Upon the canonisation of this prophet of optimism and peace, we cannot help but see in him a fulfilment of the words of Jesus: 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God!'
In May 2013, a group of rabbis representing the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem hosted its regular Catholic dialogue-partner group in Jerusalem. The delegation of visitors was made up of a cardinal, an archbishop and Catholic scholars on Judaism. Significantly, the hosting group recommended that their meeting be dedicated to celebrating the memory of Pope John XXIII who had died 50 years earlier. The rabbis, giving expression to a widespread Jewish sentiment, wanted their dialogue partners to join them in giving thanks to God for the life of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey during World War II, especially for what he did as the Holy See’s ambassador to save the lives of several Jews. Indeed, the rabbis may well be part of a movement to bestow on Nuncio Roncalli the distinguished Jewish title of recognition Righteous Among the Nations.
Some at this meeting might have recalled a 1968 book entitled Men in Dark Times. Its author, the renowned Jewish philosopher and political analyst Hannah Arendt, included Pope John XXIII among 10 people who had distinguished themselves in a period when the world, despite a lot of progress, still groped in political darkness and tottered on the brink of nuclear war. She did not comment on the great encyclical Pacem in Terris or how the Holy Father helped prevent nuclear war around the Cuban missile crisis. Instead, under the title “Angelo Roncalli: a Christian on the Chair of Peter”, Arendt admired in the Pope a rare ability to communicate a profound and tangible hope in a time of deep despair and pessimism.
Communicating real hope is what St Pope John did in his opening discourse at the Second Vatican Council and in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terris. In his opening address to the Council, Pope John said: “In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times, they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say our era, in comparison with the past eras, is getting worse…”
In response, the Pope continued: “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed towards the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.”
For this faith-inspired position, Pope John XXIII was considered by many as a naïve optimist, and he knew it. In a radio message he said: “Some say – I have heard it said myself – that the pope is too optimistic, that he sees only the good, that he takes everything at its best. But by now, I don’t know how to distance myself … from Our Lord who did nothing but infuse goodness, happiness, peace and encouragement into his surroundings.”
Pacem in Terris, Pope John’s great legacy, also communicated tangible hope to the world in a time of despair. This despair had reached frightening depths during the two preceding years. This was the era of two blocs after World War II, each with its colonies and separated by an Iron Curtain, which found concrete expression in the Berlin Wall in mid-1961. There was the nuclear arms race which reached its historic brink in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, a crisis that Pope John did much – perhaps everything – to defuse.
But preventing war is not the same as building peace, and it is the latter which the Good Pope wanted as his legacy for the Church and the world. He signed Pacem in Terris on television on Holy Thursday (on April 11 1963), less than two months before he died (June 3 1963). The foundations of the encyclical, the most basic principles that animate his last will and testament, are the undeniable reality of human relationships and the irreducible value of human dignity.
Relationships, for Pope John, are not something that we just happen to be in, and dignity is not something that we may or may not have. Relationships and dignity are what we are as human, and no one else and nothing else in heaven or on earth are so constituted. As creatures created with inalienable dignity, we exist in relationship with our brothers and sisters. Outside of such relationship, less than human is what one sadly finds oneself to be.
And just so, and so justly, Pope John XXIII locates peace in the dignity of every human person and in persons in relationship – where justice governs relationships and people embrace the dignity of every person, there peace begins to reign.
Now, upon the canonisation of this prophet of optimism and peace, we cannot help but see in him a fulfilment of the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God!” (Mt 5:9).
Cardinal Peter Turkson is president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
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