"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Thomas Cahill, "Pope John XXIII"

Sep 2, 2002

"In the daily exercise of our pastoral ministry -- and much to our sorrow -- we must sometimes listen to those who, consumed with zeal, have scant judgment or balance," said John XXIII to the bishops of the world assembled in Saint Peter's Basilica as he opened the precedent-shattering Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II) in 1962. "To such ones the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruin. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages, and they rant on as if they had learned nothing at all from history-and yet, history is the great Teacher of Life. . . . We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of doom who are forever forecasting calamity -- as though the world's end were imminent. Today, rather, Providence is guiding us toward a new order of human relationships, which, thanks to human effort and yet far surpassing human hopes, will bring us to the realization of still higher and undreamed of expectations." (xiii) This is the opening paragraph of Thomas Cahill's moving little book on John XXIII. How optimistic and ironic these words of the former Pope sound to us today, when the words "new order" in the mouths of world leaders have the power to terrify and enrage large segments of the human family. "A new order of human relationships": how can this mean anything other than empire, hegemony, global power? Perhaps only in the mouth of a saint can the phrase point to "higher and undreamed of expectations."

After reading Cahill's Pope John XXIII, it is hard not to think of John XXIII as a saint. Readers of Cahill's Hinges of History Series[*] are well-acquainted with his ability to tell an engrossing historical story. In this very different genre, his narrative powers are even more effectively at the full -- a matter of more than literary importance, since the promises and problems of the Catholic Church are so immediately of concern, and not only to Catholics. Cahill tells, in fact, two stories, the story of the papacy and the story of John XXIII. The first gives context to the second. And that context -- the two-thousand-year-old sweep of papal history -- makes John XXIII look very much like a saint.

Cahill tells the story of the papacy in a brisk and bristling narrative that occupies almost a third of his book. He pulls no punches:

  • "The apostle Peter "was never a 'bishop of Rome.'"

  • "Rome, in the early centuries of the Church was merely first among equals."

  • "The association of the church with Constantine encouraged the bishop of Rome 'to adopt...an imperial style.' The title Roman Pontiff was usurped from the Emperor.

  • "By the mid-5th century, if the Italian bishops considered the successor of Peter to have the final word in doctrinal matters, "from Antioch to Jerusalem, from Alexandria to Constantinople...the last word...could only be the bishops together representing the whole Christian world."

  • "The wealth of the Papal States brought into being fresh horrors...as the principal Roman families set in motion an unending mafia war over whose candidate would sit on the throne of Peter."

  • "In the course of the two and a half centuries since the death of Gregory the Great, the Church had gone from viewing the pope as the servant of all and an exemplar to others...to setting him up, in theory at least, as absolute monarch of the whole world."

The theological point is clear: The Church ought by rights to be an open, conciliar church, not a secretive and monarchical one; religious totalitarianism, as any totalitarianism, inevitably brings corruption:

The historian is hard put to make his selection among the abundant riches of outrageous incidents: which scandal to include, which abomination to forgo. It is difficult indeed...working systematically through this increasingly dreary eight-century saga [from the middle of the eighth century to the Council of Trent in 1545], to keep straight the difference between one conniving papal mistress and another, one set of highly beneficed papal nephews and another, one family fortune and another, which boy cardinals were placed on the papal throne to satisfy which families, which pope built which splendid palace, who thought up each new method of increasing papal revenues, which popes died in their beds at an early age from an excess of early morning sex. (p. 31)

Even the intricate theological controversies of the post-Tridentine church are given a certain narrative excitement by Cahill's incisive judgments of popes struggling either to accommodate to or reject the modernizing secular world outside the Vatican walls. These pages may be the best brief account we have of the two millennia of Roman ecclesiastical history, and it is probably the only one that a non-historian or a lay-person would want to read.

Once the story of the papacy sets the context, the second story, the story of Angelo Roncalli who became John XXIII, moves with deepening suspense toward its climax as the pope assumes his office and then brings off, with a certain wise detachment, his startlingly democratic ecumenical council.

Roncalli emerged, archetypally, from a solidly religious peasant background, but, less archetypically, he was nourished by his great-uncle Zaverio in the ideals of "social Catholicism." His uncle, the head of the Roncalli household and a sort of "intellectual-in-residence," had been influenced by the efforts of Leo XIII to "mend the breach between the Church and modern society." (78). Leo's Rerum Novarum inaugurated the genre of social encyclical. When he died, Angelo Roncalli was twenty-one, old enough to have received a lasting impression from the long-lived pope. His career moved "from simple farmer to imitative seminarian to tentative cleric to substantive intellectual." Intellectual is not the word that comes to mind when people think of John XXIII, but that is what he was. For most of his life he was a publishing historian.

Our television screens have accustomed us to seeing the current Pope traveling to all corners of the globe, descending from his plane, and kneeling to kiss the ground. That the papacy should have an international reach seems only natural. But that international reach was, it seems to me, one of the liberating fruits of the papacy of John XXIII. Before him the popes had locked themselves within the walls of the Vatican in protest against the infringements of the modern world.

But Angelo Roncalli was a man of international reach before he was pope. He was appointed apostolic visitor to Bulgaria in 1925, and spent ten years there trying to alleviate the deep hostility of the Orthodox to Rome while acting as a devoted pastor to the Roman and Uniate Christians of the country, traveling "by mule, cart, and raft to outlying areas where roads were bad or nonexistent. 'I became their neighbor,' he would say later."

From Bulgaria he went to Islamic Istanbul, where, abandoning his soutane for trousers, he faced an icy reception from the mayor but managed to end the visit "with repeated toasts of raki on a terrace overlooking the Bosporus." He learned to befriend his fellow diplomats from every country, including both Germany and Russia. There in Istanbul he was deeply moved by the plight of Jews fleeing from the Nazis and threw himself headlong into "the sacred work of smuggling" Jews to safety. Then he was sent as papal nuncio [personal messenger from the Pope] to Paris: "His own, exceedingly simple engagement with Parisians took the form of strolls around his beau quartier and animated conversation with those he met, such as Yvette Morin, the Holocaust survivor who ran his local newspaper stand." Finally, he was brought back to Italy to be made Patriarch of Venice.

Roncalli's preparation for the papacy was not what we would today call global, but it was importantly international. He worked at the edges of Roman Christianity, facing down the hostility both of Orthodox Christianity and of Islam. His work was personal, face-to-face; he brought to bear all his own qualities of common sense, understanding, and warmth. He kept a picture album of all the places he lived and of the people he came to know. He was a man of the world, a human priest.

Cahill tells two wonderful anecdotes of Roncalli in Paris:

  • "He was not infrequently seen at diplomatic receptions with a glass of champagne in one hand, sometimes with a cigarette in the other. At one of these gatherings, so the story goes, he was approached by a woman of considerable décolletage, who wore a large crucifix between her mountainous breasts. 'Quelle Golgothe!' [What a Calvary!] exclaimed the nuncio merrily.

  • On another occasion, in the course of the ... redecoration of the nunciature, a carpenter who accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer began to blaspheme vigorously. The nuncio, stern-faced, rose from his desk, walked to the room where the carpenter was working, and demanded. 'Alors, qu'est-ce que c'est ça? Vous ne pouvez pas dire 'merde' comme tout le monde?' [So, what's this? Can't you say 'shit' like everybody else?]" (pp. 147-148)

The most exciting story in the book is the story of the launching of the Second Vatican Council. It was a perilous enterprise. It could easily have become a ritual visit to Rome of the world's bishops in their thousands. There they would have approved a set of schemata pre-written by the Vatican bureaucracy, changed little, if anything, in the Church, and returned obediently to their far-flung dioceses. This, of course, is not what happened, to the shocked surprise of the Vatican guardians of the faith. But it is a mistake to think that the Pope had any particular reforms in mind. What he wanted was dialogue, conversation, and a fresh look by the Catholic bishops of the world at their church in the world.

Cahill's telling of this story of how this amazingly democratic council came about, along with his assessment of the popes who have followed John XXIII and the sad fate of many of the reforms brought about by the Council, these are worth the price of the book -- and should not be subjected to summary. Tole! lege! [Read the book!]

Was John XXIII a saint? The church has declared him "blessed," a canonical term which means that he is on the way to canonical sainthood. But all this is a matter of law, and questionable law, given some who have been canonized and others who are now being considered for sainthood. Cahill quotes a Roman chambermaid talking to Hannah Arendt while John XXIII lay dying: "Signora, this pope was a real Christian. How is that possible? And how could a real Christian ever get to sit on Saint Peter's chair?"

The "Fathers" of the Second Vatican Council wanted to declare him a saint by acclamation -- and were only restrained by his successor, Paul VI, "because he feared it would compromise papal authority." That fear, unhappily, is the fear that has sent the Church into headlong retreat from the high adventure begun by John XXIII.

The Carnegie Council is primarily concerned with the study of ethics and international affairs. It asks the nations of the world to at least consider their relations in terms that transcend the realism of simple power. If the Council were to decide it needed a patron saint, who better than this Italian historian and diplomat? His peasant roots never dried up in the sterile bureaucracy of the Vatican, and his confident vision of a new order of human relationships inspired not only Catholics but also the world to try, at least for a moment, to focus on that bright vision.

*Cahill's "Hinges of History" series comprises:

  1. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (1995)
  2. The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998)
  3. Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (1999) All are under the Nan A. Talese/Doubleday imprint.

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