Tomorrow is not only Columbus Day but it is also the feast day of Pope St. John XXIII. He was elected pope in 1958 at the age of 76 and soon after called for an ecumenical council, which is a council of all the bishops in the Catholic Church, to discuss issues of our faith. To date, there have been 21 ecumenical councils in the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council being the most recent.
Our Orthodox brothers hold to only seven ecumenical councils, since the break from Rome in 1050. They believe that this break has stopped the unity of all the bishops to hold a “true” ecumenical council. When Pope St. John XXIII called for an ecumenical council, he did so at a difficult time in society, the turbulent decade of the 60’s. The Vietnam War was beginning, communism was on the rise and authority was being challenged in every aspect of life. Some cardinals questioned whether this was a good idea. Others agreed that it should be called. Pope John XXIII presided at the opening of the council and the first sessions, but he would soon die and the council would be in danger of ending. But Pope St. Paul VI decided that he would continue with John XXIII’s plans and allowed the council to continue to meet.
Some wonder if the council and the council’s documents would have been different if John XXIII lived throughout the council. For example, the most obvious change that was brought forth from the council was the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Pope St. John XXIII had already made a simple change in the Missal of 1962, when he added St. Joseph’s name to the Roman Canon (the Eucharistic Prayer) that is prayed at Mass. This was controversial at the time because no one was supposed to change any of the word, adding or subtracting, in the venerable Roman Canon. In any event, John XXIII, through the force of his personality, did make that change. But John XXIII was also a lover of the Mass that was celebrated at the opening of the first session of the council. He was also a lover of the Latin language, as was obvious in his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, which was written for the promotion of the study of the Latin language. It is a beautiful document that praises the use of Latin in all areas of our society. I encourage you to find it on the internet and read it, if you are interested in the mind of John XXIII.
Having written and promulgated this document, I find it very difficult to believe that he would have allowed the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular languages once the Second Vatican Council ended. We will never know what would have happened if John XXIII had lived. In any event, Pope St. John XXIII went to his eternal reward leaving the Catholic Church in the arms of Pope St. Paul VI. Two saints, two popes, two missals with each of their names attached to it, two bishops who were praised for being pastoral, and today we have the Missal of Pope St. John XXIII (1962) being called divisive and looking backwards and needing to be suppressed (according to some bishops, cardinals and even our current pope) and the other Missal of Pope St. Paul VI (1970) that is the normative way for the overwhelming majority of Catholics to worship every Sunday. A pope and a saint as pastoral as John XXIII should not be discarded so quickly in today’s spiritual wilderness.BACK TO LIST