It seemed good to the cardinals and to the Holy Spirit to elect someone who would be a good, convenient, transitional Pope, a harmless old man, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. The Cardinals were right on one of them.
In taking the name John, Roncalli joked that not many of that name occupied the chair of Peter for very long. He was 77 and died at the age of 83. On the second count, harmless he was not as he would demonstrate before very long.
From his ordination as a priest in 1904 until his death as Pope John XXIII in 1963, Angelo Roncalli experienced a life of extraordinary service, as parish priest, seminary educator, assistant to his bishop, work in the Curia, Vatican diplomat from 1925 to post WWII and finally as Cardinal Patriarch of Venice.
Roncalli’s motto was Obedientia et Pax. Obedience was not simple docility but an active listening and service to truth. Peace, for him, was the fruit born of unity in essentials and harmony in difference. By the 50s the world and Christianity were beset with pressing questions in search of real answers. answers, an observer remarks, are a mechanism for avoiding questions!
John XXIII convened Vatican II as a pastoral Council, an ecumenical assembly of broad representation. He invited the Church to ask the tough questions, to examine itself with honesty and courage, to re-imagine and re express itself in the modern world; to re-enflesh the mystery of Christ and his Gospel with renewed evangelical vigour. In a sense, the Pope was putting the Church on notice that its credibility would stand or fall on these. This was not welcomed by everyone.
A resistant Curia went to enormous lengths to promote its own predetermined, entrenched and self interested agenda. When, for example, John insisted on inviting Protestant observers, Cardinal Ottaviani complained that they were heretics and in league with the devil! John’s response was that they should be recognised as separated brethren and separated angels.
But the Pope called for more than minor adjustments in attitude. He wanted Catholics to rethink, re-imagine and re-express the faith in ways which would be more readily comprehensible to modern humanity.
The vision and legacy of Vatican II involved the re-Inspiration of the Tradition and attention to the movement of the Spirit over ecclesiastical stasis and stagnation. The priority of the Council was to ensure that the Incarnation and the Kingdom of God were not compromised by the creations of a lesser, self interested ‘deity.’
A CathNews blog in April stresses that these concerns continue to be of enduring and critical importance. As a commenter pointed out, the Church is not an end in itself but the servant of Christ and the Gospel. There are clear and evident signs that this image of the Church as the living incarnation and presence of Christ in the world is being inverted. I think this distortion started in earnest and quite consciously so over thirty years ago.
While John Paul II spent most of his pontificate on the road being the great communicator between the Church and the World, he demonstrated little interest in administration. The Curia increasingly set in place policies to reestablish Vatican centralism, to dis-empower national episcopal conferences, effectively to muffle the voice of the laity, to extend the power and control of Vatican departments and to mask all of this by promoting the celebrity cult of the papal personality.
Much of this has been accomplished by stealth, by the gradual affirmation of now three sources of divine Revelation: Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium – increasingly appropriated conveniently by the Curia!
The last of these is really what many call creeping infallibility. At core, it is largely about centralised bureaucratic power and control. This has resulted in episcopal collegiality and authority being eroded, compromised and devalued globally.
Bishops seem to have become alienated from one another and lost their collective nerve and confidence. They have been domesticated and reduced to Confucian compliance. There is, as well, little evident respect for or regard given to the legitimate Sense of the Faithful across Church life.
Catholic laity in their millions over the past thirty years, long rendered voiceless and ignored, have taken a walk, maybe for ever! Sadly, I think, the Curial underlings, the managerial class, really don’t care a damn! What a paradox that these people are, in reality, sine cura – care free!
This kind of contempt for God’s People leads to inertia, despondency, loss of Spirit and connectedness with what it’s all about, faith in Jesus Christ and the power of his Gospel. John XXIII’s garden is re-morphing into a museum. The Church is badly, almost terminally, divided and in rapid decline right now especially in the West.
It’s about time we invoked the historian’s fifty year criterion and do a serious reassessment of where we are. We need the re-Inspiration of the Tradition again and urgently ask of it some 21st Century questions. At our peril we might ignore the counsel of Bernard Lonergan SJ: “Bad insight leads to bad policy which in turn leads to worse insight which then leads to worse policy until change becomes the preserve of the violent.” (Insight, 1957).
Maybe that ‘Harmless old Man’ long, long time ago read about Jesus saying something like this about people taking the Kingdom by force! (Mt 11: 12-15)
David Timbs blogs from Albion, Victoria.
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