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Posted April 22, 2005

Book: John XXIII: Pope of the Century
Author: Peter Hebblethwaite
Continuum, New York, pp.284

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope in 1958 and in four and a half years, through summoning the Second Vatican Council and putting in hand a major revision of the code of Canon Law, has transformed the Roman Catholic Church. Through his personality and teaching, and his initiatives with world leaders, he gave the papacy a new vision and set before the Catholic Church a new version of its mission to the world. Today, many people throughout the world see Pope John XXIII as one of the twentieth century’s most loved and influential figures.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Last Will and Testament
I never dared be radical when young.
For fear it would make me conservative when old.

Robert Frost

Convalescence, Christmas and a message from Khrushchev came at about the same time.

In the excitement of the Council, Pope John had not forgotten about Metropolitan Josef Slipyi, still in a Soviet forced labor camp. The problem was to find some way of communicating with Khrushchev. It was Norman Cousins who made the breakthrough. As the first session of the Council drew t a close, he met Dell’Acqua and Cardinale with the news that he had a rendezvous fixed with Khrushchev for 11:30 a.m. on December 13. They told Cousins that Pope John would regard Slipyi’s release a clear sign of good will.

Within a few days Cousin’s twenty-page report on his conversation was on Pope John’s desk. Khrushchev told Cousins that he didn’t know where Slipyi was now. But he said: “I will have the case examined and if there are assurances that it will not be turned into a political case, I will not rule out liberation. I’ve had other enemies, and one more at large doesn’t alarm me. Khrushchev appeared genuinely grateful for Pope John’s intervention in the Cuban missile crisis, and essayed a folksy comparison between himself and the Pope: “We both come from humble origins and worked on the land in our youth.

The new element to emerge was that Khrushchev wanted regular though private contacts with the Vatican; the Cuban emergency had shown how necessary this was. There was to be give and take, and the Soviet Union should recognize that the Catholic Church wishes to serve everyone. Cousins put the final point of agreement as follows: ‘Khrushchev recognizes that it was very courageous of the Pope to act as he did, given that he has problems within the Church, just as Khrushchev has in the Soviet Union.

On December 19 the indefatigable Cousins had a forty-minute audience with Pope John. He delivered a personal message from Khrushchev:

To His Holiness Pope John XXIII. On the occasion of the holy season of Christmas I beg you accept good wishes for your health and energy to pursue efforts in favor of peace, well-being and prosperity for all humanity.

N. Khrushchev

John said to Cousins:

I get many message these days from people who are praying that my illness may be without pain. But pain is not my enemy. I have memories, so many marvellous memories. These memories bring me great joy, and fill up my life so that there is no room for pain. When I was young I was apostolic delegate to Bulgaria. I came to understand and love the Slav peoples. I tried to study Slavonic languages, including Russian. Do you know Russian?

Cousins did not know Russian. John went on:

A pity. You should learn it. Your are much younger than I. It wouldn’t take you too long. It is a very important language. The Russian people are a wonderful people. We must not condemn them because we don’t like their political system. They have a deep spiritual inheritance which they have not lost. We can talk with them. We must always try to speak to the goodness that is in people. Nothing is lost in the attempt. Everything may be lost if men do not find a way to work together to save peace.

Back in New York Cousins saw to it that Pope John became ‘Time’s man of the year.’ a tasteful drawing adorned the cover, and the fulsome article proclaimed: ‘To the entire world Pope John has given what neither diplomacy nor science could give: a sense of the unity of the human family.’ Rober Kaiser, Time’s man in Rome during the first session, was writing a book to explain it all and exalt the Pope. In February Time-Life invited Pope John to a spectacular summit lunch in New York, where the other guests would include Kennedy, Khrushchev, deGaulle, Adenauer, Karl Barth and Pablo Picasso. It was to be most exclusive: only those who had made the cover of Time were asked. John didn’t reject the idea out of hand, but thought it needed time to ‘mature.’ And a visit of Kennedy to the Vatican in that same month of May was also tentatively arranged. If Norman Cousins and Time cannot be said to be ‘created’ Pope John’s American image, they certainly did their best to make it widely known.

Meanwhile, Pope John was wondering how to reply to Khrushchev’s message. Rejecting the icy, anodyne draft proposed by the Secretariat of State, he typed out the message himself:

Cordial thanks for the courteous message of good wishes. We return them from the heart in words that come from on high: Peace on earth to people of good will.

We bring to your attention two Christmas documents from this year which call for the consolidation of a just peace between peoples.

May the good Lord hear and respond to the ardor and sincerity of our efforts and prayers. Fiat pax in virtute tua, et abundantia in turribus tuis. [Peace within your walls, and security within your towers’: Psalm 122.7].

Joyful good wishes for the prosperity of the Russian people and all the people of the world.

He enclosed his Christmas broadcast to be given the next day, December 22, and his address to the diplomatic corps. The Secretariat of State thought it was a mistake to use such a warm tone and to be quoting scripture – in Latin – when addressing an atheist dictator. So Pope John had to use Cardinal Bea’s secretary, Fr. Stjepan Schmidt SJ, to deliver his package to the Soviet ambassador. John sealed it with a picture of Our Lady of Tiepolo and the prayer “Hail, Mary, hope of the world; hail, holy and meek Virgin, filled with God’s love, gentle and serene’. Khrushchev was not to know that his prayer, attributed to Pope Innocent III, rhythmic as a mantra, had been used by John since his seminary days. Khrushchev was being assaulted by prayer.

Table of Contents:

1. A village boyhood

2. A Counter-Reformation seminary

3. A Roman education

4. Into the whirlwind of modernism

5. The Great War

6. Towards propaganda and Fascism

7. Ten hard years in Bulgaria

8. The innocent suspect

9. God’s consul

10. Difficult mission to France

11. The seasons of Venice

12. 1958: the wide-open conclave

13. The first ninety days

14. The inspiration of the Council

15. The struggle for the Council

16. At home and in Rome

17. The Italian connection

18. Enter Augustin Bea

19. Getting on for eighty

20. The dress rehearsal

21. On the slopes of the sacred mountain

22. Sixty days to change the Church

23. Last will and testament

24. Eastertide