Tag Archives: Pope John XXIII

Good Pope John

JohnXXIIIFifty-five years ago today, on June 3, 1963, Pope John XXIII died. This rotund pope seemed more like an Italian peasant than the Pope of Rome. In fact, he saw himself as a shepherd.

Faced by many “prophets of gloom,” he called for a new ecumenical council, to open up the church to respond to the needs of the world. The Second Vatican Council convened in 1962 and continued after his death until 1965, bringing a renewed Church in contact with a world filled with pain and suffering.

Responding to the needs of all the world, Pope John wrote two important encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, facing the challenges of poverty and war. These were not mere social treatises, though some tried to dismiss them as such. They were reflections of his faith. As he wrote in Pacem in Terris, 164-165,

“Every believer in this world of ours must be a spark of light, a center of love, a vivifying leaven amidst [their] fellow human beings; and [they] will be this all the more perfectly [they] live in communion with God and in the intimacy of [their] soul[s].
“In fact, there can be no peace between human beings, unless there is peace within each of them, unless, that is, each one builds up within [themselves] the order wished by God.”

For him the church was called to be the leaven of God’s love in the world, not condemning but showing God’s loving mercy to all. As he said, “the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”

In this the poor were to have a central role. “The church is and desires to be the church of all, but principally the church of the poor.”

In many ways, I see Pope Francis as trying to live out the heritage of Saint John XXIII, opening the doors of mercy to all, especially the poor.

Saint John, pray for us.

Prophets of gloom

DSC01476I remember June 3, 1963, when the school bells tolled for the death of good Pope John.

Now Pope St. John XXIII is remembered as the pope who opened the windows of the Church, who opened the Church to go out into the world with the message of the Good News, who opened the Second Vatican Council, to the consternation of many in the Curia.

In his address to the bishops assembled at the council in October 1962, Pope John said

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen – much to our regret – to voices of person who, though burning with religious zeal, are not much endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin…. We feel we must disagree with these prophets of gloom. In the present order of things, divine providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by human effort and even beyond human expectation, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s highest and inscrutable design; and everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.

There are too many prophets of gloom these days. Too many see only the shortcomings of the world and of the Church. Too many want a Church aloof from the world.

I hear all too many people hear speak of the Church as being threatened by the world. I read of all too many in the US and beyond who fear the openness of Pope Francis.

Too many see only the evil, the dangers, the persecution.

I am not blind to the evil in the world. I read of the persecution of Christians in some lands – and I read of the exaggerated fears of Christians in the US. I see the violence of poverty and repression – and I read of those “Christians” who would deny the needs of the poor. I read of the billions spent by the US for its own military and for the militaries of many countries that only reinforce injustice – Honduras and Israel among them.

But I see the little signs of God’s Reign all around us. I see the strong words of Pope Francis against the evils of poverty and the devastation of nature. I see the people in many places standing up against violence and oppression.

I am beginning to trust in the Providence of God – but not as an excuse for evil and suffering. The Providence of God moves me to respond with love and hope, with the message that death and suffering do not have the final word, with the challenge that Pope John XXIII gave us from his deathbed:

 The moment has arrived when we must recognize the signs of the times, seize the opportunity, and look far ahead.

We must be people of vision, prophets of hope, challenging the evil, the injustice, and  the violence, with lives that show the world that something new is possible. We are not constrained by the past. We can participate in the New World that God is offering us.


The quotations from Pope John XXIII are taken from Robert Ellsberg’s  All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, a book I highly recommend. (Now in Kindle!)

A church of the poor

Pope Francis surprised many early in his first weeks as pope when he urged that the Church for “a poor church, a church for the poor.”

But his words should call us back to an earlier pope who called the Church to be a “church of the poor.”

Pope St. John XXIII came from humble origins.  He is reported to have said: “Born poor, but of honored and humble people, I am particularly proud to die poor.

A church of the poor identifies with the poor, identifies with their struggles, identifies with their hopes and their frustrations. It is a church walking with the poor.

It is good that the Church is a church “for” the poor, taking into account their needs and concerns.

But there is the danger that a church “for” the poor may look down at the poor with pity and think that is has the solutions for their plight.

That is a danger for all of us. Will we just do things for the poor or will we risk walking alongside them, sharing their struggles and their joys?

I recently read Lee Rainboth’s The Grinder: One Community’s Journey Through the Pain and Hope from the Great Haiti Earthquake,  his account of living in a Haitian community before, during, and after the 2010 earthquake.

What struck me was his willingness to be a part of the community, not someone trying to save it. But he did recognize that he did have an advantage that he could offer to the people – a chance to tell their stories which helped them move out of the desperation and paralysis that the earthquake provoked.

One way of putting this is that he enabled the people to recover – perhaps for the first time – their voice. He also helped them recover their sense of their power, partly by his art work with the people.

A church of the poor will not provide solutions for the poor; it will not throw money at projects, though it will share its resources in a way that enables all to work together.

Lee has a paragraph at the end of his book that I think might help us understand the challenges of being a church of the poor, not just for the poor.

Haiti had all the resources that it needed at its fingertips to recover on its own.   They could have rebuilt their own country.   They may have appreciated some advice on how to put all of the pieces together but now they’ll never know how.   A new country cannot be bought in the street, it must be rebuilt.   But because of all of the promises of what billions of dollars could buy, they’ve lost faith in those resources that they had and been shown that they have no value.   And that destruction of faith in one’s own self-worth, or collective worth as a country, is much more impossible to rebuild than buildings made of cement.


If you want to buy Lee’s book, buy the paperback. The Kindle edition does not have the art work!

Full disclosure: I know Lee and met him once in Ames, Iowa.

Bling bishops and a poor church

There was no needy person among them.
Acts 4:34 

 Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles 4: 32-37 is a challenge to the church that appears beyond our reach. Yet Pope Francis has called for “a poor Church and a Church for the poor.”

Pope Francis has given us an example of how this might be lived out – in his austerity as well as in his tender outreach to the poor and the marginalized.

But the challenge is not just to give to the poor, to live simply, and to tenderly embrace the marginalized. All these are important and essential to live out our calling as disciples of the Jesus.

But there may be more.

Pope Saint John XXIII called for a church of the poor – not only for the poor. I think that means that we should be a church that makes the causes of the poor our causes, not doing things for them, but working with them.

This may mean major changes.

Pope St. John Paul II, in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – On Social Concern – challenged the church to be really with the poor. In paragraph 31, he wrote

…part of the teaching and most ancient practice of the Church is her conviction that she is obliged by her vocation – she herself, her ministers and each of her members – to relieve the misery of the suffering, both far and near, not only out of her “abundance” but also out of her “necessities.” Faced by cases of need, one cannot ignore them in favor of superfluous church ornaments and costly furnishings for divine worship; on the contrary it could be obligatory to sell these goods in order to provide food, drink, clothing and shelter for those who lack these things. As has been already noted, here we are shown a “hierarchy of values” – in the framework of the right to property – between “having” and “being,” especially when the “having” of a few can be to the detriment of the “being” of many others.

This is not a new concern – but one that finds echo in the lives and words of many saints. Today’s saint, Catherine of Siena, was one of these. A mystic who was called out of her mysticism to care for the poor and then to reform the church, Catherine was scandalized by the luxury of the bling bishops and clergy of her day. As she wrote on the bishops and the clergy of her day:

They ought to be mirrors of freely chosen poverty, humble lambs, giving away the Church’s possessions to the poor. Yet here they are, living in worldly luxury and ambition and pretentious vanity, a thousand times worse than if they belonged to the world! In fact, many laypersons put them to shame by their good and holy lives.

Catherine could say this without hypocrisy for she lived a simple life, in deep communion with Christ. She loved the Church but wanted the Church to be faithful to Christ.

The challenge is not only for the institutional church but for all of us.

It may come back to the reading from the Acts of the Apostles: Do we share our possessions and are there really no poor among us?


Good Pope John

“Every day is a good day to be born. Every day is a good day to die.”

So wrote, Pope John XXIII, who died on June 3, 1963.

Elected as a transition pope, this rolly-polly man, born of peasants, changed the Church, opening windows, as he said, to allow the Spirit to blow freely. As pope he visited prisons in Rome and wrote encyclicals on social justice and peace. He spoke with rulers on both sides of the Iron Curtain of the day, Communists and capitalists. With a very traditional piety, he let the Spirit of Jesus guide his life and guide the Church.

He was truly “good” Pope John.