by Archbishop Emeritus James Patrick Keleher
I will never forget this marvelous man elected pope in 1958 — the year Pius XII died. It happened to be the year I was ordained a priest and began further studies at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. This smiling new pope caught the attention of the world much as our present pope has done. There was no way you couldn’t like this jolly new pontiff.
He had been an important Vatican ambassador assigned to tough posts by Pope Pius. Among some of the places that Archbishop Roncalli would assume a post as the pope’s chief legate were many trouble spots behind the Iron Curtain. One of these included an assignment to Albania. Indeed, it was there in Mother Teresa’s birthplace where she first came to know him and love him.
It is there where he even won the hearts of Communist hardliners. I recall a picture of him taken at that occasion. I will never forget. He is smiling widely, looking quite robust, and holding a wine glass for a toast. I have often thought that it may have been about this picture that he would say later in his life: “God knew from all eternity that I would be pope. He had 80 years to work on me. Don’t you think he could have made me a little more photogenic?” After finishing his duties as nuncio, Pope Pius appointed him the patriarch of Venice.
The new pope, John XXIII, wasn’t in office but a short time when he made an astounding announcement. He made it clear that he intended to call all the bishops of the world to an ecumenical council. It was 100 years since the church had had a council. The truth is that no one really thought that there would ever be another one. The logistics seemed overwhelming.
In the 1960s, due to missionary activity, there was an increasing number of new churches and bishops; a significant number of theological advisers would be required for such an event; invitations would have to also include the many leaders of different faiths; and the all-important linguistic and audio capacities would be very challenging. Where could the Holy See accommodate such a large body of dignitaries? One further challenge would be how to include the bishops behind the vast Iron Curtain that at that time separated the East and West of Catholic Europe.
Undaunted by the challenges, John XXIII went ahead with the project. He saw the new challenges facing the church. He wanted to equip the faithful to face them head-on. He wanted to clarify for us the very nature of the church; he knew it was time to reach out to other faiths to come home to the church; he sought to point out the challenges that the new age presented to the faithful as we entered into a new era of mass communications and the ever-present need to work for peace, especially in light of the weapons of mass destruction that were becoming available. He sought to bring us ever closer to the gift of the Eucharist in the treasure of the Mass. And he wanted to see religious freedom for all people respected throughout the world.
He lived to see it all happen in grand style in St. Peter’s Basilica; he would preside over the first year of his council before the Lord called him home.
Later, some people would say that the council brought changes to traditional Catholicism. But the truth was that the world was already in a state of dramatic change. The fact is that the council equipped us to embrace our faith in the face of those changes. Fifty years later, we are rediscovering the wisdom that the Holy Spirit shed upon our church and the world.
John’s statement 50 years ago turned out to be most accurate: “The Council now beginning rises in the Church like the daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light.”