healing divisions within the Church.

In our modern world which so quickly gives in to relativism we should be clear that ‘style’ was not a question of giving up truth or of making truth into a subjective feeling. This was an invitation to dialogue. But some might ask, is it possible to have dialogue without using the language of battle and controversy? Can we talk about the faith without attacking? Pope John XXIII notes, "That being so, the Catholic Church, raising the torch of religious truth by means of this Ecumenical Council, desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the brethren who are separated from her." I think the Pope John XXII was saying that the council should speak the truth, but should do so in love and in a language and style that could be understood by all people. As we can see from the documents of Vatican II, the council Fathers understood this vision and chose a new approach to presenting the faith to the world.

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