During his lifetime and in the years after his death, the world referred to John XXIII as “the good Pope John.” After half a century new generations who never experienced his warmth and love now remember him mostly as the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council. While some blame him for destroying what they cherished, and many others are grateful for the new possibilities the Council embraced, none can deny his pivotal position in the history of the Church of Rome.
There is no way to understand the history of the Church of Rome apart from the huge waves of immigrants who flooded Western Europe, from 376 until about 800. What remained of the Roman Empire in the West gradually crumbled as these peoples moved south and westward, seeking a better life. The bishop of Rome took on political responsibilities and power that had nothing to do with overseeing the local churches in his care. Christian missionaries struggled to convert these immigrants, often baptizing entire tribes en masse–with little catechesis–and the Mysteries of the Church sank beneath a pall of human religiosity.
In the middle of the eighth century, Charles, the king of the Frankish tribes, began to re-establish a center of secular political power. In the year 800 he declared himself the first “Roman” emperor the West had seen in three hundred years. While he was perfectly capable of governing on his own, the blessing of the bishop of Rome brought him additional prestige. History remembers him as Charlemagne.
With Charlemagne the first fissures began to appear in what had been a seamless Christian theology. Claiming to lead what had been the Roman Empire, he faced an unbroken line of Roman emperors in Constantinople. To shore up his own claims, he gathered theologians who challenged Church life and doctrine in the East. Though the differences they introduced were subtle at first, they eventually led to Scholasticism and an entirely different kind of theology. By 1054 the differences had become so great that East and West could no longer understand one another and each excommunicated the other.
While the bishop of Rome had blessed Charlemagne, Charlemagne’s successors found themselves competing for political power with later popes. Gregory VII declared that he had the power to depose any emperor. Papal power continued to grow until the Protestant Reformation and the rise of nation states in the early modern era. On September 2, 1870, the Kingdom of Italy annexed the last of the lands popes had controlled for centuries. Mussolini created the State of the Vatican City in 1929 and gave it back to the pope. Popes lived there in voluntary isolation until the election of John XXIII.
Over many centuries a powerful bureaucracy grew up around the papacy. Meant to assist the pope in his gargantuan task of trying to preside over the entire Catholic world, the bureaucracy, or curia, slowly acquired its own power that rivaled that of the pope. Popes came and went but the curia remained. Strong popes wrestled with it. It controlled those who were weak. And it held in a vise-like grip what had grown from the vision of Charlemagne.
By 1958, when John was elected pope, the “Frankish” Church of Charlemagne had painted itself into a proverbial corner. Papal claims of supremacy had splintered Christianity in the West and alienated the Churches of the East. Scholasticism had created a sterile system of quasi-magical sacraments and rigid ethical norms. Once Christian countries were becoming more secular at an alarming rate. Christians in the West longed for a breath of fresh air.
At first John seemed a safe choice as pope. The Vatican curia settled back for a long-deserved rest after the workout they had been through with Pius XII. They soon discovered, however, that a foreign virus had invaded their body politic: with John, the Gospel, pure and simple, ascended the papal throne. At Pius’ death, when John, who was then a cardinal, was summoned to Rome to elect a new pope, he said something that would summarize his pontificate and his entire life: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” Politics now gave way to prophecy. The Gospel became the parameter of everything once again.
The papal throne slipped from the hands of the curia, and the result was institutional panic. It was the curia that created the myth of “good Pope John,” the man too holy to be pope, as a means to sabotage his theological and intellectual stature. They considered him incompetent and wanted to isolate the “holy madness” that was undoing their vision of Church—even if that meant opposing his every step.
Few people knew what John’s years as pope were really like. Behind the smiling façade was immense suffering caused by the constant underhanded attacks from his curia. On his deathbed he said to his secretary, “We have worked, we have served the Church. We did not stop to pick up the stones that were thrown at us from all sides. And we did not throw them back at anyone.”
John’s revolution continues to be felt after his death. The garden of life continues to flourish in the most unlikely places, for it belongs to the Holy Spirit. Christian unity, so desired by John, is now taking place at the grassroots—and religious leaders will have to run to catch up with their people. Religious Orders and theologians are going back to original sources, sidestepping centuries of Scholastic stalemate. That is what can happen when the Gospel itself is enthroned in Rome and a pope goes out as a simple bishop to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.