Friday, October 10, 2008

"Il Buon Papa"

In a year chock-full of milestones of the modern papacy, as yesterday marked a half-century since the death of Pius XII, this month likewise sees the golden anniversary of the election of Bl John XXIII.

The latter falls on the 28th, but most of the celebration of the still-beloved "Good Pope" -- once termed (only half-jokingly) a member of the Italian "Holy Trinity" along with God and Padre Pio -- will focus instead on tomorrow's dual observance of the anniversary of the 1962 opening of Vatican II and the feast of Papa Roncalli, who was beatified in 2000. Joined by the Synod Fathers, the late pontiff's successor as patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Scola, will lead a morning Mass in St Peter's to mark the day. (In keeping with the practice of beatification as local veneration, the memorial is proper to Italy's liturgical calendar alone.)

Live from the Aula, in advance of the anniversaries the Synod's English-language press officer, Basilian Fr Tom Rosica, devotes today's Rome Diary to the memory and legacy of "a real patriarch":
Each time I visit the basilica, I try to pray before the Popes of my own lifetime -- Papa Roncalli, Montini, Luciani, and now Wojtyla. This morning I snuck over to St. Peter's Basilica before our synod session and before the arrival of the multitudes of pilgrims and tourists, to pray before the body of Blessed John XXIII now reposing under a side altar of the main basilica. He left his crypt burial place shortly before his beatification in 2000. His new resting place still draws huge crowds every day.

Several years ago I had signed up to celebrate Mass at the resting place and altar of Blessed John XXIII. A few of our young staff from Salt and Light Television were with me. When we arrived for the celebration, the young Italian priest who preceded me at the altar had already gone "overtime." The priest had a group of young adults with him and they were peering into the glass casket holding the remains of Papa Giovanni. It was annoying to watch them take their blessed time, meaning we would have less time at the altar! We waited patiently, knowing that our group would only have 25 minutes to celebrate this Mass.
As the Italian priest left the altar, he walked over to me and apologized for being late. He then said something that sounded odd. "Sorry Padre, but we don't get to come here often and my cousins and I wanted to just be close to 'zio' for a while!" I remember thinking how strange that sounded -- this guy tried to make up for his tardiness by claiming to be family of Blessed Papa Giovanni!

We went on with our own celebration and it had to be the fastest Mass I ever celebrated. Guards reminded us that we had to be out of there in 23 minutes. When we returned to the papal sacristy and unvested, I signed the register and noticed that just above my name was the signature of a priest named "Giovanni Roncalli." I asked the guardian if this was true. "Certo," he said. Padre Giovanni is the great-nephew of "il buon Papa" and he is in charge of youth ministry in Bergamo!

As time moves forward, today's younger generations really don't know this good and great Pope. I also realized during this synod that for many of the younger bishops present, John XXIII is a name in a history book. Oct. 11, his feast day, is a good opportunity to evoke his memory and legend that still brings smiles to so many people. One of the older "uscieri" in St. Peter's Basilica summed it up very well: "It is as though we never said good bye. Papa Giovanni will always be with us."...

In his opening address on Oct. 11, 1962, at the beginning of the Vatican Council, Pope John said, "In the every day exercise of our pastoral ministry, greatly to our sorrow we sometimes have to listen to those who, although consumed with zeal, do not have very much judgment or balance. To them the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruination. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages and they go on as though they had learned nothing from history -- and yet history is the great teacher of life.

"They behave as though the first five centuries saw a complete vindication of the Christian idea and the Christian cause, and as though religious liberty was never put in jeopardy in the past. We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of misfortune who are forever forecasting calamity -- as though the end of the world is imminent. Our task is not merely to hoard this precious treasure of doctrine, as though obsessed with the past, but to give ourselves eagerly and without fear to the task that this present age demands of us -- and in doing so we will be faithful to what the Church has done in the past 20 centuries."

Pope John thought the Council would conclude within months, but instead he was to die before its second session. When he died on June 3, 1963, he had won the widespread affection of Christian and non-Christian alike. "Papa Giovanni," as he was called, endeared himself to millions of people throughout the world.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was a human being, more concerned with his faithfulness than his image, more concerned with those around him than with his own desires. With an infectious warmth and vision, he stressed the relevance of the Church in a rapidly changing society and made the Church's deepest truths stand out in the modern world.

On the night of Oct. 11, 1962, the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Papa Giovanni appeared at his window in answer to the chanting and singing below from a crowd estimated at half a million people assembled in St. Peter's square. Many were young people who came in procession with candles and singing.

His impromptu window speech that night is now part of Rome's legends. In a high pitched voice: "Carissimi giovani, carissimi giovani, Dear children, I hear your voice." In the simplest language, he told them about his hopes for the Council. He pointed out that the moon, up there, was observing the spectacle. "My voice is an isolated one," he said, "but it echoes the voice of the whole world. Here, in effect, the whole world is represented." He concluded: "Tornando a casa ... As you return to your homes, give your little children a kiss -- tell them it is from Pope John." The emotion was palpable. The "patriarch" who was bearing the burden of age and sickness, gave and generated love with all his being.
...and from the storehouse, video of the Council's opening day and the famous "Moonlight Talk":