WAS A SURPRISING POPE. More than 30 years after his death he is
enormously popular and widely admired as a man of goodwill, holiness and vision.
But was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the beloved Pope John XXIII,
Early Acclamation Attempt
Though many consider his sainthood
a foregone conclusion, the jury is still out. That is, his case
for canonization is still in process. The case is under the guidance
of a man whose job it is to convince the Congregation
for the Causes of Saints to make John XXIII's sainthood official.
"Believers but also nonbelievers"
admire John XXIII, says Father Luca M. De Rosa, the Italian Franciscan
who is postulator for Pope John's cause. "They continue to
admire Angelo Roncalli's goodness and mildness, his zeal for truth,
peace and understanding between peoples, his anxiety to be God's
messenger and a servant of humanity."
In an interview for St. Anthony
Messenger, Father De Rosa gave some of the reasons why he
has hope that Pope John's cause will survive the gauntlet of investigation
and bureaucracy that surrounds today's canonizations: "Frequently
pilgrimages are made to John XXIII's tomb in St. Peter's Basilica.
Letters asking his intercession or informing him of intentions
to live a better life arrive from all over the world. His life
story makes people want to live better with increased commitment
Indeed, for the many whose lives have
been touched by John XXIII, he is obviously a saint.
Some participants at the Second Vatican
Council (1962-65) favored canonizing John XXIII by acclamation,
in the tradition of the Church's early centuries. Pope John, who
had convened the Council, had died from cancer in 1963, after
the Council's first session. The late Belgian Cardinal Leo
Suenens, a close friend of John XXIII, complained to the Council
that the formal saintmaking procedures were too lengthy when people
were seeking near-contemporaries to inspire them.
Suenens and other like-minded bishops thought that acclaiming
Pope John as a saint would be a weighty endorsement of his policies
of openness to non-Catholic Christians and to the modern world.
They circulated a proposal among Council Fathers which stated:
"...From Pope John the world has learned that it is not so
alienated from the Church after all, nor is the Church from the
world. Maybe now the world expects us to declare that we do not
consider Pope John a dreamer, or as one who had rashly overturned
everything that, with long and patient effort, will have to be
put back in order...but on the contrary, that we see him as a
true Christian, indeed a saintly one, a man filled with love for
the world and for all mankind."
But some conservative Council Fathers suspected the acclamation
proponents were interested as much in Church politics as in piety.
They thought the endorsement of John XXIII pitted him against
his immediate predecessor, Pius XII, contrasting the two popes,
their personalities and policies.
The Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints was less than
enthusiastic about the proposal because it meant the saintmaking
process was being snatched out of its hands by the Council participants.
That congregation had been established four centuries earlier
to prevent mistakes and improvisations in creating saints. Each
candidate's private and public life was to be examined meticulously.
Particularly in the case of popes this meant years spent gathering
the necessary documentation. The process, it was argued, should
not be short-circuited by acclamation.
The potential conflict over the proposal to acclaim John XXIII
a saint was avoided when Paul VI announced that the process would
be initiated simultaneously on behalf of Pius XII as well. The
decision was a vindication of the Congregation for the Causes
of Saints and also suggested continuity between the two popes:
If Pope John had convoked the Council, Pius had done much to prepare
it. (Pius's encyclicals, for example, are often quoted in conciliar
The two investigations are proceeding separately but the Vatican
could decide to announce the results simultaneously.
In his ground-breaking 1990 book Making
Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint,
Who Doesn't, and Why, journalist Kenneth L. Woodward devotes
a chapter to the problems about making popes saints. He observes
that, of John XXIII's 260 predecessors, 81 are recognized as saints.
Of Peter's first 48 successors, 47 are saints. Of the remainder,
30 of the saints died before 1100 and therefore before the Church
developed even elementary procedures for investigating their lives.
In the past 900 years, only three popes
have been recognized as saints. One was Celestine V, a monk who
abdicated in 1294 after only five months in office. He was canonized
in 1313. Since formal canonization procedures were organized in
1588, only two popes have been canonized: Pius V (1566-1572),
who implemented the teachings of the Council of Trent, and Pius
But now the processes of John XXIII
and Pius XII are under way and that for Paul VI is beginning.
It seems almost that election to the papacy eventually entails
sainthood. Creation of pope-saints leads almost inevitably to
invidious comparisons. Why is Pius X, whose purge against modernism
created an anti-intellectual climate and many victims, recognized
as a saint but not Leo XIII (1878-1903), who with Rerum Novarum
established the modern papal tradition of social justice teaching?
And why not Benedict XV (1914-1922), who courageously denounced
the horror of World War I?
In examining the causes of popes, not
only personal virtues but also policy must be assessed. Policy
is almost always controversial, especially if a pontificate lasts
for many years. This is exemplified by Pius IX (1846-1878) who,
on his election, was welcomed as open-minded but later acquired
a reputation as a reactionary, largely because of the Syllabus
of Errors. Among other things the Syllabus condemned religious
freedom. The cause of this pope of the first Vatican Council and
of the proclamation of papal infallibility who refused to be reconciled
with "progress, democracy and modern civilization" is
still on course but remains controversial.
John XXIII had
a comparatively short reign of not quite five years. He had time
to launch the Council but did not have to face its more regrettable
Italian Father Antonio Cairoli, O.F.M.,
an experienced postulator-
general, was put
in charge of the cause of John XXIII back in the 60's. A postulator
guides or manages the cause, finds collaborators and decides which
alleged miracles should be thoroughly examined. Although theoretically
the position is open to all Catholics, usually it is filled by
a member of one of the major religious orders. The postulator-general
of an order is the principal postulator, perhaps among several
postulators who are promoting large numbers of saints' causes.
Cairoli had a formidable task: Pope
John had a long life including Vatican service in Bulgaria, Turkey
and France. As Angelo Roncalli, he had also been patriarch of
Venice. Tribunals to examine his record were established in all
these places and also in his native Bergamo where he first served
as a priest.
The life history of Pope John XXIII
will be critical to his cause. Angelo Roncalli was born into a
sharecropper family near Bergamo,
in the foothills of the Alps, on November 25, 1881. He completed
his studies for the priesthood in Rome and returned home to become
secretary to a socially involved bishop who was a victim of the
ecclesiastical spies used by the Vatican of Pius X to root out
modernism. For a time Roncalli himself was suspect.
During World War I, he did front-line
service as a medic and chaplain
in the Italian Army. A few years after the war he was sent as
Vatican representative to Bulgaria, then to Turkey where, during
World War II, he helped refugees from Nazi Germany. He became
Vatican nuncio in France, where he dissuaded General Charles de
Gaulle from forcing the Holy See to remove 25 French bishops who
had collaborated with the wartime, Nazi-collaborating Petain regime.
In 1953 he was made cardinal-archbishop of Venice. It seemed the culmination of his career.
But, upon Pius XII's death in 1958, as a compromise candidate,
he was elected pope at the age of 77.
John XXIII's first social encyclical,
Mater et Magister, appeared in 1961 and his second, Pacem
in Terris, shortly before his death on June 3, 1963. In the
first he endorsed, to an unprecedented degree, state intervention
political matters but also a wider range of individual and people's
rights. Pacem in Terris maintained that peace could only
be reached by collaboration between all people of upright conscience,
which meant even those involved in movements inspired by erroneous
ideologies. He encouraged his flock to look not at political labels
but at what public figures do as their works may contain "good
and commendable elements."
The encyclical ended the frontal opposition
between Catholics and Communists. Now, for instance, they could
cooperate on projects favoring peace. The encyclical opened the
way for Paul VI's ostpolitik, a policy of negotiating with
Communist governments on behalf of Catholics behind the Iron Curtain.
During the Cuban missile crisis (1962)
Pope John managed to ease the tension between the Kennedy administration
and the Khrushchev regime. He broke the tradition of the pope
as "prisoner of the Vatican" by traveling outside Rome.
Perhaps most important of all, he showed trust in contemporaries:
It was clear his concern was for the world and all humankind rather
than solely for the Church.
Although he seemed as reassuring as
a favorite uncle, he chose to devote his energy to new things
rather than fight old fights as his predecessors were wont to
do. They had admonished the modern world but he caught its attention.
His homely figure, his directness and warmth, which were effective
on TV and in person, made a huge impact even on non-Catholics.
I recall a hard-bitten, non-Catholic journalist who, after seeing
John XXIII in central Rome, enthused, "I could kiss the man."
Without forewarning the Church's cautious
central administration, the Roman Curia, he convoked the first
council since 1870. He opened it with a speech against the prophets
of doom in which he invited participants to look to the contemporary
world with hope.
Pope John thought the Council would
conclude within months, but instead he was to die before its second
session. His death brought extraordinary displays of affection
and esteem both in Rome and throughout the world. Devotion to
him has continued--which is the first necessity for candidates
Many recall his extraordinary capacity
to establish an intimate relationship with tens of thousands without
being mawkish. Once he asked the crowd in St. Peter's Square beneath
his apartment window to take his caress to their children. He
embodied the spiritual paternity his office
Recently a German retired chemist,
Ludwig Hassler of Frankfurt, who was praying at Pope John's tomb
in a grotto beneath St. Peter's Basilica, said he recalled the
pope with affection because, without losing any of his papal dignity,
he was so fully human.
In 1965 John XXIII's first postulator,
Father Cairoli, set out on the track of Angelo Roncalli. In Turkey
he heard that the money Roncalli had funneled to Jewish refugees
from Nazism had come from Hitler's ambassador to Turkey, Franz
von Papen, a Catholic who did not want the Nazis to win the war.
Von Papen gave money to the papal nuncio which had been earmarked
to bribe the Turks to side with Germany. Cairoli arrived in time
to confirm the story with von Papen himself, who was living in
the Black Forest area.
in the Middle
Cairoli had several alleged miracles
to examine. There was one in Chicago but, rather than examine
it, he chose one in the Naples region and another in Sicily. In
1987, Cairoli told journalist Kenneth Woodward that it saved the
cost of flying to Chicago and, moreover, most Italian doctors
did not charge for testifying to a miracle.
The Naples-region cure, which occurred
in 1966, concerned a nun who had multiple stomach ulcers and other
grave intestinal maladies. The Sicilian cure, which took place
in 1967, concerned the healing of a woman who suffered from tubercular
peritonitis and a heart problem.
After more than 20 years work, Cairoli
had gathered 6,000 documents regarding John XXIII and testimony
from some 280 witnesses which ran to over 20,000 pages. He was
preparing to write the positio, the report on the investigation
and an assessment of the evidence. But Cairoli himself died in
The Franciscan's new postulator-general,
Father Juan Folguera, a Spanish friar, replaced Cairoli, but he
too went to join John XXIII in February of this year. Now the
Italian Father De Rosa has become the pope's third postulator.
Not only have there been three postulators
for the cause but, twice since the process began, the rules have
changed. Pope John's cause was started under rules incorporated
in the Code of Canon Law of 1917. But substantial changes were
made by Paul VI in 1969. Then further modifications were introduced
by John Paul II in January 1995.
One indication that the cause began
under the old dispensation is that two alleged miracles have been
thoroughly checked. Under the newer rules only one miracle is
required before beatification. A miracle which must take place
after beatification is required before canonization.
The updated rules place more emphasis
on a historical approach whereas the previous rules were modeled
on a legal trial. Gone are many of the lawyers and time-consuming
legal quibbles, posturing and infamous, heated courtroom scenes.
The old procedure was designed to ascertain universal, timeless
prototypes of sanctity; now there is greater attention to the
candidate's response to the challenge of a particular time and
Much of the juridical process, the
oldest in the Western world, remains intact. Candidates must be
thoroughly examined at the local level before the cases are referred
to Rome. (A pope's case is an exception.) Once Rome accepts the
case, a postulator is appointed to guide it until the pope makes
the final decision. But no longer is there a Defender of the Faith,
better known as the Devil's Advocate, whose task was to pick holes
in the case in order to protect the Church from hoaxes and charlatans.
The adversarial element in the procedure
has been lost with abolition of the Devil's Advocate. Replacing
the lawyers who used to argue saints' cases, Paul VI's reforms
introduced a new key figure, the relator. The relator's task is
to assess and present the evidence, with all the pros and cons,
evenhandedly. The relator can be a layman or laywoman but, in
fact, tends to be a Rome-based cleric because the pay is too low
for most highly qualified laity. A doctorate in theology is a
necessary qualification as well as fluency in Latin, Italian and
other modern languages, and a willingness to learn some canon
In the case of John XXIII, Father Cairoli
had intended to serve both as postulator (who oversees the cause)
and relator (who presents the evidence). Today the pope's relator
is a large, red-haired, German Dominican, Father Ambrose Eszer.
He has been working in various capacities for the Congregation
for the Causes of Saints for decades. Among the other candidates
for whom he is relator is Charles I, the last of the Austro-Hungarian
emperors. Father Eszer was relator in the successful cause for
the Opus Dei founder, Father Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, who
died in 1975 and was beatified in 1992.
Although there are complaints that
the new system is lacking in internal checks, all criticisms of
the candidate have to be taken into account. Angelo Roncalli left
a persuasive account of his spiritual development, of his unremitting
war against pride and other temptations in The Diary of a Soul.
In his journal he reveals the efficacy of methods which some now
consider old-fashioned: for instance, Roncalli conscientiously
avoided being alone with women.
An Italian priest-friend of John XXIII,
Giuseppe De Luca, claimed that although the pope appeared easy-going,
his feelings and judgments were the result of lengthy development.
He claimed that Pope John felt constantly in God's presence but
jealously protected his interior, spiritual life. In other words,
there was hard work behind his accessibility.
Some have criticized John XXIII for
being too concerned with the economic fortunes of his relatives.
But there are many episodes in which he showed a munificent spirit.
There is an oft-told story of when he was brought back to Rome
from Turkey to become nuncio in Paris. He went to Monsignor Domenico
Tardini, who ran the Vatican diplomatic service. "I presume
you chose me for Paris," said Roncalli. Brusque Tardini answered,
"You're the last one I'd choose." (Pius XII himself
had wanted Roncalli in Paris.)
When Roncalli was elected pope, Tardini
expected the axe. He offered his resignation as secretary of state
but John XXIII insisted he stay on, saying, "You don't have
much esteem for me and you're perfectly right, but I esteem you.
You've worked at the center of the Church whereas I've worked
on the outskirts and know what it wants from the center so we
make a good team."
But even if Pope John's personal life
was admirable, what of his policies? These, of course, entail
the Council and the problems which followed it, which some attribute
to the pope not ensuring adequate preparation.
Impulsivity is not a virtue in a pope.
But the inquiry into John XXIII's life has shown the tenacity
of his interests which led to the Council: For 50 years he worked
on a critical edition of five books by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo
about the application of the decrees of the Council of Trent.
In 1925 he made Vatican hackles rise because of his ecumenical
initiatives in Bulgaria which prefigured the invitation to the
Orthodox to attend the Council. In 1944 in Istanbul he gave a
sermon on a council to be held in the postwar period.
Postulator De Rosa, who has built on
the work of his two predecessors rather than starting from the
beginning again, is convinced that the balance easily will favor
Pope John. "The criticisms," he says, "do not amount
to much." They all will be refuted in the preface to the
Father De Rosa continues: "The
most striking thing is not the criticisms, but that eminent people,
including nonbelievers, have praised the candidate's exemplary
life and constant commitment to progressing toward sanctity--as
is amply evident in The Diary of a Soul--and his anxiety
in every circumstance to propose to all men Christ and his gospel
of salvation." Vatican II is the "highest and most convincing
testimony," says De Rosa, to John XXIII's "love for
the Church and his pastoral zeal for the Reign of God."
Father De Rosa reports that the voluminous
positio will soon be published. It will then be examined
by theological consultants. If they approve, it goes before a
board of cardinals and bishops.
As with all sainthood causes, the final
decision on Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, lies with the man
who sits in the Chair of Peter. Pope John Paul II could be tempted
to proclaim John XXIII a saint for the Great Jubilee of the Year
2000. But history has proven saint-making predictions to be speculative
For further reading on Pope John XXIII, check out A Retreat With Pope John XXIII: Opening Windows to Wisdom by Alfred McBride, O.Praem. (St. Anthony Messenger Press).
Desmond O'Grady is a free-lance
author and journalist based in Rome, Italy. He has been Vatican
correspondent for The
Washington Post and several Catholic publications. His new
book, The Turned Card: Christianity Before and After the Wall
(Loyola Press) will be published early in 1997.