Then the head man of the institution died and they were looking about for a new leader when someone said ‘let’s find a man who will cause no problems and hold the fort for a few years til we figure out who is right for the job.’
Good idea, but the wee man they picked blew the whole institution apart.
If you have not guessed by now that the wee man I am talking about is one Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, aka, John XXIII then you are not coming up to sixty or above, because all of us who were alive at the time of the second Vatican Council know the story well.
This past weekend we had the creation of two new saints, John XXIII and John Paul II, aka, John Paul the Great. Let us look a little more at the history of these two men and the office they held.
John XXIII was a very holy man. A diplomat for the Vatican all through World War II, the people of Greece revere him for the work that he did in keeping them fed during the German occupation.
John followed Pope Pius XII, the last of the austere, aloof popes who stayed locked in the Vatican. John knew the church could not go on ignoring the huge scientific and social changes taking place in the world. But there is something else that Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli realized the church had to face up to and it is often forgotten about when we speak of Vatican II.
The common perception has arisen that the second Vatican council was only about modernising the church; this is not the case.
During 1939-1945 he was a diplomat for the Vatican working in various conflict zones trying to keep the lines of communication open between the warring factions. He saw the full horrors of war and the devastation caused when mankind turns in on itself.
Europe was supposedly a Christian continent and although there were various factions of Catholic and Protestant countries they were still followers of Christ. How could such a war happen?
That is why Vatican II addressed none of the big theological issues of the day: it was not supposed too. The problem for Vatican II was ‘why is the Christian message not getting through to the people, how have we finished in such a state that Europe is largely ruled by Communists and Christianity is on the wane?’
The conclusion that John and the other Fathers of the Church came to between 1962 and 1965, was that the Church had to go out into the world and bring the message of Jesus into the heart of society. There could be no doubt that it was needed.
For many Catholics, Vatican II was a disaster; it took away all the old certainties. Before the council everyone knew what was right and what was wrong, there were rules and regulations for everything. Now a whole new spirit of seeming liberation blew through the Church; happy days lay ahead.
What we have lived through, those of us born in the fifties, is the new Church settling down after the fresh and exciting dawn, and finding its place in the modern world.
We are the people who have experienced the transition period: the era of the church is dawning.
After the work of the council had been completed and the new spirit of liberation had flown through the corridors of power, there came the very serious question of what kind of new world the Church was now part off and what the response of the church should be to this world.
Enter Karol Józef Wojtyła, archbishop of Cracow, and the first non Italian pope for several hundred years.
Humanae Vitae was the church document that came out against contraception and for which Paul VI was attacked and reviled. Yet everything that Paul predicted, that contraception would lead to the degrading of women, the breakdown of marriage and the rise in abortion, have all come to pass.
However, it was John Paul the Great, who really understood the significance of what was going on in the world.
Like John XXIII, Karol Józef Wojtyła, had lived through the second world war and under communism in Poland, and he knew a thing about man’s inhumanity to man. He was under no illusions about what Europe had become.
The expression, “culture of death,” was coined by Pope John Paul II to describe the prevailing violence against human life in our day.
The German philosopher Nietzsche had said in the late 1800s that man had the right to impose his will by force on others. Nietzsche was the great father of Nazism.
Lenin in Russia had called for revolution from the barrel of the gun and Communism gave rise to the most murderous regimes the world has ever seen. Chairman Mao killed at least 100 million of his countrymen in the name of progress.
Coupled with the huge rise in abortion and euthanasia, these problems reflected forcefully that mankind had embraced a culture of killing anything that causes us the slightest problem. John Paul had the foresight to see where all this was leading.
Throughout the ages the intellectual thought of the Catholic Church had been summarised by two great men, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas; these men and their writings were the basic cornerstones on which Catholic thought was based.
They actually wrote very little that was new but they both had the ability to write down in an orderly way what the teaching of the church was on many subjects.
Shortly after he was elevated to the Papacy, John Paul began a series of Wednesday Papal Audience lectures, 129 in total, which laid down a whole new understanding of the person and the dignity of mankind. These lectures became known as the Theology of the Body.
John Paul the Great began by asking a question, “What is the final destiny of the human person?”
The answer as we all know from the Penny Catechism, questions 1 and 2, is:
1. Who made you?
God made me.
2. Why did God make you?
God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.
John Paul believed that any person made to be with God was entitled to human dignity. It does not matter whether they are rich or poor, black or white, in the womb or out of the womb, old or young; from the moment of conception a human being has an innate dignity and life can never be taken away from that person.
Compare that to the teaching of our modern secular world: children are a burden; the elderly should know they are not wanted and should have the manners to die, the starving are an embarrassment and if we don’t mention them they shall go away.
Throughout his 129 talks John Paul revealed his Theology of the Body, a mighty work equalling anything written by Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. From having two great pillars of wisdom upon which to stand the church now had three.
In his great work John Paul laid down the church’s theological answer to the Culture of Death.
We have been blessed in our age by having a succession of good popes. In the middle ages some of them were of a rather questionable character!
After John Paul the Great we had Pope Benedict, who is still alive and retired somewhere in Rome.
Benedict was also a very important pope. While John Paul gave the Church’s theological answer to the Culture of Death, Benedict came along and provided the philosophic answer of the Church. Both are equally important; one is God’s answer as revealed in scripture the other is the answer of human reason enlightened by revelation.
In a thousand years the world shall look back and wonder how we did not listen to these two brilliant men, what they wrote and what they said. With the gift of hindsight these people shall be able to see the damage that shall be done in the next couple of centuries by secularists!
Benedict is still alive so they can’t make him a saint just yet.
This brings us to the present Pope, dear Francis whom the world loves.
The task given to Francis by the Holy Spirit appears to be to bring the pastoral answer of the Church into the modern world. His purpose, and who can say that he is not brilliant at his task, is to show the loving kindness of Jesus to the world.
The concern of Francis for the poor and marginalised has shone out from him from the moment he was elected. His humility and charm and obvious goodness strikes deep into the heart of everyone.
And so we come to the events of last weekend. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed reading the secular press and how they tried to rationalize everything from a secular point of view.
The whole difference in the manner the secular media sees these events and the understanding of Christians arises out of the different ways we see the world.
For the secularist the Church is just another political institution which has people jockeying for position, factions and interested parties; it is the same as Stormont or Westminster.
Indeed, for the Christian, the Vatican is all this, but is also vastly more than this. All these human aspects come simply form the fact that the church is made up of human beings. Men and women are always on the lookout for their own vested interests.
But the Church is vastly more than this; the Church is in herself a mystery, the mystery of God’s presence on earth. If you cannot understand and see the Church as God present in some strange way on earth then the making of saints and the writings of popes shall never make sense to you.
John XXIII and John Paul II have been made saints: the Church has said that these two men are now in heaven and it is ‘de fide’ that in matters such as proclaiming saints that the Church cannot err.
What does this mean?
It means that all those people who criticise John Paul for his stance on abortion, euthanasia, women priests, homosexuality and anything else of a theological nature have now to accept that they are wrong.
Had John Paul been in error on any of his teachings the Church would not have made him a saint, and the Church speaking with the authority of Christ, has solemnly said that all his teachings are correct.
To those who criticise John Paul we have only to say, “The Church made him a saint.”
The poor old secularist hates this because for him everyone can say and do what they like and no one can criticise them. Their view of the world is that every person is their own wee god making up their own morality: if it is alright for me then I can do it.
John Paul in particular attacks this attitude head on. He says that God is the final end of humanity and as such God’s teaching and will have to be taken into consideration: life begins with conception and ends in natural death; marriage is between a man and a woman and no amount of wishy washy liberal thinking can change that.
You may or may not agree with this, the choice is yours. But when you say that John Paul is a fool for his beliefs you have to remember that the Church has now said that he is a saint and that his teachings are correct.
So if you think John Paul is wrong, remember it is not me you have to convince, it is not even John Paul or the Church that you have to convince; it will be Jesus himself when you meet him.
The elevation of two men to sainthood is not just a social event or a day out for the Pope. It is the Church, with the full authority of Christ behind it, saying that these two men are in heaven, their lives were holy and what they taught was correct and their faith life enhancing.
Can you imagine anyone saying that about Hitler or Stalin or even Marie Stopes and those who promote her clinic in Belfast?
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N.B. In this article I have referred to John Paul II as a theologian and Benedict as a philosopher. In actual fact John Paul was trained as a philosopher and Benedict as a theologian. However, in those works which I am thinking about when writing this article they have reversed their roles.
In Catholic writings this interchange between philosophy and theology is quite common.