Pope John XXIII, liberal icon?

Pope John XXIII, liberal icon?

In yet another report on Sunday’s dual papal canonization, Reuters’ Tom Heneghan repeats the most popular take on the historic event: By canonizing both popes, Pope Francis’ aim is principally rooted political calculation, i.e., to unite two warring factions within Catholicism by canonizing the “liberal” John XXIII and the “conservative” John Paul II. Take a look:

When it comes to details, though, opinions [about the popes] will diverge. The debates are long and complex [so we’ll ignore them], but the popular notion of John as a liberal champion and John Paul as a conservative stalwart gives a rough outline of how they are seen. [Ok…but is that “notion” about Pope John XXIII accurate?]

As such, they symbolize two groups in the Catholic Church that have disagreed for decades, sometimes bitterly, over how to interpret the results of the reforming Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 that John launched and John Paul largely implemented. [Symbolism matters more than reality because the symbols fit the narrative the media wants to advance: John XXIII symbolizes liberalism in the Church.]

By canonizing both, Argentine-born Pope Francis will be using the symbolism of unity to urge Catholics to look beyond these divisions to join together in following the Gospel. . . .

John, who was born in Italy in 1881 and reigned from 1958 to 1963, is best remembered for convening the Council and promoting “aggiornamento” (updating) to open the Church to modern times.

He died after the first of the Council’s four sessions [not an insignificant point] and did not witness its far-reaching changes – including the end of Latin at Mass [No.], use of modern music and challenges to Vatican authority – that appealed to reformers but alienated those more at home with the traditional ways. [So, John XXIII is portrayed as approving the sweeping liturgical reforms that took place years after a Council that he didn’t even live to see the conclusion of. It should be noted that John XXIII issued the 1962 Roman Missal, which is used today for liturgies in the extraordinary form.]

Polish-born John Paul, pope from 1978 to 2005, upheld many Council reforms, but shifted the emphasis towards a more centralized Church, with clearer condemnations of wayward theologians and sexual freedom and a more assertive expression of Catholic identity in a strongly secularized world.

(In a fascinating interview with the New Liturgical Movement, the late Domenico Cardinal Bartolucci, Director Emeritus of the Sistine Chapel Choir made the following observation, “Also, knowing John XXIII, I am sure he would not have permitted all the changes which have extremely impoverished the liturgical life of the Church.” Read the interview in its entirety. Cardinal Bartolucci’s observations on the post-Vatican II era, from within the Vatican, his “clashes” with Bugnini, etc., are incredibly insightful.)

If you desire to learn about the real Pope John XXIII, it’s not difficult. Read his documents and speeches, read the 1962 Roman Missal. Don’t get your information about il Papa buono from media stories reporting on “notions” of what the man symbolizes.