Servants of the servants

Originally Appeared in : 9823-11/8/18

Two weeks ago, in these pages, I “took a walk down memory lane,” recalling the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, that “ended” the First World War, at the same time practically guaranteeing a Second World War. A little over two months earlier, my father had been born.


Let’s fast forward almost 40 years, to October 1958. On the ninth of that month, Pope Pius XII, a towering figure, died after a fruitful 19-year pontificate. As a precocious news junkie, at the ripe old age of nine, I poured over the newspaper coverage of this great pope’s passing, even though my family was not Catholic, but rather Methodist. I read with great interest the tributes from the Jewish communities around the world to the Catholic Bishop of Rome, who apparently had saved some 400,000 Jews from extermination by the Nazis during the Second World War. It was reported at that time that the chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, had not only praised Pope Pius (Eugenio Pacelli) for his compassionate help to the Jewish people during that conflict, but had later converted to Catholicism, taking as his baptismal name “Eugenio Maria.” That fact seems to have been consigned to oblivion by the world’s press for the last several decades: “He is dead to them.”


In that same month October 1958, the conclave of cardinals gathered in Rome to elect a successor: Pope Pius made an unexpected choice and elected the 77-year-old Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli as Bishop of Rome, Patriarch of the West, and Servant of the Servants of God. The new pope humbly took the unexpected name, John XXIII, because it was the most common name used by popes in the past, was his father’s name and that of the patron saint of the church in which he was baptized.


The smiling portly figure of Pope John—I wanted to say “roly-poly,” but feared that such a word might be interpreted as disrespectful towards a pope for whom I have always had the greatest degree of respect and whose canonization I gladly attended some four years ago—seemed to embrace the whole world, which in turn embraced him. (I can fairly be described as “portly” and “roly-poly” myself.)


I remember walking home from Oakwood Elementary School on that Oct. 28, 1958 – a walk of all of two blocks – to learn from my Methodist mother that a new pope had been elected and that his name was “Angelo Giuseppe Cardinal Roncalli,” a fantastic Italian name that neither of us understood, but both of us thought sounded wonderful. We watched some of the sketchy coverage on television — black and white in those days – and then retired for the night, or so I thought.


Unbeknownst to my sister and me, my parents had called neighbors to sit with us, while we were sleeping, as they rushed to my maternal grandfather’s deathbed. On the night of the very same day that Pope John was elected, my Grandpoppy, Stanley Vance Cook, MS, died at the age of 70, after a brilliant career as a pioneering research chemist. For many years, my sister Diane and I had spent many if not most weekends with our maternal grandparents, who lived near us in Dayton, Ohio. Grandpoppy had taught me to read and had loved us both with a love beyond all telling. Freud would probably have had a field day with my regarding the living Pope John as my surrogate grandfather on earth, once my Grandpoppy had gone to heaven. But so did many others.


I remember watching with fascination as film of Pope John’s splendid coronation Mass was shown on television from film flown overnight from Rome the day after it happened on Nov. 4, 1958, 60 years ago. Five years later, on June 3, 1963, the world mourned Good Pope John, whose pontificate of less than five years was one of the most significant in history. He convoked the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which undertook a vast aggiornamento—“todaying”—of the way in which the Catholic Church expresses the unchangeable faith that comes to us from the apostles. The Council, following the Pope’s lead, placed the Catholic Church at the very center of the ecumenical movement for Christian unity, its rightful place. Pope Saint John XXIII began the process of reforming the Code of Canon Law and attracted “people of good will” to the Mother Church. I watched on television (this time transmitted in real time by satellite) as his successor, Giovanni Battista Montini, was crowned Pope Paul VI during an impressive outdoor Mass in St. Peter's Square, and followed closely the unfolding of the Council under his watch. I have recently recounted in these pages how Saint Paul VI became “my pope” over the 15 years of his pontificate. The Church was richly blessed in these two sainted popes.


Between October 1958 (60 years ago) and June 1963 (55 years ago), the Catholic Church underwent a major metamorphosis, which I actually observed from a distance. I could not have imagined at that time that in 2018 I would have been a Catholic for 50 of those years and a priest for 42 of them. God works in mysterious ways…


Father Douglas K. Clark STL is pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro. 

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