VATICAN CITY — “You will encounter traffic when you exit to the crypt.” The young and very bright preceptor warned as we left the underground tomb of the first pope and entered the crypt of St. Peter’s, where most of the popes are buried. We were almost swept away by a crowd of Polish pilgrims, singing loudly (and on key) as they marched to the tomb of John Paul II. He is their great folk hero, and their enthusiasm is justified.
Yet I wonder about the other great pope of the end of the 20th century — Blessed John XXIII. He has been beatified but no one seems greatly concerned about his canonization. Yet in fact, the church has never in recent centuries had a leader who attracted so much positive attention to the church. There are people crowded around his tomb in the Aula of St. Peter’s. Some of us are not too old to remember either the revolution he created by summoning the Second Vatican Council or the impact of his style on the whole world and on the Catholic world.
Pope John was a reforming pope — as every pope should be under the dictum Ecclesia Semper Reformanda (“the Church must always be reformed”). The unchanging church could in fact change, fresh winds blew through the arid dicasteries of the Vatican Palace. The church was not afraid of anyone or anything. The pope could dialogue with anyone. He could reopen any question. He could listen to any proposal. He tugged the Council out of the hands of the curia and gave it to the bishops of the world.
It was the most dramatic Catholic era in 1,000 years. We were young and alive, and the church was also young and alive. This old man, filled with the vitality of faith and hope had turned the Church upside down and inside out. Under “Good Pope John” it was impossible to be anti-Catholic.
It was all too good to be true.
One would have thought that he had established a model for a religious leader of all the world — “A hopeful Holy Man who smiles,” I had written. A few more popes like that, popes filled with the hope and love of the Gospel, and the pope would have become de facto the most important religious figure on the planet. Yet he had terrified the men who would succeed him and those who would elect such successors, good men, pious men, sincere men. Nervous men.
The pope is not an actor, not a comedian, not a joker. He was vicar of Christ, the heir of Peter the fisherman. He had to be serious. He had to defend the deposit of faith from those who were attacking it. Pope John had almost ruined the Church, many of the curialists were whispering. It was time to restore order, clean up the mess and protect the church from those who took Pope John’s Council seriously.
As the years went on it became necessary to double-think what the Council had accomplished — it was more about continuity than about change. It was not a reformation. The church would creep back into its suspicions of the world and become hostile and defensive. You could not fight off those who were opponents of the Church’s “teachings about life” by laughter and a ready smile.
Some of the more recently ordained priests claim that they are not Vatican II priests but John Paul priests, a position which, taken seriously, is close to heresy.
The Tablet, an English Catholic publication, said that John Paul II had “aborted the reform.” Both popes were saints, one was correct about the “signs of the times” and the other not. The Church still needs reform. Desperately. More than ever.