The Legacy of St. John XXIII

As the highly regarded Archbishop of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli certainly was a strong candidate for the office of pope. And following the 17-year reign of Pope Pius XII, which had been marked by much drama, an older man of modest personality seemed a good choice to many.

But there seems to be no question that the cardinals did not quite get what they expected for a pope after his election on Oct. 28, 1958.

From the very choice of a name — he was the first pope named John in more than 500 years — Pope St. John XXIII proved to be a surprising and inspiring leader. Though he was pope for fewer than five years, he made a big splash; and now, 51 years after his death, he will be canonized by Pope Francis. Two generations later, what is the legacy of John XXIII?

Vatican II

Pope St. John XXIII is pictured in the Vatican Gardens with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the background in this undated photo. Pope John XXIII’s most lasting achievement has been the convening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. CNS photo

Certainly his most prominent and enduring legacy is the Second Vatican Council and its many long-standing achievements. Expected to be a “caretaker pope,” Pope John announced less than three months into his pontificate that he would convene the 21st ecumenical council in the history of the Church.

In fact, John’s predecessors, Pius XI and Pius XII, had given serious consideration to calling a council, said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian. “But they never managed to do it,” he said in a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor. Faggioli is author of the new biography “John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy” (Liturgical Press, $12.95).

The council was in some ways the culmination of developments that had been going on somewhat quietly within the Church for the previous century or more.

Progress in the study of liturgy, Church history, Scripture and even science bore fruit during the council’s 1962-65 gatherings. What resulted were major shifts in the liturgy, theology and Church life that continue to affect Catholic life today. These included a dramatic reform of the Mass and other sacraments, a widespread new interest in Scripture study, a keen concern for dialogue toward unity with other Christian communities and an unprecedented support by the Church of religious freedom for all people.

The council, Faggioli said, “was the most important Christian event of the 20th century.” Half a century later, many believe the reception of Vatican II and its effects upon the Church has only just begun to be seen.

Pastoral style

One of the most distinctive aspects of Pope John’s ministry, without which Vatican II might never have happened, was his strikingly new style with which he went about his teaching and leadership of the Church. Pope John eschewed the harsh and dour demeanor that had often marked his predecessor, Pius XII, and other leaders.

His work was marked by an openness to the positive aspects of modern society and an optimism about people and circumstances. He was convinced that condemning errors was less effective in the proclamation of the Gospel than dispensing what he called “the medicine of mercy.”

Faggioli suggests that it was this distinctive style of ministry that resulted in the council itself. “One of the key convictions of Pope John that led to his calling the Second Vatican Council was the pastoral nature of Church doctrine,” Faggioli said. “He saw that doctrine is not a goal in itself; it is a tool for the spiritual health of the human person. The pope insisted as the council opened that ‘the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.’”

This engaging style offered a new model that was embraced by many priests and other Church leaders of the time and was warmly appreciated by many among their flocks. Since the election of Pope Francis just over a year ago, many have compared the new pope’s style to that of Pope John. “There is no denying that John XXIII is the pope that is the closest to Francis,” Faggioli said.

Human rights

One important legacy of Pope John is unfortunately recognized far less commonly among Catholics today. With the publication of his encyclical, Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), John XXIII set off what has been called a “human rights revolution” within the Catholic Church that continues to affect the Church’s work in society today.

Following the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which John played a key role in bringing to a peaceful resolution, the pope wanted to make a strong statement about peace in the modern world. That statement was Pacem in Terris, published in April 1963.

John chose to focus his teaching in that document on the topic of human rights, insisting that there could be no international peace without widespread recognition by governments of a long list of important rights.

These included the right to life, food, clothing, medical care, freedom of speech, freedom of worship and more. It was a remarkable statement that covered issues that previous popes had not focused on.

“Those teachings are rooted in the Gospel,” Faggioli said, “but they also receive substantial contributions from the Enlightenment and the age of the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th century. John XXIII was not afraid of updating Catholic teaching in this regard.”

With Pacem in Terris, Pope John paved the way for further important efforts on the part of his successor, Pope John Paul II, on behalf of human rights in the world.

Other Catholic leaders from around the globe, both clergy and laity, have taken cues from Pope John in ways that have brought about important developments in the respect for human rights in Poland, El Salvador, the Philippines, East Timor, South Africa and elsewhere.

Indeed, less than half a century after John officially recognized many of these rights for the very first time, the Catholic Church was widely recognized as the foremost defender of human rights on the planet.

This remarkable leader will now be recognized formally as a saint by the Church. More than four decades after his death, the legacy of Pope John XXIII remains strong and inspiring.

Barry Hudock is the author of “Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching” (Liguori, $16.99).