June 7, 1963

Editorial: The Pope

(Also: See our 1963 special section honoring the life of Pope John XXIII -- 10MB, PDF format)

Pope John XXIII was an appealing and well-nigh overwhelming proof of the papal claims.

In a few short years he demonstrated how a pope could be a basis of unity in the Christian Church and the source of its inspiration—without curbing liberty, without condemning, without dominating. He was literally a “servant of the servants of God.”

Protestants have joined Roman Catholics and the Orthodox today in emphasizing that Christ wants His Church to be one.

As they created a mechanism for promoting unity in the World Council of Churches they were tempted at times to draw back, for they feared they might be creating another papacy. This they imagined to be a monolithic organization, dominating everyone from on top, stifling local initiative and requiring submission and uniformity at all costs.

Much of what the Protestants feared in the papacy had nothing to do with the essence of the papal claims. It was rather the result of historical circumstances in the development of the papacy as a temporal power in Europe. And most of the objectionable features arose from the centralization of power in the Roman Curia that was a defensive measure against the break-up of unity brought on by the rise of nationalism and the Protestant Reformation.

We have entered a new phase in the history of the papacy. The loss of the Papal States, which appeared as a calamity in 1870, has proved to be an act of Divine Providence freeing the papacy from the very thing that had diminished its influence.

In 1870, when the temporal power of the papacy came to an end, the New York Herald Tribune sealed the tomb with this editorial comment: “The papacy has lived out its time. It has had the full thousand years of the life of a nation, a government, a system, and it must die.”

As so often happened in the course of the history of the Church, which is but the prolongation of the life of Christ, the Church rose again to life. One great pope succeeded another, so that we can say without contradiction that the popes of the last one hundred years, one after another, have been the greatest in the history of the Church.

Little by little, the trappings and impediments of temporal power have been purged from the papacy. It became a new and powerful influence during the reign of Pius XII.

But during the short reign of John XXIII it came closest, in our estimation, to what Christ wanted the papacy to be.

The whole world seems to be saying: this is what a pope ought to be.

We can only pray that the Cardinals of the Church, who will soon meet in conclave to elect his successor, have listened to the common voice of the world: “This is what a pope ought to be.”

May God inspire the coming conclave to give us another like him.


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