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ALMOST A SAINT:
POPE JOHN XXIII

His embrace and smile reached around the world, to believers and nonbelievers. Now his case for canonization is reaching a critical time. Will he be recognized by the Church as a saint?

By Desmond O'Grady

PHOTO BY JACK WINTZ, O.F.M.

(Top) Pope John's sculpted image adorns a door of St. Peter's Basilica.


The Early Acclamation Attempt
Peasant to Pope
Caught in the Middle
Pope-saints
The Investigation
An Impulsive Council?


HE 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, a saint?

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 to fraternity."

Indeed, for the many whose lives have been touched by John XXIII, he is obviously a saint.

The Early Acclamation Attempt

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 documents.)

The two investigations are proceeding separately but the Vatican could decide to announce the results simultaneously.

Pope-saints

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 X (1903-1914).

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 consequences.

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.

Peasant to Pope

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 in socio- 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 for sainthood.

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 represents.

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.

The Investigation

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.

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 March 1989.

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.

Caught in the Middle

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 place.

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 law.

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."

An Impulsive Council?

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 positio.

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 at best.

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.

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