St. John XXIII, patron saint of Christian unity?
St. John XXIII, patron saint of Christian unity?
Influential representatives of the Orthodox Church were among the first to recognise John XXIII’s saintliness in the days of the Second Vatican Council. They even wanted to proclaim the good Pope a “patron” saint of the ecumenical path. Italian journalist and essayist Stefania Falasca has just published a book about this based on testimonies gathered during the procedure for the canonization cause. “Giovanni XXIII, in una carezza la rivoluzione” (which roughly translates as: “John XXIII, a revolution came with a caress”) runs through the history of Roncalli’s canonization, explaining the reasons and pastoral opportunities that led Francis to approve, pro gratia, the full canonization of his great Lombard predecessor.
In convening the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII took on the task as Successor of Peter, to make it clear to all Churches that the journey towards full unity between all baptised Christians could not be put off any longer. “This is not an ideological ecumenism that wants to gloss over differences inherited from the past, but an ecumenism of truth and charity,” Falasca writes. The desire expressed since the days of the Council for a return to unity, does not aim to bring about a forced uniformity but create “a building site for the future of the Church.” This is not to be based on emotions and sentiments but on “one, common baptism and the same faith in Jesus Christ.”
Among those who also saw this passion for Christian unity as a reflection of the Good Pope’s holiness, were some of the Orthodox Church’s foremost representatives, who played prominent roles in the post-conciliar period, Falasca writes.
There was one key figure in particular who testified the enthusiasm John XXIII inspired within the Orthodox world long before his canonization was officially decided: Dutch cardinal Johannes Willebrands (1909-2006). He played a leading role in the development of Catholic ecumenism, right from the days of Vatican II. In 1960 John XXIII called him to form part of the Secretariat for promoting Christian Unity led by the Jesuit cardinal Augustin Bea. In his statement for John XXIII’s canonization process, Falasca quotes Willebrands saying that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, was the first to refer to John XXIII quoting the Gospel passage: “Fuit homo missus a Deo cui nomen erat Johannes” (“There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.”)
“The solution to the Church’s separation from the brothers in the mission which the Pope had found by opening the Church’s arms, turned into something concrete, a common sentiment, first of respect and then of genuine worship of the Servant of God,” Falasca writes and the customary visit by Orthodox delegations to John XXIII’s tomb in the Vatican became a sign of this great veneration. The very day after John XXIII’s death, Athenagoras recognised that “as a head of the Church who was driven by his love of Christ and despite his short reign, the deceased Pope traced a new path towards ecumenical dialogue, which for the Church is the prelude to Christ’s priestly prayer being put into practice.”
In the statement he gave for the late Pope’s cause, Willebrands said that when it came to the moment for Catholics and their separated brothers to choose a patron to drive the move towards Christian unity, Catholics put St. Josaphat (the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop who was honoured as a martyr of unity with the Successor of Peter) forward. It was the Russian observers who asked for Pope John to be considered as a candidate for the role of patron of the ecumenical movement.
A year or so later, the Metropolitan of Leningrad, Nikodim, a prophetic figure of Russian Orthodoxy, apparently discussed the doctrine and the work Roncalli for Christian unity in his theology dissertation. Nikodim discussed his dissertation entitled “John XXIII Pope of Rome” on 15 April 1970 at the Moscow Theological Academy. In his academic analysis, the Russian Metropolitan referred to John XXIII as a saint, based on his obedience to the Mild Jesus as described in the Gospel and according to the Orthodox Church’s theological and Canonical criteria.
Nikodim died of a heart attack in Rome on 5 September 1978 during a meeting with John Paul I. He was just 49 year old when he died and was in Rome representing the Patriarchate of Moscow in the official ceremonies and meetings for the start of the Pope John Paul I’s pontificate. Before dying, he addressed some words to the new Bishop of Rome, which John Paul I would refer to during his audience with the Roman clergy a few days later: “I assure you that never in my life have I ever heard such beautiful words…,” Luciani said. In an interview back in 2006, the Jesuit Miguel Arranz who interpreted at the meeting described those years as “a fleeting gift that the Church lost.” Back then, “the Successor of Peter’s role received concert recognition from the Eastern bishops. Their trips to Rome were real visits ad limina Petri. Governments would press them to go to visit the Pope, whom they trusted as children of a sister Church. Perhaps the successor of Peter’s ties with the Christians of those lands would eventually have found a way to consolidate themselves. Perhaps it was all just an illusion but at certain times a return to unity seemed so easy…”
Now Pope Francis has decided to proclaim John XXIII a saint pro gratia, based on valid reasons which are a sound alternative to a scientifically and theologically proven miracle. One of the pastoral reasons Francis has decided to proclaim Roncalli a saint, is the modern-day relevance of his ecumenical vision. Pope Francis has mentioned the preferential option for the poor in a number of speeches, bringing him closer to his Orthodox brothers.
In his interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa, Francis spoke about the meetings he has already had with a number of representatives of the Eastern Churches, saying: “I felt like their brother. They have the apostolic succession; I received them as brother bishops. It is painful that we are not yet able to celebrate the Eucharist together, but there is friendship. I believe that the way forward is this: friendship, common work and prayer for unity. We blessed each other; one brother blesses the other.” In his Apostolic Letter Evangelii Gaudium, Francis recommends “reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us.” Referring to the Church’s Orthodox brothers, Francis reiterates that “we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and their experience of synodality.”
According to Falasca, Francis’ upcoming trip to the Holy Land to meet the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (fifty years after the historic embrace between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras), is not just a one-way Apostolic Visit by the Pope, it is a pilgrimage that both brother faiths are embarking on from the start, for the first time. This pilgrimage is a decisive step forward in the common awareness that the Churches will be “retracing Christ’s steps in the holy and glorious Sion, mother of all Churches.” Faiths will be able to invoke the support of St. John XXIII as patron saint - given that he will be canonized a month prior to the pilgrimage – in the hope that full ecclesiastical and sacramental unity will flourish once again between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. They can only achieve this by putting aside political strategies and focusing on the Gospel, as Roncalli had suggested.