By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 18, 2013
ATLANTA—Father Richard Morrow recalled when he celebrated Mass for the first time in English, facing the congregation. It was for the children in the religious education classes at St. Bernadette Church in Cedartown.
“They were always restless at Mass. Not that Saturday morning. They kept their eyes on me and were very attentive to me. I said this is what we need. Now they feel God is speaking to them in their own language and they can respond to God in their own language,” Father Morrow recalled.
“It was a good example of what John XXIII brought about,” he said.
Blessed Pope John XXIII is to be canonized a saint a half century after he opened Vatican Council II, which modernized the church.
People who lived through the changes in the church and scholars use words like courage, openness to the world, and ecumenical outreach to describe the man born into a peasant family and called “Good Pope John.”
He was also a man of wit. When asked how many people work in the Vatican, the pope is alleged to have said “about half.”
Alan McGill is working on his doctorate on the Second Vatican Council and is the director of faith formation at Sacred Heart Basilica, Atlanta.
McGill said John XXIII should be known for his courage.
The pope called for the council when he was close to 80. As a church leader, McGill said, “He didn’t have a liberal agenda, as such, but he was open to calling a council not knowing what the results may be.”
And when some in the Vatican Curia tried to steer the council at its beginning, John XXIII backed the bishops to come up with their own plan.
“He was genuinely open to the unknown,” McGill said, adding he invited to the council, as experts, theologians like Jesuit Father Karl Rahner, Father Henri de Lubac and others who had been under a cloud of suspicion.
The council introduced sweeping changes to the church, allowing Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular language to replace Latin and calling for the church to engage in dialogue with other faiths and other Christian denominations.
Father Morrow, who was ordained in 1955, said Pope John XXIII showed bold faith as he led the church in a new direction, particularly in making the Mass more accessible to people.
“It was a courageous thing, as well as something I believe was inspired by the Holy Spirit,” Father Morrow said. “He really reached out to the people, even though he knew there would be those who would resent him,” he said.
To those who feared the future at the start of the Vatican Council, the pope in his opening remarks rejected their timidity and called them “prophets of doom.”
John XXIII was not willing to accept any fad society embraced, said Phillip Thompson, but wanted the church to be part of society. “He was a very optimistic pope, with what the church could bring to the modern world.”
Thompson, the director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, called the pope’s view “critical openness” as he wanted to share the church’s “wonderful tradition in a way that is relevant.”
Consider science and technology. Pope John XXIII laid the foundation to shake off the fear of the contemporary world that guided the church through most of the 20th century, said Thompson. Prior to the council, church leaders were afraid the advances in science, the findings of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, would call into question faith and condemned many of those findings, he said.
After the council, there was an understanding about the differing roles of faith and science and openness to mutual learning.
“Dialogue and discussion means you are trying to find common ground. The only precondition is good faith,” said Thompson. “It’s both open and also we make moral judgments. We have to engage in dialogue.”
Pope John XXIII also had a great interest in ecumenism that was already evident during the decades he served as a Vatican diplomat, in Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and France.
Msgr. Henry Gracz cited the saving work of the pope during World War II when he was the papal delegate in Turkey and is credited with helping many Jewish people escape the Nazis, including by giving Jewish children baptismal certificates. A Jewish group, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, formally asked in 2008 that Pope John XXIII be recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel as one of the “righteous among the nations.”
Speaking to Jewish leaders in an unprecedented way when he became pope, John XXIII, referencing his given name of Giuseppe, said, simply, “I am Joseph, your brother,” Msgr. Gracz recalled, a statement that “shattered” centuries of hostility and judgment. Msgr. Gracz was in seminary during the papacy of John XXIII and was ordained in 1965. He is the pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta.
“He had this great love for the Jewish people,” said McGill. The pope also revised a Good Friday prayer that blamed the Jewish community as a whole for the death of Jesus.
Thompson said the announcement of the canonizations of both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII “is a typical Vatican balancing act. I think they are both worthy.”
McGill said the canonization of Blessed John XXIII is “an affirmation of his vision for the church and his call of the Vatican Council II.” By acknowledging his efforts with the work of Pope John Paul II, it shows the church does not privilege one over the other, he said.
Because of the effort of Blessed John XXIII, “the church will never be the same again.”