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Remembering John XXIII’s Stroll in the Garden Fifty Years Ago Today

January 25, 2009
j23.jpgFifty years ago today, at the conclusion of a celebration marking the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul in the great Roman Basilica dedicated to the Apostle to the Nations in Rome, Pope John XIII went for a stroll in the small interior garden of the basilica.  He startled his small entourage by letting them know of his desire to convoke an Ecumenical Council which the world would later know as Vatican II.
Angelo Roncalli, the third of 13 children, was born to a family of sharecroppers on November 25, 1881, at Sotto il Monte in northern Italy. At the age of 12, he entered the diocesan seminary at Bergamo and came under the influence of progressive leaders of the Italian social movement. He was ordained on Aug. 10, 1904, and soon appointed the secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo, learning from him forms of social action and gaining an understanding of the problems of the working classes. He also taught at the diocesan seminary.
In 1958, at nearly 77 years old, he was elected Pope upon the death of Pius XII. He was expected by many to be a caretaker and transitional Pope, but he astonished the Church and the world with his energy and reforming spirit. He expanded and internationalized the college of cardinals, called the first diocesan synod of Rome in history, revised the Code of Canon Law, and called the Second Vatican Council with the specific purpose of renewing the life of the Church and its teachings and reuniting Christians throughout the world.
In his opening address on October 11, 1962, at the beginning of the Vatican Council, Pope John said, "In the every day exercise of our pastoral ministry, greatly to our sorrow we sometimes have to listen to those who, although consumed with zeal, do not have very much judgment or balance. To them the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruination. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages and they go on as though they had learned nothing from history -- and yet history is the great teacher of life.”
“Il Papa buono” (the good Pope) as he came to be known, thought the Council would conclude within months, but instead he was to die before its second session. When he died on June 3, 1963, he had won the widespread affection of Christian and non-Christian alike. "Papa Giovanni" endeared himself to millions of people throughout the world.
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was a human being, more concerned with his faithfulness than his image, more concerned with those around him than with his own desires. With an infectious warmth and vision, he stressed the relevance of the Church in a rapidly changing society and made the Church's deepest truths stand out in the modern world.
On the night of October 11, 1962, the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Papa Giovanni appeared at his window in answer to the chanting and singing below from a crowd estimated at half a million people assembled in St. Peter's square. Many were young people who came in procession with candles and singing.  His impromptu window speech that night is now part of Rome's legends. In a high pitched voice:
"Carissimi giovani, carissimi giovani, Dear children, I hear your voice." In the simplest language, he told them about his hopes for the Council. He pointed out that the moon, up there, was observing the spectacle. "My voice is an isolated one," he said, "but it echoes the voice of the whole world. Here, in effect, the whole world is represented." He concluded: "Tornando a casa ... As you return to your homes, give your little children a kiss -- tell them it is from Pope John." The emotion was palpable. The "patriarch" who was bearing the burden of age and sickness, gave and generated love with all his being.
On that first night of the Second Vatican Council, a new era began for the Church ... an era that continues to bear fruit fifty years later.  The years of work and compromise, countless words and conversations, endless wrangling over documents would both produce and accompany a sea of change in the church. However, for all of the lofty words, words, words and texts that went into the Council, the historic gathering on October 11, 1962 -- the opening night of Vatican II, was infused with the deep and stirring humanity of its author.
On his deathbed in early June 1963, Papa Giovanni said: "It is not that the Gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have ... were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead."
As we remember John XXIII on the fiftieth anniversary of his stroll in a Roman garden, and behold his bold, daring vision for the Church and for humanity, let us beg his intercession for unity and peace in the Church and in the world.
Pope Benedict continues the vision of Pope John XXIII
When he met with his aides in the Roman Curia to offer his first Christmas greetings as Pope back in December 2005, Benedict XVI made a long analysis of the legacy left by the 1962-1965 gathering of the world's bishops (known as Vatican Council II), This papal address is absolutely essential to understand what our current Pope is trying to offer the Church through these recent teachings.
The crisis that arose in the Church after the Second Vatican Council wasn't due to the conciliar documents, but rather in their interpretation, says Benedict XVI.  In the forty-plus years since the close of the Second Vatican Council, two schools of thought have circled one another in Catholicism about how to interpret what the council meant.  What we might call the "change" school sees Vatican II as a significant innovation in Catholic life, ushering in a new period of reform in liturgy, doctrine, and pastoral practice. The "continuity" school instead stresses a smooth continuum between Vatican II and previous councils.  Benedict is emphasizing the “continuity” school in his papacy.
Pope Benedict, like the wise leader of any institution or organization, is simply calling the Church back to some Catholic fundamentals.  He has a keen sense of history.  I have yet to see some radical shift to the right or the left in Benedict’s actions during the past two years of his Pontificate.  In fact, more than lurches in any direction, I have seen in him a great clarity, calm and balance.
If we wish to understand the Vatican, it helps to know that documents are published when they are ready!  Now and then immediate responses to different situations are required, but documents that contain important teachings come in their own blessed time.  For good or for bad, there usually is never an ecclesiastical or media strategy in the publication of Church documents.  This presents a conundrum to my media colleagues, many who love conflict and hype, because those things sell stories, win air time and expand column inches.  The Church uses other ways to tell its ancient story to the modern world.
One of the most important duties and responsibilities of the Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ is to preserve the unity of the Church.  Benedict, in particular, feels deeply responsible for unity, and is naturally thinking of those who still today find themselves outside of ecclesial communion, but also of those who find themselves in a state of tension within it, and he invites all to a reciprocal openness within the unity of the same faith… that same unity and faith which inspired John XIII fifty years ago during his garden stroll, and moved Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II in their heroic efforts to give flesh and blood to the Second Vatican Council.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.
CEO Salt and Light Television