October 11, 2019

Christ the Cornerstone

Working to reclaim unity in a divided Church

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“What unites us is much greater than what divides us.” (Pope St. John XXIII)

The publication date for this column is Friday, Oct. 11, the Feast of Pope St. John XXIII. It’s also the 57th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

Good Pope John, as he was popularly known, was canonized a saint, alongside Pope St. John Paul II, by Pope Francis on April 27, 2014. Although he only served as pope for a little more than 4 years, John XXIII’s many contributions to our Church and to the world have made him a larger-than-life figure known for his personal holiness, his pastoral sensitivity and his wise political skill.

In 1881, Angelo Roncalli (the namesake of our own Roncalli High School in Indianapolis) was one of 13 children born to sharecroppers in the Lombardy region of Italy.

He was ordained a priest in 1904 and spent many years serving as a military chaplain, seminary professor and spiritual director and, ultimately, as a papal ambassador to Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and France. During World War II, he was personally responsible for rescuing thousands of people (mostly Jews) from the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust.

Angelo Roncalli was named a cardinal and appointed the Patriarch of Venice by Pope Pius XII in 1953. Just five years later, following the death of Pius XII, he was elected pope.

Most people (including the cardinal-electors) assumed that the 76-year-old pope would be a “caretaker.” They expected him to maintain order and not rock the boat until a younger man was elected following his death. Imagine their surprise when Good Pope John didn’t follow that script!

From the beginning, with his choice of the name “John” and with his determination to escape the Vatican at regular intervals to conduct pastoral visits in his diocese, Roncalli insisted that he was going to make his own decisions and do whatever was necessary to serve the people of Rome and the universal Church.

Pope John’s greatest decision, of course, was the calling of the Second Vatican Council, which caught the whole world by surprise. The council initiated changes that still effect the way our Catholic faith is practiced six decades later. Our liturgy, our catechesis, our social ministry, our ecumenical and interfaith relationships, and our interaction with the world at large have all changed since 1959 when Pope John XXIII announced his decision to convene the Second Vatican Council. We can argue about the successes and failures of efforts to implement these changes, but there is no question that Vatican II happened because of the vision and pastoral leadership of this larger-than-life Good Pope John.

Pope St. John XXIII is an important figure for us today for many reasons, but one stands out, especially for our archdiocese, for the Church in the United States and for the universal Church.

“What unites us, is much greater than what divides us,” Pope St. John XXIII said. And his entire ministry—both before and after his papal election—was devoted to uniting what had become divided.

In his years in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, Angelo Roncalli fought to establish strong relations between Christians and Muslims. During the Second World War, he was tireless in promoting unity among Jews and Christians—using every means at his disposal to help Jews escape from their Nazi persecutors.

After being elected pope, one of John XXIII’s first acts was to eliminate the description of Jews as perfidius (Latin for “faithless”) in the prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the Good Friday liturgy. He also made a confession for the Church of the sin of anti-Semitism committed throughout the centuries.

Finally, in international affairs, Pope John engaged in dialogue with the communist countries of Eastern Europe, and he worked to reconcile the Vatican with the Russian Orthodox Church. In his encyclical “Pacem in terris” (“Peace on Earth”), John XXIII also sought to prevent nuclear war and tried to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Of course, “What unites us is much greater than what divides us” does not mean anything goes. Pope John knew that we can never compromise our principles to maintain false unity. Still, he would urge us to work harder at listening to one another, to engage in respectful dialogue about important matters, and to build bridges instead of walls (as Pope Francis says).

Peace on Earth requires all of us to forgive one another, to respect our mutual dignity and human rights, and to commit to the common good of all.

May the intercession of this good pope, St. John XXIII, bring us all closer together—here in central and southern Indiana, in our nation and throughout the world community. †

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