We were once a Church of oral tradition. Long before the New Testament was codified, the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection circulated the Mediterranean world by word of mouth. Chief among these evangelists were Paul and the twelve Apostles, who journeyed far and wide while facing enormous opposition and persecution, eventually being killed for the message they shared.
Tradition holds that John, perhaps the youngest of the twelve, outlived the others and eventually died an old man in Ephesus, in modern day Turkey. But not before he wrote or dictated what came to be the fourth gospel of the New Testament, the Gospel of John, dated sometime between 90-110 CE.
Some contemporary skeptics read a lot into that chasm of some sixty or more years between the death of Jesus in the early 30’s and the composition of the gospel, but there’s a real sense in the text that John’s understanding of the real Jesus was actually enhanced, rather than hindered, over time. John had the historical facts about Jesus, but also the benefit of hindsight that can illuminate the deeper truth about a person or event.
On May 26, 2016, the eldest member of the College of Cardinals passed away in a remote town in northern Italy. His name was Loris Capovilla and he was the personal secretary of Pope John XXIII. John died on June 3, 1963, fifty three years ago today. With the passing of Cardinal Capovalla, a significant part of the oral tradition of the life of Pope John and the historic Second Vatican Council has come to an end.
Pope Francis canonized his predecessor John on April 27, 2014, and I had the rare opportunity to visit Capovilla in Sotto il Monte a few days later (Click here to read Fr. Tom’s account of the visit
). It was an experience I will never forget.
The Cardinal was fragile—98 years old at the time—but full of energy and excitement. He had known for years that Angelo Roncalli was a holy man, but certainly the Church’s official recognition of Roncalli’s holiness was cause for extra jubilation. We spent ninety minutes with him in private speaking about John and the Council, the past fifty years, and Pope Francis. It was a very moving experience to sit with such a man, the aging eyewitness to one of the most extraordinary moments in church history.
What he told us was equally extraordinary. Apparently John had run up against enormous resistance from within the Church (from cardinals and bishops) when he called and commenced the Second Vatican Council. Capovilla told us it weighed very heavily on him personally and that he was constantly expressing his concern to John. But there was a great tranquility about John, even in the face of internal pressure, overt criticism, and other enormous obstacles. On one occasion John told him, “Loris, if we stopped along the road to pick up all the stones they are throwing at us, we would never get anywhere.”
The pressure only increased when John passed away between the first and second sessions of the Council. Capovilla told us that the completion of the Council—especially in the direction of openness and mercy which John had charted—was in serious jeopardy. He himself was deliberately sidelined by the Curia, who for fear that the Church’s long-standing doctrine would be compromised, attempted to redirect the Council away from perceived novelty and an attitude of accommodation to the world.
For this reason Capovilla sang the praises of John’s successor, Paul VI. It fell to Paul to navigate the restless waters at the Vatican and maintain unity. Capovilla went so far to say that if it weren’t for Paul VI, “we wouldn’t be here right now” (meaning we wouldn’t be celebrating the canonizations of St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII).
Capovilla also had high praises for Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the controversial philosopher and cosmologist who was censored by church authorities for his apparent heterodox views related to evolution and the nature of human beings. Since his death in 1955 his work began to seep into mainstream theology and is today experiencing a noteworthy resurgence. All the popes from John to Francis have acknowledged the importance of Teilhard de Chardin, most recently Pope Francis referenced his thought in paragraph 83 of Laudato si
But during the pontificate of John XXIII from 1958-1963, Teilhard’s work was anathema to the institutional church. Nonetheless, John had a great respect for him and interest in his work. Capovilla told us it wouldn’t surprise him is Teilhard is made a saint one day.
As interesting as the conversation was, what I remember most about our meeting with Cardinal Capovilla was his contagious joy when speaking about his boss and friend, Pope John. It was clear he would never tire of speaking about John and the Council to anyone who was interested. It was as if the memory of ‘the good Pope’ over these five decades served as a timed-release pill, as Capovilla came to understand and appreciate him better and better, and tried to transmit that memory to others.
It’s true to say that what I experienced speaking with Cardinal Capovilla cannot be fully communicated on paper. I do not presume that anyone reading this will automatically feel the same way I felt when we were sitting around the table together back in 2014. It was not just what he said, but how he said it and the obvious effect it had on him all those years later that, in turn, led me to a deeper understanding of John and appreciation for what he did for the Church.
John was able to launch the Council in the face of great opposition and trepidation among church officials because he was totally open to the Holy Spirit, and that freed him from a narrow, defensive mentality that would unconsciously stifle the Spirit, essentially constraining the space in which the Spirit works. What was really ‘dangerous’ about Pope John—and what is also ‘dangerous’ about Pope Francis—is not that he might have changed this or that long-standing teaching of the Church, but that he was free, and his personal freedom brought freedom to others and freedom, in many ways, to the modern church. Needless to say, Cardinal Capovilla was very happy with Pope Francis, remarking with a smile when we asked him about this perceived freedom in John and Francis, “They are the same!”