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WELCOME! Do you find contemporary life a challenge? Are you a confused Catholic, or even just someone seeking to understand faith? Since 2003, CrossCurrents has appeared 40 times each year. My aim: to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! Find information about my pastoral consulting at http://www.crosscurrents.us/ NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Friday, July 18, 2014

#420: Can Francis Rehabilitate the Church?

In the 16 months since Francis became pope, his potential for global impact is emerging—and with it, the prospects for Catholicism to recover its good name and influence.


Shortly after the election of Francis, my cousin John—a non-catholic—predicted that his papacy would bring “epochal” changes not only to Catholicism and Christianity, and to the world at large.  Less than 17 months later, I’m nearly persuaded that he was right.

Last month I attended a workshop at Boston College on the theme “Pope Francis and Vatican II.” Many speakers confirmed my own view (see CrossCurrents #393) that Francis has rescued the legacy of Vatican Council II from those who would prefer to believe that the Council made no difference.

The workshop followed hard on the heels of Pope Francis’ historic “prayer summit” with the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian people.  For me, the combined effect has been to ignite my hopes for the Church’s impact in our modern, globalized culture.  For me, the prayer summit crystallized a turning point that has no precedent in my 42 years of pastoral work.

To explain I must flash back to a discussion with my grown children from the fall of 2002.  As the sex abuse scandal exploded in Boston, they challenged me to persuade them to stay connected to the Church.  I admitted to all their grave misgivings, but argued nonetheless that the Church could be essential to their future lives.

After nearly an hour, my daughter Melissa brought the matter to a head.

“OK, Dad,” she said.  “You’re right.  Over the next few years we will be settling into our career paths, maybe will be getting married, settling down, having kids, raising a family.  We may need support for the next part of our spiritual journeys, and we may seek that support in a faith community.”

She paused. Then: “But Dad, tell me this: why the hell would we pick THIS church for our kids?”

I was speechless--and my friends know that is a rare state for me! I literally had no answer at all. 

In fact, I spent the next five years constructing an answer.  Eventually I settled on an answer in the form of a sharp slogan (subsequently stolen by the U.S. Navy).  One might “pick” the Church, I began to argue, because of its potential as “A Global Force for Good.”

My own opinion is that, for the U.S. Navy, this is false advertising--if only because the U.S. military by definition is a national force no matter where it is deployed.  But it is fair to ask: is this tag any more accurate for the Roman Catholic Church? 

I’m beginning to think that the “Francis effect” we’ve witnessed since the election of Pope Francis is precisely about his efforts (and effectiveness) in making “A Global Force for Good” a realistic description of the Church.

Every modern pope has commanded extensive public attention, but no pope since John XXIII (1958-1963) has evoked such affection from millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  At first, it was easy to suppose his popularity stemmed from his self-effacing manner, and many wondered if his papacy might prove to be more style than substance.

But by now we know otherwise, for two reasons.  First, at the level of global leadership, style sometimes is substance, at least inasmuch as symbolic gestures can have substantive effects.  Second, his actions are already making real differences.

Last month’s prayer summit actually combined style and substance.  It followed his visit to the Holy Land, where the media competed to provide the best coverage of the most photo opportunities. 
We saw Francis at the Wailing Wall.  We saw Francis at the Jordan River, and Yad Vashem, and at a security checkpoint marked by Arabic graffiti.  He met with both Netanyahu and Abbas.

But his trip had practical aims as well. He was there to express concern about the persecution of Palestinian Christians, and about the protection of Christian shrines at many sites.  His official purpose was actually a meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew, the Christian Orthodox leader.

Thus Francis was able to promote three causes at once.  He reached out for greater unity among Christians, he called for the rejection of persecution of Middle Eastern Christians, and he called for dialogue rather than violence in the face of conflict.

The prayer summit, on Pentecost Sunday, gave new evidence that Francis is shrewd enough to combine symbolic gestures with substantive actions.  In particular, the summit revealed Francis’ gift for understanding how his office can function in the 21st century.

By insisting that the summit was a spiritual, not political event, Francis neutralized any suspicion that he was engaging in naive idealism in the face of difficult challenges.  The pope’s role, in other words, is not policymaking.

But it is peacemaking, in the broader sense.

First, the summit brought together three heads of state (even though the Vatican is a tiny city state, and the Palestinians remain stateless).

Second, it also brought together three religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  There was no communal prayer (each leader read texts from his own scriptures).  But, while they did not pray together, they did come together to pray. 

Thus, in arranging this event, Francis was acting out his previous call for a world-wide culture of encounter. 
The peacemaking aim of the summit was symbolized by planting an olive tree, by friendly hugs, and by Francis himself calling this “the beginning of a new journey.”

 In his remarks, Francis gave that journey a clear focus:

Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare… Only the tenacious say yes to encounter and no to conflict; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation…  History teaches that our strength alone does not suffice.  That is why we are here, because we know and we believe that we need the help of God.

John Allen has suggested that Francis is leading the Vatican “back to diplomatic relevance,” and even suggest a new level of public expectation aimed at the papacy:

After Sunday it is hard to imagine any global conflict in which the question will not be eventually arise, “when is the pope going to step in?”

And Patriarch Bartholomew went so far as to call Francis “the world’s greatest ambassador of peace.”

Cynics may still suspect that Francis is strong on empty gestures but weak on concrete actions.  But since the summit, he has acted on several fronts.

He pronounced that the Mafia have, by their own crimes, excommunicated themselves from Catholic Church.  He has met individually with victims of priest sexual abuse, promising to hold accountable not only the priests who committed abuse but also the bishops who protected them.  He has initiated the reform of the Vatican Bank, and made it accountable to Vatican administrators.  He even called for a “pause for peace” during the World Cup’s final match, which received widespread Internet support.


Of course, time was when the papacy wielded power across all Christendom, so that even monarchs required his blessing for major policy decisions.  But by 1871, when the Italian Civil War dismantled the Papal States, the papacy’s power had dwindled to honorary status, and for the last century popes have influenced events by their moral authority rather than their political clout. Often, that meant popes could be conveniently ignored by public officials.

John Allen therefore may be overly optimistic about the pope’s leverage (and this month's clash between Israel and Hamas can discourage even the most hopeful observers), but Francis is clearly becoming hard to ignore, even compared to John-Paul II.   
First, he has arguably become the best-liked person on earth.  Whereas John-Paul II was admired for his intelligence and charisma, Francis is beloved for his simplicity. In an age when social media shapes so much public consciousness, Francis enjoys a visibility and a positive PR image that no other public figure can rival.

At the same time, he matches his simplicity with a shrewdness that has positioned the papacy for a unique role in contemporary public affairs: (1) As head of the world’s largest organization (period!), he represents 1.3 billion people living on every continent and nearly every country—nearly 20% of the world’s population. (2) He is also a head of state, but his state is so small its political power is negligible. He can thus play neutral broker in a way no ordinary politician can. (3) His statements make it clear that he seeks to reach out to and create working partnerships for peace with anyone of good will, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, any other faith, and even people of no faith. (4) He is a native of the Third World, and both represents and speaks for the poor.  (5) His mission is clearly not only to lead the Church, but to be present in the world. 

What Francis has accomplished in 16 months is nearly without precedent: he has made his papacy the world’s leading voice for peace, for economic equality, and for fraternity among all people.  In effect, he is the closest thing we have (and have had in generations) to the spiritual leader of the whole world.

This does not make the Catholic Church a “Global Force for Good” overnight—but it does create the possibility. If enough bishops, priests, religious, ordinary Catholics, and other people of goodwill support this man, and if his mission succeeds, the day could soon come, when young adults will know why they want to pick this Church for their kids. 

  © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2013

Saturday, May 24, 2014

#419: Who Killed the Kennedys?

I shouted out, “Who Killed the Kennedys?” When after all, it was you and me.”—Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil


Last week’s announcement of plans to auction Jacqueline Kennedy’s letters to Irish priest Father Joseph Leonard (expected to fetch upwards of $4 million, before the auction was cancelled and replaced by negotiations with the Kennedy family) reveals an outlook on Catholic faith that begs comment, first because the outlook is quite common, and second because it is quite wrong. 

The reportage in the Boston Globe included not only letters recently discovered in a drawer at All Hallows College in Dublin, but also letters already on file at the JFK library in Boston.  Among the letters are Mrs. Kennedy’s reflections on her personal beliefs, values, and concerns.  Especially newsworthy, of course, were Kennedy’s thoughts on the assassination of her husband, President John Kennedy.  Some of her thoughts are startlingly personal and poignant:

I am so bitter against God...I think God must have taken Jack to show the world how lost we would be without him…But that is a strange way of thinking to me – and God will have a bit of explaining to do to me if I ever see him.

This passage caught my attention as an example of the way many Catholics typically think when faced with a catastrophic event.  Naturally, they feel bitterness, and often that feeling targets God.  But more importantly, the question “Why did God do this to us?” is all too common.  Likewise, the question on many lips after 9/11 was: “Where was God?” Whether it is the massive evil of the Holocaust, the personal disaster of a random accident, or the traumatic public assassination of the President, people typically want to hold God accountable for what has happened. 

In this, Mrs. Kennedy was in good company, and her reaction, like the similar reactions of millions of others, is certainly understandable. 

But however natural, these reactions reveal a profound misunderstanding of Christian faith.  And what strikes me is that such a misunderstanding is not the result of some personal deficiency. Jacqueline Kennedy was a decidedly intelligent, well-informed person, as are many others who react just as she did.  Rather, it seems that people misunderstand their faith because they were taught to misunderstand it. 

I know I spent years misunderstanding.  I was taught that God is omniscient and omnipotent, that he knows everything and can do anything.  I was taught that all things come from God.  It was natural to assume that this meant that bad things also come from God.  So I, like many others, was prone to ask “Why did God do that?” in response to any disaster. 

I recall the scene in John Ford’s 1941 classic How Green Was My Valley, where an older couple stands at the base of the stairs, their heads bowed, mourning the loss of a son in a mining accident.  Suddenly a baby’s cry descends the stairs as the son’s widow gives birth.  The grandfather mournfully recites “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” Furious with grief, shaking her finger at him, the grandmother retorts: “Go tell that to that girl up there!”

That woman clearly did not buy the notion that God does evil and then cancels it out by doing some balancing good.  And she was right.  But it took years to for me to figure out why.

Perhaps the best source of clarity on this is Saint Thomas Aquinas, who offered a straightforward explanation of what he called “Divine Permission.”

Aquinas began by identifying our dilemma.  Yes, we believe God created everything.  Yes, we believe He is the author of all things.  But we also believe that God is all good, and perfectly loving.  So it seems God could do nothing evil.  Yet evil things clearly happen.  How is this possible, unless God makes them happen?  And how can God do evil if he is all good?

These questions probe our understanding of God’s will.  God clearly wills the good things that happen.  Does he also will the bad things?  If yes, how can he be all good?  If no, how can they happen at all?

The Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan argued that Aquinas’ solution was like expanding a two lane highway to three lanes.  Yes, there are things which happen because God wills them to happen.  And yes, there are things which do not happen because God wills them not to happen.  But there’s also a third lane: things that happen because God wills to allow them to happen.  In short, some events happen, not because God wills them, but because he permits them.  This is the theory of divine permission.

This of course begs the question: why would God even permit evil?

The short answer is: freedom.  God wills to embrace us with his love, and have us love him in return.  But love must be freely given, and so humans can love God only if their lives are not predetermined--and only if they live in a world where events are not predetermined.

Love requires freedom, and freedom is possible only in a world where choice—and chance—are possible. Thus by inviting us to love, God must risk our refusal to love. If he refused to permit that refusal, if he prevented all evil, he would also prevent our freedom and therefore make it impossible for us to love.

This idea that God loves our freedom to love Him above all else is both gratifying and terrifying.  It is gratifying because it means God’s gracious love makes it possible for us to love him as well as each other.  It is terrifying because our freedom to love leaves us free to hate as well.  As Bishop Desmond Tutu said after 9/11, Christian faith includes the terrifying belief but God will allow us to choose hell rather than force us into heaven!

So the idea of divine permission creates a new horizon for our view of the events in our lives.  We can thank God for willing the good things that happen.  But we cannot blame God for the evil that happens.

This fact of our faith is both counter-intuitive and liberating.  It is counter-intuitive because we have been so used to thinking of God as the author of every single thing that happens.  It is counterintuitive because we naturally want to blame God for catastrophe, and feel as Ms. Kennedy did, bitter or angry toward God.  So to accept this belief in a good God who permits evil can be a tough challenge in the face of our own strong emotions. 

We may well get angry anyway, since God has permitted the evil even if he has not caused it.  We may ask “Why does God allow this?” And though the answer—“because our own freedom requires it”--is clear, that does not make it easy to accept.

But this fact is also liberating, because it frees us from the sort of torturous logic that so many Catholics employed to explain away evil events.  Just as Mrs. Kennedy tried to convince herself that God engineered her husband’s death for some good purpose, many Catholics construct fantastic rationalizations for the catastrophes that befall them.  Besides the fact that such rationalizations distort our image of God, they also have the effect of denying evil in the world.

It is one thing to believe, as Christians do, that God can use our suffering for good purposes.  It is another thing to believe that the cause of our suffering is good.  For if all suffering has a good cause, then there is no evil in the world.

It is easy to understand that, in moments of terrible shock, trauma, and grief, people are impelled to deny evil simply because they cannot tolerate the truth.  But in the long run, it does neither us nor our faith any good to pretend everything happens for the best in every situation.  There is evil in the world.  And that evil, at least in its human form, is the direct result of God’s decision to make humans free.  In fact that evil, and the suffering it causes, is the price for our freedom.

This poses a profound spiritual challenge: if God is the kind of loving father who prizes our freedom so much he will allow us to suffer its consequences, can we embrace the same attitude? 

This is no mere abstraction. We face this in our lives. How many parents will allow their children to fail and suffer in the name of their own freedom?  How many of us accept the consequences of our mistakes as the price of our freedom?  How many of us embrace an existence rooted in the freedom to love or not love?  How many of us would, at least on some occasions, prefer a life in a world where freedom was curtailed and we could escape its consequences?

In short, the Christian world view is of an existence that results from God’s special version of “tough love.”  God has created us for love, and so we must be free, and so our world must be a place of freedom, and so we must live with its consequences.

This is of course, the lesson of the story of the Garden of Eden.  We can imagine a human race that had never exercised its freedom for evil.  We can imagine a human race that always did the right thing.  We can imagine a human race that never has to suffer the consequences of wrongdoing.  But that is not the human race we all inherit.  Instead, we find ourselves part of the human family in which a long history of wrongdoing and bad choices have left us a world in which our freedom is sometimes to be feared even more than it is to be cherished.

The bottom line is: the Rolling Stones were right.  God did not “take” Jack Kennedy.  One of us (or some of us) did, as members of a human race that too often fails to love.  And the reason was not to teach some cosmic lesson that was in the mind of God.  The reason was some hateful motive by people who could not rise above their baser instincts and use their freedom for good instead of evil.

We must be tough to accept this kind of life.  And we must believe in a tough God whose love for us is a harsh and dreadful thing.

  © Bernard  F. Swain PhD 2014

Thursday, May 8, 2014

#418: “Gravity”—a Weightless Classic


A brief respite from “churchy” concerns as I reflect on a great on-screen vision.


More and more lately I’ve been surprised by the reaction of family, friends, and acquaintances who have seen Alfonso Cuaron’s film “Gravity.”  Most liked it, but their admiration was mild, and mostly overshadowed by their stronger liking for other 2013 films: Twelve Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, Blue Jasmine, Wolf Of Wall Street, Nebraska, August: Osage County, etc.  By now I’ve seen all of them and I remain convinced that, 20 years from now, Gravity will outlive them all.  And after watching Gravity a second time, I think I know why.

Mine is probably the last generation of movie-going grownups. Today’s moviegoers are mostly teens too young to access the bars, clubs, and concerts that form the core social life for people in their twenties and thirties.  In our day, movie-going remained a major and frequent “date” option well into parenthood.  But even for my generation, reactions to films tended (and still tend) to be vague: “I loved it”……“It was great”…“the best movie I’ve seen this year.”

I had the good fortune to learn about movies from Guy Leger, a French Dominican priest who taught philosophy at the Institut Catholique in Paris but also had deep personal and professional connections to French cinema.  His father owned a movie house in Bordeaux, so he grew up with film in the early 20th century.  After serving in the French military he took his best army friend home and introduced him to the movies.  That friend was André Bazin, who became the godfather of modern film criticism, founded the preeminent film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, and inspired the French New Wave (which gave us classics like François Truffaut’s 400 Blows, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Agnes Varda’s Vagabond) before his early death in 1958.

For Guy Leger, cinema was nearly a sacred art, and he demanded more probing reactions from his students than “I loved it.” And his starting point was a radical challenge to all of us.  Nearly every weekend he would repeat his creed: “If you have not been trained in cinema, you may completely miss the movie on the screen.”

At first, I was skeptical about this: how could moviegoers not see the movie in front of their eyes?  Yet over the years I have seen example after example.  Gravity is just the latest example--but it may be among the most powerful.  The more I talk to people about it, the more I think that most people went to Gravity but saw something else.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie which so powerfully combines vision, craft, grace, and even poetry.

Ironically, the trailers that showed on TV and in theaters gave the impression of a fast-moving, action-packed special effects extravaganza--and I guess many people walked out believing that’s what they had seen.

But in fact Gravity is one of the slowest movies in memory.  The first shot lasts 13 minutes, the first two shots last 18 minutes, and the first scene lasts 40 minutes of real time--nearly half of the movie’s 88 minutes! 

When was the last time you saw a 40-minute scene in a movie?  And when was there ever a scene that long that did not become claustrophobic or stage-bound (with all due respect to Hitchcock’s Rope)? I bet most viewers did not even notice that it was all one scene. I don’t know which directors in movie history could pull this off, but I am quite sure no one else alive can.

The truth is that Cuaron has mastered a long-take, slow-cutting, choreographic style that absorbs even lightning-fast action into a smooth, fluid, almost serene rhythm—which is just the effect that he needs to make this movie what it really is: an intimate, simple morality tale.

You see, that first 40 minutes concludes with Sandra Bullock, finally safe inside the womb-like confines of a space station, stripping off the protective shell of her spacesuit, floating back, and finally (in weightless super-slow motion) curling into a fetal position—and Cuaron holds that evocative image for long seconds as the scene finally ends.

Up to this point, the Bullock character has immersed herself in her science to escape from a life too traumatic to endure: she has lost her only daughter.  Unable to bear the heavy pain of her of life on earth, she chooses the remote weightlessness of the heavens. 

The second half of the movie depicts her recovery.  Facing near certain death, she retreats to her high-tech womb, incubates a new will to live, and is reborn.

A major irony is that a movie called Gravity has only one shot where the characters are not weightless--the last shot!  Of course, it is the earth-ward pull of gravity that matches the outward thrust of the space stations and keeps them in orbit--and the threatening, violent action results when one satellite’s orbit fails.  But this tension of gravity and inertia is only visible, ironically, in the weightless floating of the characters. 

The film’s visible gravity is not physical at all, so much as it is mortal and moral.  There is the grave mortal threat of the chain-reaction accident that could kill all the characters.  And there is the gravely moral matter of whether Bullock believes her own life is still worth not only living for, but fighting for.  The movie’s climax comes at the moment that her will to live overrides her death wish (thanks to George Clooney’s dream-like Deus ex Machina) and she devises a plan to get her life back.

It cannot be mere coincidence (this is fiction, after all; nothing happens by chance) that Bullock’s journey takes her from an American station to a Russian station to a Chinese station.  Her new embrace of life has no national ring to it, her rebirth is a human triumph, not a patriotic one.  Nor is it coincidence that about half the time one cannot identify what part of the earth lies below the action.  The planet below is not a place of nations; it is the home of the human family.  And Bullock finally decides to rejoin that family.

The final scene brings us back to earth amid cosmic images of rebirth and evolution.  Bullock’s space capsule plunges into water, which then rushes in when the hatch opens. The moment is urgent: she must escape her fluid-filled womb or die.

Pushing herself out of the capsule into the water herself, she begins to sink: the suit that has kept her alive in space is lethal in water, it will drag her down. So she struggles to strip down, shedding her protective “skin” for a second time--just as a large frog swims by her up to the surface. 

Like a fellow amphibian who finally needs fresh air to breathe, she struggles to the surface--and floats, not quite weightless but buoyant.  She first swims and then crawls to the water’s edge, ready to emerge from water to land.  And in this, the movie’s last shot, she finally feels the pull of gravity that has been missing since the opening shot--the pull that has brought her back to earth and back to life. 

She nearly collapses under the new-felt, unfamiliar weight of her own body, her fists digging into the primal muck as if she were the planet’s first land-creature--as if her rebirth is the space-age rebirth of humanity. 

Finally, she makes it to her feet and begins walking, unsteady, over the land. We can see the change in her body language: Now she feels the whole weight of the world on her shoulders--and now she can bear it. She has decided that, after all, she prefers the heaviness on life on earth to weightlessness in the heavens. No longer gripped by grief, she gratefully welcomes gravity.

This is an instant classic whose astonishing special effects, stunning visual beauty and masterful camerawork are all eclipsed by its lyrical (and nearly mystical) affirmation of life and the courage it takes to live it.

  © Bernard  F. Swain PhD 2014

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

# 417: Two Popes, Two Saints—But Only ONE Pole!

This week’s canonizations seem to unite opposite poles within the Church--but these popes were not really poles apart.


I celebrated Mass on Boston Common with Pope John-Paul II (and 400,000 other people including my wife, father, brother, and sister-in-law) in October 1979.  Eight years later, in September 1987, I saw him again at a special (and much smaller) gathering of lay leaders in San Francisco’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral.  On that occasion, I actually met the pope, shook his hand, and exchanged a few words with him.


This charismatic man’s papacy shaped an important part of my adult life and a good deal of my professional ministry in the Church.

By contrast I never either saw or met John XXIII. Yet this simple shepherd touched my life even more deeply than John-Paul II.  His papacy made my career possible--a career previous generations could never have imagined.  Absent John XXIII, I would no doubt have led an entirely different life.


As John and John-Paul became saints this week, it feels as if they are the first saints I can call my own--that is, saints whose lives changed mine during their own lifetimes.

The conventional wisdom is that canonizing these two men simultaneously is a shrewd political move by Pope Francis.  His aim, it is said, is to end the polarization over the legacy of Vatican Council II (1962-1965) by uniting the author of the council, John XXIII, with the man some blame for attempting to restore the Church to its pre-conciliar state, John-Paul II.


On the level of public relations, this makes perfect sense.  It is undoubtedly true that liberal Catholics lionize John XXIII while conservatives champion John-Paul II.  It is also obvious that they were dramatically different men who had highly contrasting papacies.  So the PR message is clear: if the Church’s “Hall of Fame” is big enough to embrace them both, then the Church itself is big enough to embrace both liberals and conservatives.

On the level of the debate rhetoric, this also makes sense.  The long-standing debate over Vatican II’s legacy has often pitted those claiming the Council brought “renewal and change” against those saying it offered “continuity rather than rupture.” It has pitted those claiming the Council’s agenda was really “ressourcement” (the retrieval of ancient, lost elements of Catholic tradition) against those claiming the Council was really about “aggiornamento” (updating or modernizing the Church).  It has pitted “reform” against “restoration,” and even lead to paradoxical proposals about “the reform of the reform.” Making John XXIII and John-Paul II partners in sainthood sends the clear message: they are not pitted against one another, and neither should we. 

But on the level of facts, the decision by Pope Francis to schedule both canonizations together is not really about saying “it is time to get past the polarization over Vatican II.”  It is about saying “such polarization was mistaken all along.”

As I’ve written often before: John-Paul II was himself a product of the vast changes that John’s Council unleashed.  He chose the name John-Paul (imitating John-Paul I) to confirm his intention to follow the conciliar path laid out by John XXIII and Paul VI.  He was himself a council father, instrumental in some of its major documents.  He vigorously implemented the “changes” from the Council in his native Poland.  He became the first non-Italian pope in 400 years thanks to the Council’s new openness.  He took up his three predecessors’ efforts to transform the papacy itself and turned it into the highly visible global office that it is today.

In short, had there been no Vatican II there could never have been a Pope John-Paul II.  Which means, without John XXIII: there would be no John-Paul II.  Their destinies were linked all along. These two popes were not opposite poles.  Only John-Paul II was a Pole!

Moreover, there is absolutely no doubt that John-Paul II understood John’s vision for Vatican II, as well as its impact.  In 2000 he announced the beatification of John XXIII in a homily that included this comment:

Everyone remembers the image of Pope John's smiling face and two outstretched arms embracing the whole world. How many people were won over by his simplicity of heart, combined with a broad experience of people and things! The breath of newness he brought certainly did not concern doctrine, but rather the way to explain it; his style of speaking and acting was new, as was his friendly approach to ordinary people and to the powerful of the world. It was in this spirit that he called the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, thereby turning a new page in the Church's history: Christians heard themselves called to proclaim the Gospel with renewed courage and greater attentiveness to the "signs" of the times. The Council was a truly prophetic insight of this elderly Pontiff who, even amid many difficulties, opened a season of hope for Christians and for humanity.

If we unpacked this dense paragraph we notice several important points about John-Paul II’s perspective:

1.     John’s impact came from his unique personality and character.

2.     John’s vision was both conservative and dynamic: he did not change doctrine, but he did communicate it in a new way.  He brought Catholicism a new, modern style.

3.     This was precisely the “spirit” that inspired the Council.

4.     Vatican II “turned a new page in the Church’s history”

5.     Vatican II linked the gospel message to the signs of the times.

6.     Vatican II was John’s “prophetic insight” bringing hope “for Christians and for humanity.”

Notice that none of the familiar, polarizing debate rhetoric is found here.  Rather, John-Paul II clearly saw John and his Council taking a “middle way” between two poles--between those expecting substantial revisions of church teaching, and those asserting that Vatican II brought nothing new.

In fact, both men were theological conservatives who saw a little
need to change Catholic doctrine.  Yet both also embrace the notion that the Council was needed to “turn the page of history.” Why?  Because by the mid-20th century, the Church’s ability to communicate the gospel message had badly deteriorated and needed updating.

In this sense, much of the debate about Vatican II has falsified both the Council and the vision that inspired both these popes.  Liberals have too often expected doctrinal changes that the Council neither proclaimed nor implied.  Conservatives clung to “traditions” that the Council wanted to replace with more effective ways of communicating the gospel message.

On the pastoral level, the wisdom of this “middle way” has always been obvious to me.  For more than 40 years I have been responsible for communicating the gospel message to others.  In my 20s I worked mainly with catechists and parents.  In my 30s, I worked with pastors, sisters, their lay colleagues, and with parish volunteers.  Turning 40, I edited a newspaper for Catholic readers.  Since then I have worked with parish staffs, clergy, religious communities, parish lay leaders, and done a lot of adult faith formation for ordinary laypeople.

In nearly all these settings, my goal has been to communicate the core of Catholic tradition in a new way, and apply it to the practical needs of Catholic life on the local level.  Almost nothing I communicated was actually new “teaching”--it was our tradition in modern dress.  In short, I have spent 40 years doing the work of Vatican II.

Yet over and over, people would react by saying, “Really?  That’s really what the Church teaches?  That’s really our tradition?  That’s really our faith?  That’s really what it means to be a Catholic?”

Such reactions came from ordinary laypeople, from Catholic school graduates, Catholic college graduates, and even the seminary graduates.  As a pastoral minister, my answer to all those questions was, “Yes, really!”

As an educator, their questions always made me wonder: Why are people so surprised?  Why do they think they’re hearing something new?

The answer to both these questions is, I believe, both obvious and instructive.  People are surprised by their own tradition, and they think they are hearing something new, because the previous explanations they got were so bad.  In short, Catholics everywhere were living with the legacy of generations of mis-education about their faith.

This practical experience over 40 years is instructive in two ways.  First, it tells us that John XXIII was right: we did need a new way to explain the faith, because the old ways had lost their ability to communicate the truth of our tradition.  Second, it explains why the debates over Vatican II have occupied such extreme positions and missed the middle ground occupied by John, John-Paul, and Francis: Namely, people on both sides were so embedded in outmoded and distorting explanations of Catholic tradition that they ended up fighting over the wrong things.  Conservatives fought to protect positions that were no longer communicating Catholic truth, and liberals fought to change teachings based on misconceptions of what those teachings were.

And so this double canonization, in my view, merely confirms what has been true all along: that once John’s Council “turned the page of history,” there could be no going back under Paul VI, John-Paul I, John Paul II, even Benedict XVI.  They are all products of Vatican II, they all embody a transformed papacy in a transformed Church.  And now Francis appears on the stage of history--the first pope since John who was not a Council participant--to lead us on the middle way that so many have needed for so long.

Still, I acknowledge one difficulty (albeit unintended) caused by John-Paul II’s papacy.  For many Catholics too young to remember Vatican II, his very charisma tended to overshadow the memory of the Council. 


Some, like George Weigel, argue that John-Paul II supplied the “interpretive key” to the Council’s meaning. But my experience is that, on the practical level, John-Paul II made reference to Vatican II superfluous. Many younger Catholics simply could not see past the towering figure of “John-Paul II, Superstar.” The effect eclipsed both Vatican II and John XXIII himself.

But now “Saint John-Paul II” will be forever linked to “Saint John XXIII,” whose Council made John-Paul’s papacy possible.



I pray that this double canonization thus makes John-Paul’s shadow newly transparent, so that all Catholics see his place properly: as one of a series of great figures beginning with John XXIII, whose courage and vision opened that new page of history which Vatican II turned for us all.
Abbey Robes

  © Bernard  F. Swain PhD 2014