“The whole world is my family.” – Pope John XXIII (Nov. 1881 – June 1963)

When I think of Vatican II, I most often in a selfish manner think: bad music and bad architecture. Those that know my preferences in religious practice know that I cannot stand contemporary churches and I also cannot suffer the God-awful music that I am subjected to often during modern masses.

When it comes to my personal meditation, I, for whatever purposes they serve, require my place of worship to resemble some piece of living art. I know many think otherwise. There are people that feel okay that their houses of God are plastered with the forsaken repulsiveness of wood paneling. Neo-church design is an abomination not to God alone, but to humanity as well. Ugliness never translates to heightened piety.

The music used often in mass now no longer resembles the magnificence of Gregorian chant. Church choirs are packed full like a pickle-jar with crooners, not singers. As a musician, I respect and understand how music can carry one to other states of mind. I rely on this in conjunction with religious art to move me beyond my human self into a state-of-mind that resides somewhere out of the sphere of the rational. When an awful choir shatters the peace and the meditation, it’s something much like losing the moment while intimacy ensues. Sort of like when a cell phone rings during a heated moment of passion. It’s no good. Take for example my visit to St. Agnes a few weeks ago for Palm Sunday Mass. The pianist/organist managed to call into service some sort of synthesizer that she insisted on using during the responsorial psalms. During the response, she would kick that sucker into high gear to make these unbelievably strange, mystical, new-agey sounds to wash into the next psalm recitation. I felt like I was present during an oddly eccentric 1970′s Rush concert being held in a small church. It was truly one of the most terrible examples of sacred music I’ve been unlucky enough to endure.

My simplistic view of these modern changes, though, hides the true value of Vatican II’s push to the future. The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican was intended to be more than just an impetus for change in the physical Church. The purpose for Vatican II was to change a church that had become stale. The Catholic Church had lost its focus after so many years of papacies of power instead of papacies of progress. While being heavily vested in the political power struggles in Europe that stretched over hundreds of years, the simple ideas that Jesus taught as the revolutionary rabbi that he was were thrown into the fire. The Beatitudes were traded in for land, money, greed, and war. The man who heroically made the fateful leap to right these wrongs was Cardinal Giuseppe Roncalli, otherwise known as Pope John XXIII.

Pope John XXIIIRecently, I was fortunate enough to become privy to a book written by Thomas Cahill simply entitled Pope John XXIII. My eyes were opened wide to a Pope that actually performed the work of an Apostle of Christ. Pope John XXIII had shattered the mold of so many preceding popes by simply understanding mortal humanity and being human in his every day life. His focus was not on the papacy itself and the accoutrements, but the work that the Papacy could put into motion to help the poor, welcome the cast-aside and neglected – no matter whether they were Christian or not. John XXXIII opened his arms to everyone and welcomed the pluralism of the world and the distinct richness it gives to each human individual. I found the stories of his ambassadorship to be remarkable, if not beautiful, especially his meeting with Nikita Khrushchev’s daughter, Rada, and her husband. John, during their meeting, gave Rada, an avowed atheist, a rosary:

“because it reminds me of peace in the home and of my mother who used to say it by the fireside when I was a child.” Then he asked the couple to accept his blessing, not the blessing of a pope, which he knew they could not accept, just the blessing of an old man. They left smiling and in tears; and to this day Rada has kept the rosary and calls it “one of my most precious possessions.” (pg. 208)

From his frequent passegiata amongst the streets around the Vatican to his Christmas Eve visitation of children stricken by polio and a Christmas Day visit to a nearby prison (both in 1958) because, “Since they couldn’t come to see him…he came to see them.”(pg. 174), John touched many lives emotionally and spiritually. During John’s first Holy Week, he changed the antiquated and downright condescending and rude prayer, “Let us pray also for the faithless Jews” and “God, you do not exclude even the faithless Jews from your mercy. Hear our prayers, which we bring before you because of the blinding of that people…”(pg. 175) Having befriended many Jews in his lifetime and in understanding that humanity is God’s people, John changed the utterly embarrassing words to, “Let us pray also for the Jews to whom God first spoke. May he keep them in fidelity to his covenant and in the love of his Name, so that they may reach the goal to which his will wishes to lead them.”(pg. 175)

Interestingly enough, Thomas Cahill manages to cover John XXIII’s miraculous life as a pope only in the last third of the book. A portion is devoted to Giuseppe Roncalli’s life prior to becoming a priest and his ensuing priesthood. However, a sizable section of the book is actually devoted to a brief history of the papacy itself so that in light of some of the more suspect religious leaders the world has seen (namely anti-modernist, Pius X), John XXIII shines like a bright sun, not that Giovanni needed much help. There were several parts of the book that jarred my sense of proper Catholicism, as well. Pope Pius XII, known as the World War II pope, not only protected his own hide from the fascisti of Italy, but never once mentioned the atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust. Not once did he acknowledge nor condemn the actions of the Nazis in eradicating so many millions of Jewish people (not to mention fellow Catholics, as well). This was astounding to me. But then, the Catholic Church does have the burden of divesting itself of a rather violent history of its own. That aside, prudence would dictate some sort of acknowledgment of the most horrific mass murder the world has yet to see.

Although John’s plethora of good attributes surely added to his nature, Cahill mentions twice in the book certain allusions to his personal relationships. In two clear instances and perhaps several less outright, Thomas Cahill infers that John XXIII was a homosexual, having had loving relationships with men first in his early years as a priest and then in his later years as candidate for pope and, quite possibly, as the Pontiff. Nothing is said of outright sexual relations, primarily because there probably were none as faithful as John was to the Catholic tradition. He did, though, love certain men with great affection in his lifetime which serves to illuminate his comfort with humanity. Pope John XXIII fought for every man and woman’s intrinsic dignity as human beings whether they believed in Christianity or even the idea of God or not because in his eyes, in accordance with what he believed, God set forth humanity and with what Jesus taught, the human was given birth to love one another unconditionally.

As the Second Vatican Council convened, Pope John XXIII began to visibly suffer from the same disease that had struck others in his family: stomach cancer. But, before his passing, John set into motion such a tidal wave of reformist ideas that the church would never be the same when Vatican II ended after his death. His more liberal leanings (such as the allowance for married and female clergy) were never realized, but the Church did indeed change.

There are many who look at Pope John XXIII as the anti-pope because he did not adhere to the conservative, masculine, power-hungry models of papacy that so many times had existed during Christian history. He dared to walk among the gardeners and the day-laborers in the Vatican and tell the men to not address him as “Your eminence.” John understood the reasoning behind reaching out to people in other parts of the world (which Pope John Paul II did with amazing skill) as he did to people in the parts of Rome surrounding Vatican City. Pope John XXIII was a man who dared to live as Jesus Christ wanted his brothers and sisters to live: devoid of judgment and brimming with love.

The changes brought about by Vatican II were meant, initially, to reform the Church as a body. They were intended to bring about great change and force the Catholic Church to progress. In many ways the changes never took hold. Whether it was (is) because Vatican II and John XXIII’s ideas were not fully understood and, in turn, not realized or because of the strong push of conservative Catholicism, progression remains elusive in the Church. It is sad when the only noticeable changes in the Church aside the from order of mass, is the modernization of the music and architecture. If John’s vision had been truly realized, women would be priests, marriage would be allowed amongst clergy, and our fellow humans in all their vivid colors and shapes would share the pews with the rest of us.

Following is my favorite paragraph from the book. I think it exhibits exactly Pope John XXIII’s true nature and ceaseless love as well as his legacy:

That night (the eve of Vatican II), fifty thousand people squeezed into Saint Peter’s Square, singing and cheering and coaxing the tired old man to appear at his window, which of course, he did. “Dear children, dear children, I hear your voices.” He pointed out the moon, which hung large overhead and which, he said, was watching them happily. From the moon Earth could be seen as a unity, as the one household it really was. “My voice is an isolated one, but it echoes the voice of the whole world. Here, in effect, the whole world is represented.” John had become not only Father of the World, but, in his own mind, Ombudsman for Planet Earth. He told them to go home, where they belonged, “and give your children a caress. Tell them it is la carezza del Papa” (the caress of the Pope). Many did just that; and to this day in Italy children who received that caress on that night felt entitled to pass on to their children, and they in turn to theirs, la carezza di Papa Giovanni.(pg. 203)