Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 18, 2002
A sympathetic look at Pope John XXIII
Pope John XXIII, by Thomas Cahill, Viking/Penguin: New York, NY. 2002. 241 pages. Hardcover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
"We're not on earth as museum keepers but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare a glorious future." These are the words of the much beloved and unofficially sainted Pope John XXIII before he was elected to serve on the Chair of St. Peter in Rome.
John is known for many things. Most importantly, however, was his convening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). His stamp was clearly impressed upon that august assembly, even though he did not live to see its completion.
John believed the council should meditate upon the Church not as a juridical institution but as a mystery unfolding in time; a mystery central to the healing of the world. He saw the Church as a development rooted in the Gospel.
This idea, though not conceived by John, helped him view its sometimes less than honourable history in a more objective way. With that perspective, he was able to speak with wisdom to his time, and, in so doing he helped set the Church on a new course with future implications still unknown.
The author of Pope John XXIII, Thomas Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews) writes an erudite, sweeping papal mini-narrative within which the pontificate of John XXIII serves as a transformative event. John was a true man of God with an integrity and warm transparency quite unlike any other pope, before or since.
This book is a biographical essay and not in any sense the definitive biography which remains to be written when all the extant documentation is available for scholarly assessment.
It is divided into four parts. Before John explains how papal history evolved over the centuries. Angelo the Man describes the emergence of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli from Italian peasantry to affable priest, pastoral archbishop and seasoned Vatican diplomat. Roncalli the Pastor, John the Pope recounts his ministry as patriarch of Venice and bishop of Rome. After John assesses his successors, Paul VI and John Paul II.
A brief epilogue urges that the Church is always in need of reformation because it is ever in danger of becoming a mere self-protecting institution like all other institutions. "When this happens," says Cahill, "it follows not the law of love but the law of institutions, by which it tends to do the opposite of what it proposes to do".
Actually, the papacy has always tended to assume the colouration of its time and place while "the hope of John XXIII was to return the Church to Pentecost."
Cahill writes for a general, and not only a Catholic, readership. Eastern Orthodox Christians and Jewish readers will appreciate the unprecedented attention John paid them. Protestant Christians will savour Cahill's praise for "earnest Martin Luther."
A good argument could be mounted to challenge whether John XXIII is the benchmark against which the entire pontifical history should be measured.
Yet, there is no quibble from this reviewer over John's unusual importance and the hope for seeing the Church from the new way he instilled in the hearts of Catholic and non-Catholic humanity. "From his unique position John was able to cast a pebble into the pond of human experience that has continued to reverberate in ever wider rings."
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)