I grew up with anti-Catholic sentiment preached from our Baptist pulpit, but a saving grace was my mother’s reading of Catholic alongside Protestant writers. As a young woman, she had enjoyed a positive relationship with nuns who cared for her frequently hospitalized mother in their small town Catholic hospital.
I was home sick from school when a news bulletin flashed the news of Pope John’s death on our Packard Bell television set in 1963. Though only 12 years of age, I immediately felt sad, knowing a unique light had left our world. In 1973 I visited his tomb in the crypt underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, noting fresh flowers. It moved me in a way no other gravesite on my first trip to Europe did; his was the only grave at which I cried. On my most recent visit to Rome, I was glad to see he had been promoted upstairs to the main floor, now in a glass coffin. At first I wasn’t sure it was him, so I asked a guard, “Is that Pope John XXIII?” “Most of him,” the guard replied with a wink. That same visit we also saw a living pope, Pope John Paul II, old and frail.
There was resistance to the changing nature of the church signaled by Vatican II, with its intended consultative collegiality among bishops, priests and laity, ecumenical emphasis, interfaith dialogue, vernacular liturgy, and other attempts at modernization that made it less of a dinosaur still breathing fire at the Enlightenment.
My friend, David Mellott, Dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, suggests to me that Pope John could not have initiated reforms on his own had there not been a “sensus fidelium” in the Roman Catholic Church, “the sense of the faithful” that wanted change. It could be said that, had Pope John lived, that same “sensus fidelium” might have prompted even him to be more cautious in Vatican II’s application. (Anyone who has served in ministry knows almost every congregation says it wants change until changes are actually implemented!)
In Vatican II, “The church validated for the first time the principle of religious freedom and rejected all forms of civil discrimination based on religious grounds. Thus ended an era of cozy church-state relations that began in the fourth century with Emperor Constantine,” the Georgetown professor, Jesuit priest, and author O’Malley observes. This is a very good time to be reminded of this in the United States.
In his 1986 autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest, diocesan priest and novelist Andrew Greeley tells of sneaking into the conclave of Vatican II with a faked pass and witnessing a battle between the conservative, turf-defending Roman Curia and the bishops who served the broader church, aided by more progressive theologians like Hans Kung and Karl Rahner. His analysis was that Vatican II irrevocably asserted that the church can change.
Greeley also mentions the present pope’s involvement in Vatican II, listing alongside Kung and Rahner “a much younger Ratzinger (who now conveniently forgets his contribution to the Council)…”—and Greeley wrote this before Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, when he was the Vatican watchdog for orthodoxy as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In a 1977 book that I used years ago for my morning reflections, Zen and the Bible, Japanese Jesuit priest J. K. Kadowaki, lauding Vatican II, also refers to that much younger Ratzinger whom he met when doing research in West Germany:
While there I was invited by the Catholic theologian, Professor J. Ratzinger (now a cardinal), to lecture on “Zen and Christianity” to a group of his doctoral students. … Toward the end of the seminar, Professor Ratzinger said, “How interesting it would be if we could compare the ideas of Zen with those of the Bible. If that could be done, it would be a great event, not only for the dialogue between Zen and Christianity, but also in respect to the ideological exchange between East and West.”
That’s in the spirit of Pope John XXIII and of Vatican II, though Pope Benedict might prefer to forget this too. Now that Pope John has been beatified on his way to sainthood, progressive Christians might hope that he may intercede for the whole church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.
Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes. Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!
Many thanks to Dr. David Mellott for reviewing a draft of this post and contributing his wisdom from his Roman Catholic training.
Check out Glaser’s latest article on The Huffington Post: “Flag Pins & Crosses: ‘Mine Is Bigger than Yours!’”