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Guest Voices: 50 years after Vatican II, should Pope John XXIII be a saint?

Photo by Rene Shaw

(RNS) Fifty years after Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council that revolutionized the Catholic Church, will the jolly man known as the “Good Pope” be declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church? Perhaps the better question is: Should he be?

Pope John XXIII.  From a painting in the Casa Santa Maria dell?Umilta of the Pontifical North 
American College, Rome.

Pope John XXIII. From a painting in the Casa Santa Maria dell?Umilta of the Pontifical North
American College, Rome.

On the evening of June 3, 1963, John XXIII passed into eternity with his family, doctors and household staff present in the papal apartments where he had lived for four and a half years. The Vatican press office issued this terse statement: “He suffers no more.”

Immediately, there was a movement by some close to the deceased pope to have him canonized by acclamation, as saints had been during the early centuries of the church. The first session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had ended in December 1962, and the pope had published his landmark encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) in April 1963.

He was beloved by people throughout the world who understood the historic significance of his brief pontificate and of his council project.

It was reported at the time that Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens, who was close to John XXIII and a leading voice in the council, favored a quick move to proclaim him a saint, eschewing the lengthy processes that could sap the energy and enthusiasm from the cause. Suenens said people needed new and contemporary figures as models of sanctity to inspire them in their spiritual lives.

Vatican City -- Prelates and religious dignitaries from around the world fill St. Peter's Basilica as a concelebrated Mass opens the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962.

Vatican City — Prelates and religious dignitaries from around the world fill St. Peter's Basilica as a concelebrated Mass opens the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962.

A proposal was circulated among the bishops, urging quick action, but traditionalist leaders and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints won the day. John XXIII’s successor, Pope Paul VI, announced in 1965 that two sainthood causes would be opened: for both Pope Pius XII and John XXIII. Two investigations began, one of which culminated in 2000 with John XXIII being beatified, or proclaimed “Blessed,” the penultimate step to sainthood.

Only 80 of the 264 popes are officially recognized as saints (not counting St. Peter himself, but among his successors as bishop of Rome). In the past 400 years, ever since the church strictly formalized the process for canonization that includes investigations and verifications of miracles, only two popes have been declared saints: Pius V (16th century) and Pius X, the first pope of the 20th century.

So, despite the enthusiasm of the rank and file and even many highly placed supporters, the chances for any pope achieving sainthood are surprisingly slim.

John XXIII is different, however. When his body was transferred from the papal crypt beneath St. Peter’s Basilica and reinterred beneath the Altar of St. Jerome on the main floor of the basilica in 2001, some 40,000 people attended the ceremony.

Greg Tobin, the vice president for university advancement at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., is the author of the new book “The Good Pope: John XXIII & Vatican II.”

When his coffin was reopened, John XXIII’s physical remains were remarkably uncorrupted. After less than a day of work on the corpse, those present saw the face of John XXIII. Cardinal Virgilio Noe, who oversaw the project and was responsible for the “physical plant” of the Vatican, described the late pope's face as “intact and serene.” He said witnesses present at the opening of the coffin were overcome with emotion.

The historical circumstances of John XXIII's reign on the Throne of St. Peter and his personal sanctity — well-attested and recorded during his lifetime and verified after — have brought the “Good Pope” to the threshold of sainthood. The world only awaits verification of a post-beatification miracle credited to his intercession, as required by the rules.

I have no doubt that he will pass the final hurdle and “qualify” as a saint with flying colors, perhaps as soon as the 50th anniversary of his death, in 2013. Why? John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council was, in itself, nothing short of a miracle.

Inspired, as Catholics believe, by the Holy Spirit, John XXIII’s council saved the Catholic Church from perhaps inevitable calcification and possible collapse. Every once in a while, say, every 300 to 500 years, the church has needed to re-examine itself and its place in the world and “get its act together.” That’s what happened at Nicaea in the 4th century and Trent in the 16th century — and most certainly at Vatican II in the 20th.

Unblinking, and with a smile, even as he sought to reform and reclaim his cherished church, he walked with charity and humility always, through some of the darkest days of world history, as a young priest and soldier, as a diplomat and pastor, as a successor of St. Peter. The evidence of his inner life is revealed in his “Journal of a Soul,” a masterwork of religious writing and reflection that ought to be more widely read today.

Even so, John XIII is a saint, acclaimed by many throughout the world already. They don’t need the official stamp of approval of the Vatican hierarchy to verify what is already written on their hearts.

Greg Tobin, the vice president for university advancement at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., is the author of the new book “The Good Pope: John XXIII & Vatican II.” He is also the author of “The Wisdom of St. Patrick,” “Saints and Sinners,” and “Holy Father,” a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.

(Greg Tobin, the associate vice president for university advancement at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., is the author of the new book “The Good Pope: John XXIII & Vatican II.” He is also the author of “The Wisdom of St. Patrick,” the novels “Conclave” and “Council,” and “Holy Father,” a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.)
 

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Greg Tobin

8 Comments

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  • It seems very odd and strange to me that a Protestant religion would recognize a Catholic pope as a saint, which is such a Catholic Church practice.

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  • 50 years! I was a solid Lutheran kid (born in 1950) whose ecumenical family watched Vatican II in great detail, and as a kid I sucked up the conversations about it. Later, in college, I had lectures from “Xavier Rhynne,” the ruddy Irish-American Vatican insider who wrote about the Council for New Yorker magazine. Just years later, he was already discouraged that the Council didn’t achieve the pontif’s early hopes for it. I still have the book of his collected articles in my library. I’m saddened that the fruits of Vatican II are far less than John XXIII had hoped.

  • POPE JOHN XXIII, POPE PAUL VI AND POPE JOHN PAUL II NEVER IDENTIFIED THE VISIBLE DEAD SAVED MISUNDERSTANDING WHICH CAME FROM THE FR.LEONARD FEENEY ERA

    There is no statement from any of the popes which show that they knew of the irrationality.The Letter of the Holy Office 1949 does not directly state that the baptism of desire and invincible ignorance are explicit exceptions to the dogma.One has to imply it.

    Pope John Paul II indirectly affirmed the dogma on salvation but never directly dealt with the baptism of desire and the issue of being saved with invincible ignorance. Similarly Pope Paul VI held the traditional teaching of the church with respect to the salvation dogma(Evangelii Nuntiandi) (1). He never confronted the false premise. This premise led Catholics to assume that the baptism of desire etc were not only just possibilities known to God. They assumed that they were defacto exceptions to the defined dogma. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger may have known that the baptism of desire is not an exception to the dogma.It’s not clear. Vatican Council II does not make this error directly. It has to be implied by the reader.Neither does the Catechism of the Catholic Church claim that the visible dead are exceptions to the dogma. One has to wrongly assume it.

    The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) could only see the Council with a false premise. So they criticize Vatican Council in general and not the false premise in particular. There is a blanket criticism of Vatican Council II without identifying the premise of the visible dead saved on earth, which is a complete irrationality and is responsible for the interpretation of the Council which the SSPX criticizes.

    Well known apologists like Monsgr. Fenton, Fr.William Most and Fr.John Hardon S.J followed the popes assuming invincible ignorance and implicit desire were exceptions to the dogma. They all took it for granted that this was the new teaching from the Letter of the Holy Office 1949 issued by Pope Pius XII.

    If the Letter assumes that those who are in invincible ignorance are de facto known and so are exceptions this would be an objective error of the cardinals who issued the Letter.

    For over 20 years the archbishops of Boston did not lift the excommunication of Fr.Leonard Feeney assuming that the baptism of desire was an exception to the dogma. Even Fr. Schmaruk who represented the bishops and announced the lifting of the excommunication at a press conference, did not seem to know that the baptism of desire was never ever an exception to the dogma.It was not an issue.It was irrelevant.

    The real controversy and confusion has not been on the dogma itself but on the baptism of desire being exceptions to the dogma because there are alleged known cases in the present times. No one told the popes that the baptism of desire was not relevant to extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

    Even if the popes were informed the issue had become so complicated they would not know from where to start to correct it.Pope Pius XII may be knew about it but could not do anything because of the complications with the Archbishop of Boston from where the problem surfaced. It was Archbishop Humberto Medeiros, the Archbishop who replaced Cardinal Cushing, who seemed to understand that an injustice was done to Fr.Leonard Feeney.-Lionel Andrade

  • Greg, I have searched online several times for a prayer for the intercession and canonization of Bl. John XXIII. Do you have one or share a link? God bless.

  • Great article Greg! I’m also looking for a prayer for the canonization of Pope John! Does one exist?? Please post it for us! Thanks!!

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