On the Corner

by Robert Docter – 

I guess it was John Gowans’ election by the High Council to be our Army’s next General that forced my mind back to one of my great heroes–Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, elected by the 70 member College of Cardinals to be the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, the successor to St. Peter. He took his father’s name on the occasion of his elevation to the papacy and became Pope John XXIII.

You see, I don’t think they expected much from him. He was 77 at the time. He was never mentioned as a front runner following the death of his long serving predecessor, Pope Pius XII. I can remember as a young man feeling the excitement mount in the news items of 1958 as the Cardinals convened in the Sistine Chapel to pick a Pope. The color of the smoke from a small smokestack was to indicate whether or not a successor had been chosen. Day after day, the color stayed the same–just smoky smoke as the ballots were burned. They couldn’t decide.

While I don’t have any facts on the matter, I suppose God kept mentioning Angelo Roncalli’s name to the Bishops, and after awhile some of them began to see the logic of ending a difficult process and picking a successor to Pius XII who would simply be an interim Pope. They must have seen Angelo as someone quite elderly, whose years were measured, who had the tact and diplomatic skill to manage affairs for a brief period without sinking the ship. So–the smoke changed color one day. They picked Angelo. He looked safe. He was a compromise with a guaranteed short term of service.

They must have started wondering a little when he picked the name “John.” It was the first time it had been used in over seven centuries, and the one using it before him had now been declared an anti-pope.

He was born in 1881–the eldest son of an Italian sharecropper in northern Italy whose father wanted him to be a farmer. By age 11, Angelo knew he wanted to be a priest. Finally, he was ordained in 1904–a product of the 19th century. He became recognized with the publications of books and papers and was summoned to Rome and appointed as the Vatican’s ambassador to a number of countries. He demonstrated his diplomatic skill as the Vatican’s ambassador to France immediately after World War II. He resolved problems with wit and skill–with a great sense of humor and intelligence.

Following his election, almost immediately, a climate of change worked its mysterious way through the squares and chapels, the offices and sanctuaries of the Vatican. He increased the number of Cardinals dramatically–the first time in over 400 years. Many of them had skin tones never before seen within those hallowed surroundings.

Most importantly, the words “Ecumenical Council” whispered from his lips as from God himself. The decision was made to hold such a gathering in the Vatican for the second time. It became “Vatican II”–the Second Vatican Council.

From the beginning, it was the positive sense of optimism, the call for relevance in John’s own words which challenged the 2,000 plus participants. He looked at the 20th century world as a place of decreasing faith and expanding national and interpersonal hostility confronted by a church which was out of date with the lives of the faithful.

“Illuminated by the light of this Council,” John said, “the church…will look to the future without fear. In fact, by bringing herself up to date where required, and by wise organization and mutual cooperation, the church will make men, families, and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things.”

He had very little patience for pessimists and naysayers. “We sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. They see nothing but prevarication and ruin. We feel we must disagree with these prophets of gloom who are always forecasting disaster.”

Pope John XXIII, intelligently and lovingly, changed the course of an unchangeable institution

Well–we stand on the brink of a new century. Another “John” prepares to lead a different international religious organization. They’ve only given him three years. Quickly, let’s help him all we can.

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