Wednesday, June 20, 2012

John x 2 + 50

There was no better time than fifty years ago to have been an American and a Catholic. (I was only nominally Catholic by then.) We had our two Johns -- John Kennedy as president and John XXIII as pope.

Whatever our politics, John Kennedy and his beautiful family projected optimism, idealism, and can-do confidence. It was a time to shoot for the moon. We now know there was a seamy underside to Camelot, but for the moment we basked in a rosy exhilaration that came to a heartbreaking end the following year in Texas.

And in Rome, a man of untypical humility and simplicity had been elevated to the papacy. No pope in my lifetime was more unreservedly loved.

We remember him best for the Second Vatican Council, and "throwing open the windows of the Church." We remember too the encyclical Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth, which asserted the universal rights of humankind, for the Church a stunning embrace of Enlightenment values. There was, for a few brief years, a euphoric feeling that the Church was about to embrace the modern world.

On his deathbed he said:
Today more than ever we are called to serve mankind as such, and not merely Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person, and not merely those of the Catholic Church. Today's world, the needs made plain in the last fifty years, and a deeper understanding of doctrine, have brought us to a new situation…It is not that the Gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have…were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and look far ahead.
It was a dream, or course, that we were living. The forces of reaction merely bided their time.