John XXIII, Old and New

John XXIII Vatican IIToday we keep the Memorial of Pope St. John XXIII, on the 59th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. [Click HERE for a little compendium of my homilies commemorating the 50th annversary.]

You may not know, dear reader, that Pope St. John was actually the second John XXIII to summon the world’s bishops to Rome for an ecumenical council. (You might not know this unless you have traveled through the cities of Tuscany and read all the historical markers in all the churches.)

Some background:

When Giuseppe Roncalli took the name John at the end of the conclave in 1958, he mentioned to a French Cardinal that he had chosen this name “in memory of France and in memory of John XXII who continued the history of the papacy in France” (We know about this private remark from Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography, John XXIII: Pope of the Council.)

The pope to which newly elected Pope John referred was: the pope who occupied the Chair of St. Peter from 1316 to 1334. John XXII did not occupy it, however, in Rome. He occupied it in the Provencal town of Avignon. John XXII was, in fact, the first pope to both get elected and die in Avignon.

Age of the Great Western Schism Clinton Locke

John XXII’s predecessor, Clement V, had moved the papacy from Rome to France. (More to come on the why and how of this, plus a thorough digest of our Catholic faith in the papacy, in a subsequent post.)

Pope John XXII gave us the prayer “Soul of Christ,” which I daily recite after Holy Communion. He also taught erroneously about the beatific vision (though not in a magisterial utterance), and he had to recant later in life. William of Ockham developed his skeptical philosophy largely because of Pope John XXII’s often wild statements.

But no one despised John XXII, and the money-grubbing papal bureaucracy in Avignon, more than the aging Dante Alighieri. In Paradiso XVIII, the poet wrote of the pope and his courtiers:

Watch, [o heaven of justice], wherefrom issues the smoke

that tarnishes thy ray, that once enkindled wrath

may come on the hucksters in the temple that was

raised and walled with miracles and martyrdom.

O host of Heaven I contemplate, be heard your prayers

to aid all those on earth, led on by bad example…

Thou who recordest but to obliterate [Pope John, who was forever excommunicating people, then lifting the excommunication],

consider that Peter and Paul, who died to save

the vineyard thou hast spoiled, are living yet.

Thou can’st well say, “So ardently do I crave

Florentine coins that I know not the Fisherman nor Paul.”

dante

More to come on the Avignon papacy. But to get to the first “John XXIII…”

You may not imagine that an old book called The Age of the Great Western Schism by a 19th-century Episcopalian churchman could be a can’t-put-it-down page-turner. But it is.

In 1376 the seventh Avignon pope, Gregory XI, finally departed France to return to the city consecrated by the blood of Saints Peter and Paul. He reached Rome in early 1377. After Gregory’s death soon thereafter, however, the Cardinals divided into two parties. (More later on why.) In 1378 two conclaves elected two popes. Urban VII reigned in Italy; Clement VII reigned in France.

Now you might thus surmise: The first John XXIII succeeded Clement; therefore not a real pope. Good guess. But the real history has more twists.

Two popes, each with a valid claim to legitimate election: the schism lasted for a generation. Finally Roman Pope Gregory XII and Avignon “Pope Benedict XIII” agreed to meet near Genoa, with both parties of Cardinals. Both popes promised to resign; then the conclave would choose one pope.

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Last month I found myself on the Ligurian coast, just south of where the meeting was supposed to have taken place. When the Roman pope did not arrive, the Avignon pope continued journeying south. He made it to La Spezia (where I changed trains). Meanwhile, Pope Gregory made it as far as Lucca (where I spent two lovely days.) Then Gregory balked. Didn’t have the heart to resign as promised.

At this point, the Christian world lost patience. Gregory’s Cardinals left him in Lucca and met up with some Avignon Cardinals in Pisa. They summoned an ecumenical council there, in the sublimely beautiful duomo with the famous leaning campanile.

Pisa duomo and tower

Yes, you read that correctly. The Cardinals, along with other churchman and reigning monarchs, summoned an ecumenical council, on their own authority. Christendom came together in 1409 (minus the two competing popes).

The Council Fathers enjoyed referring to Gregory not as Gregorius but as “Errorius” and to Benedict not as Benedictus but as “Benefictus,” in honor of his practice of selling benefices, or church offices, for cash.

The Council of Pisa condemned and deposed both. Then the Fathers chose another pope, who took the name Alexander V. (Now the world had three popes.) Alexander soon died. His successor: John XXIII.

This 15th-century Pope John attempted to hold an ecumenical council in Rome, just like the 20th-century Pope John ultimately would. But Pisan-pope John XXIII’s effort failed abysmally; hardly anyone came. Then the emperor of Germany convinced him to summon a council north of the Alps.

The Council met in Constance, accepted the resignations of both Gregory XII and “John XXIII,” deposed “Benedict XIII,” and elected Pope Martin V, who then returned the papacy to Rome. He lies now in the confessio of the papal cathedral, the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

st john lateran painting

Now, I hold unflinchingly to our Catholic faith in the papacy. (As I mentioned, I will delve into that soon.) That Catholic faith in the divinely instituted office of the Successor of St. Peter stipulates: an ecumenical council can only be convoked by the pope, or at least with the explicit permission of the pope.

We faithful Catholics have to acknowledge, however: Were it not for the Council of Pisa–manifestly not convoked by any pope–we might not know for sure who the pope is.

Yes, it’s true: the Lord in His Providence could have solved the problem of the Western Schism in some other way. Other, that is, than the Council of Pisa choosing a pope, who then had “John XXIII” for a successor, who then called the Council of Constance, which then gave us the indubitable Pope Martin V. The Lord could have saved the day by some other design, some course of events that did not include Cardinals and other senior churchmen calling a Council without a pope.

But the fact is that it happened the way it happened. Which explains why the Council of Pisa in 1409 is found neither on the list of official Catholic Ecumenical Councils nor on the list of condemned, not-real Councils.

Rise and Walk

John XXIII Vatican II

We keep a Memorial of Pope St. John XXIII today, because he solemnly opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11.

And he spoke on that occasion with such gentle faith, such serene confidence in the goodness of God, and of man, that it almost makes you want to weep to read it, fifty-five years later…

The Church has always opposed errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity…

Not that the need to repudiate and guard against erroneous teaching and dangerous ideologies is less today than formerly. But all such error is so manifestly contrary to rightness and goodness, and produces such fatal results, that our contemporaries show every inclination to condemn it of their own accord—especially that way of life which repudiates God and His law, and which places excessive confidence in technical progress and an exclusively material prosperity. It is more and more widely understood that personal dignity and true self-realization are of vital importance and worth every effort to achieve. More important still, experience has at long last taught men that physical violence, armed might, and political domination are no help at all in providing a happy solution to the serious problems which affect them.

As the pope spoke then, the great world wars of the 20th century still lay fresh in everyone’s memory. The ravages that systematic atheism had wrought: it stood in front of everyone’s eyes, an open wound on the face of the earth. The pope thought to himself (I paraphrase): We have learned something from this terrible upheaval and senseless slaughter. Living now in communion with Christ, and made wiser by harsh experience, we can become the human race that He made us to be!

The pope went on:

The great desire, therefore, of the Catholic Church in raising aloft at this Council the torch of truth, is to show herself to the world as the loving mother of all mankind; gentle, patient, and full of tenderness and sympathy… To the human race oppressed by so many difficulties, she says what Peter once said to the poor man who begged alms: “Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, that I give thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk.”

In other words it is not corruptible wealth, nor the promise of earthly happiness, that the Church offers the world today, but the gifts of divine grace which, since they raise men up to the dignity of being sons of God, are powerful assistance and support for the living of a more fully human life. She unseals the fountains of her life-giving doctrine, so that men, illumined by the light of Christ, will understand their true nature and dignity and purpose. Everywhere, through her children, she extends the frontiers of Christian love, the most powerful means of eradicating the seeds of discord, the most effective means of promoting concord, peace with justice, and universal brotherhood.

Was the holy pope a dreamer? Overly sanguine? Can we see him in our mind’s eye 55 years later, and not think: What a kind man—but naïve!

Well, if we dismiss St. John XXIII as naïve, we might as well stop saying the Our Father. Let’s pray for the grace to believe in God and in man, let evil rage as it might. If we die at the hands of the wicked, with them mumbling, “What hopeless naifs these Catholics are!” so much the better.

Popes from the Same Cloth

divine-mercyThree years ago, we heard the same readings, and celebrated the same Feast of Divine Mercy, after a late-April Easter.

Three years ago, my mind turned to St. Peter’s Square in Rome, because my hero was being beatified. And my mind turns to Rome again, of course, because he is being canonized.

Actually, can we go back to the year 2000? Continue reading “Popes from the Same Cloth”

Springtime 2013

parrot_head

Rejoice, Jerusalem. Rejoice because the Lord lives, and He loves His children. We rejoice even in the hardest times, even in the most uncertain moments, because God has made one thing absolutely clear: He wills to deliver us from evil. He wills to bring us home to Him.

Did the prodigal son have pure, spiritual motives when he decided to return to his father’s house? Doesn’t seem like he did. He wanted to eat the pig-slop, but no one gave him any. Hunger, not noble contrition, drove him back home.

Rembrandt Prodigal SonDoesn’t mean that he did not love his father. He simply had not yet learned everything that love involves. He came back home looking for food, and he found food and love. He came looking for a tiny exception to the rigor that justice required, since by right he had no claim whatsoever. He found boundless mercy and a completely fresh start.

We find ourselves, dear brothers and sisters, living at a time when the relationship between the Church and the world will be refreshed. A new start will be made. I don’t think we go too far if we say that this springtime of 2013 opens before us as pregnant with possibilities as the springtime of 1963, the first spring of the Second Vatican Council. That spring saw a papal transition, too. Blessed Pope John XXIII finally succumbed to his illness, and Paul VI became the new pope.

Continue reading “Springtime 2013”

Wickedness vs. Patience

John XXIII Vatican IIWhat did the wicked tenants do? (Click the link to read the parable.)

They rebelled. The owner had planted and equipped an orderly vineyard, a beautiful farm where it was delightful to work. Justly, the owner expected to receive his produce from the land he himself had developed. He had provisioned his tenants, we can be sure, with more than enough to live on. When the owner sent his messengers, and then patiently even sent his son, he asked for no more than his rightful due.

But the grasping, impatient tenants rebelled. Blinded by selfishness, they could not see that they owed their entire livelihood to the good management and foresight of the owner. The tenants did not want to co-operate. They wanted to rule. But their blind lust for power gave them only chaos and death.

Now—if you are like me, you woke up this morning wanting news about:

1) when we would have a new pope and

2) when the federal-budget sequester would end.

I can make no comment whatsoever on the second subject. And I know I said a couple weeks ago that I thought we could look forward to having a new pope by Holy Week.

But, you know what? Maybe we won’t. Maybe the Cardinals will not decide things quickly. Maybe they will argue, and disagree with each other, and take a long time.

st-peters-sunriseLet’s remember what happened in the fall of 1962, over fifty years ago now. The Second Vatican Council convened for its first session. Over 2,400 bishops met together in St. Peter’s Basilica. They sang together and prayed together. It was beautiful. Then they proceeded to argue and disagree with each other for two months. They did not reach the required 2/3 majority on anything. Anything. The first session closed in early December with no official teachings whatsoever.

Pope John declared with glee: The Council will have to have a second session! Praised be God for allowing us to show the world that the shepherds of the God’s Church love each other–and God, and the truth–enough to argue about it ad nauseum. All will be well. Good things take time. As they say, Rome was not built in a day.

A young priest, at the Council as a theological advisor, agreed. Heading home for Christmas, and looking forward to more intense debate in 1963, the priest said:

The fact that no text has gained approval is evidence of the great, astonishing, genuinely positive, truly epoch-making result of the first session.

Continue reading “Wickedness vs. Patience”

Monday Miscellany: Death, animal and human + SCG I’s Words

Heard on the radio today that the dear, little baby panda “passed away.”

Very sad. But, forgive me: The panda cub did not pass away. The panda cub died. Like horses die, and dogs. Sad indeed.

But not like Padre Pio passed away, on the same day in 1968. Or the great lady of Martinsville, Va., or the lovely prayer-warrior who lived on the bank of Smith Mountain Lake. Both these ladies breathed their last yesterday.

People pass away. Which reminds me of the decisive paragraph of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s opening address at Vatican II:

The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven.

…It pays to take Book One of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Countra Gentiles down off the e-shelf every once in a while and read it.

Words can appear in a meaningless jumble, like the noise of t.v. burbling in the background. Words can be arrayed like jewels on a necklace, i.e. poetry. And words can be set down with such bedrock-penetrating precision that entire bridges of culture can be built atop their foundations.

Here follows my humble one sentence summary of SCG I. The point of the book is that, if any of the following words mean anything at all, then they mean this:

God is, eternally, not made up of parts, acting in no way violent or unnatural; complete, utterly unique, universally perfect, transcending everything we know, yet name-able, because we can call Him good, the good that all things seek; alone infinitely intelligent, He knows Himself, understands Himself perfectly, and in this He knows all and wills all that is good; He loves and rejoices in His true, just, liberal, magnificent, prudent, artful, wise Self, eternally blessed.

Thanks for the Kind Wishes

My dear, magnanimous mother had never set foot in a Catholic parish church.

Nonetheless, she kindly gave birth to me in a Catholic university hospital, underneath a crucifix, on the 1,768th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Irenaeus.

The beginning of the first Coach-John-Thompson era at the university was still two years away, and none of the hospital employees involved in my birth received artificial contraceptives or abortifacients as part of their health-care plan.

…The Roman emperor killed Irenaeus and thousands of other Christians in the city of Lyon in AD 202, on the day before the anniversary of the martyrdoms of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul—who had also been killed by the emperor, a century and a half earlier.

When Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, he recalled the words of St. Irenaeus. The martyr spoke to his friends on the occasion of his move from Asia Minor to France:

All Christians everywhere must be united with the Church of Rome. It is through communion with the Church of Rome that all the faithful have preserved the Apostolic Tradition.

More to come on this subject at this evening’s Fortnight-for-Freedom Mass. In the meantime:

We want to build our spiritual houses on rock, not sand. Birthdays come and go. Political situations come and go. Facebook posts come and go. The rock we need is Peter and his successors. The rock we need is the Church of Rome, founded on the blood of the Apostles Peter and Paul.