Pope John XXIII: A Lifeby Thomas Cahill
Thomas Cahill combines his remarkable insight and knowledge to portray this legendary and beloved pontiff. In rich, passionate prose Cahill follows the pope's life from his peasant roots to the landmark Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on worldwide social justice, which marked the beginning of a true shift in the Catholic Church and its relationship to
Thomas Cahill combines his remarkable insight and knowledge to portray this legendary and beloved pontiff. In rich, passionate prose Cahill follows the pope's life from his peasant roots to the landmark Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on worldwide social justice, which marked the beginning of a true shift in the Catholic Church and its relationship to the modern world. In a biography that will captivate Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Cahill's signature blend of imagination, interpretive insight, and scholarship mirrors Pope John's own intuition, spontaneity, and all-embracing vision.
Read an Excerpt
"Toward a New Order of Human Relationships"
"IN THE DAILY EXERCISE of our pastoral ministry-and much to our sorrow-we must sometimes listen to those who, consumed with zeal, have scant judgment or balance," said John XXIII to the bishops of the world assembled in Saint Peter's Basilica as he opened the precedent-shattering Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II) in 1962. "To such ones the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruin. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages, and they rant on as if they had learned nothing at all from history-and yet, history is the great Teacher of Life....We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of doom who are forever forecasting calamity-as though the world's end were imminent. Today, rather, Providence is guiding us toward a new order of human relationships, which, thanks to human effort and yet far surpassing human hopes, will bring us to the realization of still higher and undreamed of expectations."
This was uttered with his accustomed warmth and serene joy by a short man with sensuous lips and a hooked nose set in a flat Italian peasant's face framed by elephantine ears, a fat old man with twinkling eyes and a seductively resonant voice, robed with such extravagant dignity as to underscore the comedy of his figure. The glimpse he offered of the pope's daily trials of patience in the midst of an overheated clerical atmosphere proved too much for his handlers, the little, anonymous men of the Vatican. As John went on to ask his audience for "a leap forward" (un balzo in John's original Italian text) in insight (penetrazione) into the Church's teaching and a new coat of paint (la formulazione del suo rivestimento) in which to clothe the old doctrines, the little men made plans to censor the pope's text, to clip from the official transcript here and to add there, in order to prevent scandal to the faithful and to gratify their own outraged sensibilities. But the original text, before they could get their hands on it, was, like so many things John said, unlike anything any pope had said before or would say since; and this is because John was unlike any other pope.
We would not remember John at all were it not for the office he occupied in the last five years of his life: bishop of Rome, successor to Peter the Fisherman, the leading figure among Jesus's apostles. From this unique position John was able to cast a pebble into the pond of human experience that has continued to reverberate in ever wider rings. To understand his crucial importance to the world's one billion Catholics, his remarkable influence on Christians everywhere, and his effect on human hopes and happiness, we must spend some time retracing the long and labyrinthine history of the papacy, which gave him his platform.
From Congregation to Church to
Standard of Orthodoxy
VATICAN PROPAGANDA notwithstanding, Peter was never "bishop of Rome." In the five narrative books with which the New Testament begins-the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles-Peter is given prominence, a prominence that would later be interpreted as his "primacy" over the other bishops of the primitive Church. But the early Church communities had a congregational structure, like the synagogues from which they sprang. The word bishop (episkopos, or superintendent, in Greek) was at first interchangeable with the word elder (presbyteros, from which we derive our word priest) and did not signify rule over others. After the death of the apostles, who had been the chief witnesses to Jesus's life and teaching, and under the pressure of bizarre heresies and the consequent need to establish a voice of orthodoxy within each community, the Churches of the late first century began to single out an episkopos to take doctrinal charge of each local Church. The Christian community at Rome, however, seems not to have adopted this strategy till toward the middle of the second century. The first man who can be designated "bishop of Rome" with historical certainty is Anicetus, who stands eleventh in the Vatican's somewhat fanciful list of early "popes" and who served from 155 to his death c. 166, weakening considerably the "claim" of Peter, who died a hundred years earlier.
But Peter did die at Rome, crucified during the first widespread persecution of Christians-under the emperor Nero-and his bones surely lie beneath the high altar of Saint Peter's Basilica, beside which John XXIII stood to deliver his address of welcome to the council fathers. Rome's possession of these bones, along with those of the other great martyr of the primitive Church, Paul-a rabbi converted to the new form of Judaism that would become Christianity and a missionary of such overreaching devotion that he was belatedly given the title "apostle"-would become in the generation after Anicetus the foundation of the Roman Church's universal prominence.
By the time of Ireneus of Lyons, who wrote in the last quarter of the second century, Rome had become the pilgrimage center of the Christian world on account of its shrines to the two martyred apostles, who were now imagined to have founded the Roman Church by shedding their blood (though there were Christian communities at Rome prior to their arrival there), and Rome's bishop was seen-at least by some-as final arbiter in disputes throughout the Christian world. For Ireneus, as no doubt for many others, the Church of Rome was already "the great and illustrious Church," and "every [other] Church-that is, the faithful everywhere-must resort to this Church on account of its pre-eminent authority, in which the apostolic tradition has been preserved without interruption."
Thus, within 150 years of Jesus's crucifixion, within 75 years of the last of the New Testament writings, there was a well-attested tradition that the Church of Rome in the person of its bishop was the most reliable bulwark against doctrinal error and the last court of appeal in any matter that could not be settled locally. If the "Petrine succession"-the monarchical succession of the long line of popes from the apostle Peter-is little more than wish fulfillment, it must be admitted that the roots of the Roman bishopric are ancient and most venerable, springing from the soil of the post-apostolic age, the age in which the Church as a whole took on a form of organization it would preserve to our day.
After Anicetus, a Syrian, there came to the bishop's chair one Soter (c. 166-c. 174), a Latin-speaking Christian and probably a Roman aristocrat, then Eleutherius (c. 174-c. 189), a Greek, then Victor (189-98), an African, all pointing up the cosmopolitan, multicultural quality of the Roman Church, which enabled it to express an earnest ecumenical concern for all Christians, wherever they were. "[We] greet you...with deepest concern, keep[ing] watch over all who call on the Name of the Lord," a letter to the North African Churches put it, a letter written by a committee of Roman Christians during a vacancy in the episcopacy caused by the brutal imprisonment and death of bishop Fabian (235-36) during the persecution of the emperor Decius.
Though in this early period the Roman Church was often seen as the common standard of orthodoxy, its orthodoxy was too flexible for many less elastic Christians. The bishop of Rome was often criticized for being too easygoing toward heretics and too forgiving toward sinners. Though Victor made a great fuss trying to get all the Churches to observe Easter on the same date, even briefly excommunicating the Asian Churches that kept their own separate tradition, bishop Callistus (c. 217-222), far more typical of the Roman bishopric in this period, sent his more rigid contemporaries into tizzies by ordaining men who had been married more than once, allowing marriages between partners of different social classes, and welcoming everyone to the Eucharist, even those who had lapsed during persecution. His critics favored purer priests, segregation by economic class, and lifelong penance for public sin. If it is easy for us to see that Callistus was closer in spirit to the views of Jesus, his critics saw no such thing, any more than the critics of John XXIII would acknowledge that he was simply following the Gospel and they were not.
For all the honor and status accorded Rome in the Church's early centuries, it was never imagined as unique among Churches, only primus inter pares, first in honor among equals. Other Churches, especially those with ancient bishoprics (like Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Alexandria, and Carthage), behaved more or less as Rome did, sending letters of encouragement and admonishment to younger, less distinguished Churches, offering monetary support, excommunicating when necessary. Bishops of the older metropolitan Churches tended to be addressed as "papa" (or pope), a title that in the Western Church was used as a form of address to all bishops-and in parts of the East to all priests-and would not be reserved to the bishop of Rome till well into the eleventh century. But all the bishops were seen as successors to Jesus's apostles, sharing apostolic responsibility for all the Churches and sharing also the apostolic power, which was unitary and indivisible, because it descended ultimately from Jesus, the Way.
Nor was criticism a one-way street that could be employed only by a greater Church against a lesser. In the midst of a raging controversy about whether it was necessary to rebaptize penitents who had lapsed during persecution, the African Churches, gathered under their unrelenting metropolitan bishop Cyprian, "the pope of Carthage," condemned the more flexible position of Stephen, bishop of Rome, in three overwrought synods, accusing Stephen of "set[ting] himself up as a bishop of bishops" and "exercis[ing] the powers of a tyrant to force his colleagues into obedience." Stephen replied serenely that he was Peter, the living representative of the first Peter, to whom Jesus had promised: "You are Peter [Rock in the Greek of the New Testament] and upon this Rock will I build my Church." Here we have, midway through the third century, the first instance in the historical record of a Roman bishop asserting an authority greater and different than that of other bishops.
Cyprian was unimpressed, though in fact his attitude toward the nature of Rome's authority waxed and waned over the course of his lifetime. The dispute was never settled because both the Roman bishop and his African opponent were about to enter the catalogue of saints, Stephen by natural causes in 257, Cyprian by his heroic martyrdom the following year. As will happen many times over in the life of the Church, death resolves the unresolvable.
THE HAND OF EMPIRE was shaping Churches not only by persecution, sometimes instigated by local imperial officials, sometimes by the emperor himself, but also by the occasional positive intervention of the emperor in ecclesiastical affairs. By the time Constantine wrested the imperial throne from his rival Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in October 312, the Roman Church had nearly three centuries of history behind it, centuries of service to the poor and to peace certainly, but also centuries of lively, and sometimes deadly, controversy and contentiousness. It had had its share of episcopal martyrs, even of bishops who had abdicated or perished in times of persecution, leaving their see (or seat, the symbol of their authority) to be occupied by a committee. There had been bishops who in times of toleration had been able to build the wealth of the Church as well as its numbers. There had been many acts of courage, relatively few of cowardice. There had been two anti-bishops (known in later times as "anti-popes") and but one craven bishop, Marcellinus (296-304), who during the persecution of Diocletian had snapped, handing over his library of sacred books, thus becoming a tra(d)itor (one who "hands over"), and sacrificing to idols. There had been compromising bishops and uncompromising ones, peace-loving bishops and high-handed ones. There had even been the bishop of Alexandria's condemnation, solemnly confirmed by Rome's bishop Pontian (230-35), of the greatest theologian the Church had ever known, Origen, who was expelled from his teaching post, exiled from Egypt, and hounded out of the Christian priesthood.
The emperors were learning to live with the Church, sometimes persecuting it, but more often-as its growing numbers lent it undeniable social power-intervening for the sake of public order in violent disputes among clergy. On occasion, such intervention would even be invited by a regional conference of bishops. But collaboration between Church and emperor was about to take a new turn that would alter forever the Church's understanding of itself and its place in the world.
Prior to his victory at the Milvian Bridge on the outskirts of Rome, Constantine, commander of Rome's British garrison, had seen a sign in the heavens: a cross of light and the Greek words en touto nika (in this, conquer). This cross, formed by the so-called monogram of Christ-the Greek letters XP (chi rho), the first two letters of Christ in Greek-thereafter shone from his soldiers' shields and billowed on their banners. Constantine, a simple man, seems to have confused devotion to Christ with his own prior pagan practices, leaving us some evidence that he identified Christ with Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun of his father's paganism. But Constantine's mother, Helena, a barmaid whose husband on becoming emperor had divorced her for a more suitable consort, was an unswerving Christian convert; and by observing his mother's fervor Constantine may have picked up a notion of how this newfangled faith could be made to work on his behalf. No longer bemoaning, as his predecessors had done, the weakening of Rome's diffuse pantheism by this rude Asian upstart, Constantine viewed Christianity as a fresh form of energy that could be harnessed as a force to unify his empire, which was always threatening to break into fragments.
But as he looked closer at his chosen instrument of unity, the new emperor was disgusted to learn that Christianity was itself riven by deep theological divisions and the rigidity and mutual hatred that such divisions encourage. He must, at all costs, bring such nonsense to an end. A practical military man, he hit on an innovation that would probably never have occurred to churchmen: he would call a universal council of bishops and force them into agreement, of what sort he didn't much care. To accommodate the emperor, this council-the first ecumenical (or world) council-was convened in 325 at Nicea, Constantine's summer residence, not far from his glorious new capital of Constantinople-"New Rome," as it was called. Though the council appears to have been summoned without prior episcopal consultation and certainly without any by-your-leave to the bishop of "Old" Rome, the bishops came gladly from all parts of the empire, the Ecumene (or well-ordered world). Rome's bishop, Sylvester, did not come in person but sent two deputies to vote on his behalf. Constantine seems never to have noticed that bishops were not all of the same grade, and perhaps the bishops themselves never stressed to him the nuanced distinctions they treasured among themselves. Certainly, theological subtleties were beyond him. He just wanted to get the job done, and to this end he himself appeared at the council, the overbearing imperial presence no doubt stifling the partisan hysteria that would otherwise have erupted.
With Constantine's Edict of Toleration, issued in 313 and granting freedom of religion to all, theological controversy involving the lapsi-those who had betrayed the faith during previous persecutions-had quickly faded, giving way to a new dispute about the nature of Christ. Was Jesus of Nazareth just a man elevated by God, as the Arians claimed, or "one in being with the Father," as the Roman party insisted? In other words, was he truly God or not? Both sides of the argument built thickets of linguistic distinctions that must have caused the emperor to sneak a few naps. But in the end, the Arians were routed. Arius, an Alexandrian elder, and his fervent followers (many of them impassioned Egyptian nuns) were officially condemned by the council, which issued for the first time in the Church's history a "creed" or list of official beliefs (named from its first word in Latin, Credo, "I believe...") to which all Christians must subscribe. Unlike the usual, ambiguous, unending theological controversy, Nicea's result had all the elegant simplicity of a great general's successful strategy.
But Constantine was mistaken if he thought that churchmen could be deployed like soldiers. The defeated party slunk away, silenced but seething with resentment. The controversy would prove exceedingly durable, encouraging the Arian East to question whether the bishop of Rome, evermore the staunch upholder of Nicea, had any special authority over other Churches. Mutual retaliations followed, Eastern bishops excommunicating the bishop of Rome, he returning the favor, and the Western bishops declaring the bishop of Rome their "head." Constantine's son and successor Constantius would prove an Arian and would pressure the Western Church with gifts and threats to see things his way, even exiling the bishop of Rome to Thrace. Soon enough, in 366, an Arian anti-bishop, Ursinus, would be murdered in the streets of Rome by a rabble, urged on by the valid bishop, Damasus.
In 381, a new anti-Arian emperor, Theodosius, called a new ecumenical council at Constantinople, a council that no Western bishop attended but that confirmed Nicea and reformulated its creed with greater precision. This is the same creed still recited in Sunday liturgies. Though imperial interventions in the Church's affairs would hardly shut the door on theological controversy, the Church's new partnership with imperium would change the Church forever. Constantine had built splendid new churches around Rome, modeled on the basilicas, or public halls, long in use as law courts and places of assembly. He had made extravagant grants of rich farmland (as far away as Africa and Asia) and gifts of precious metals to the bishop of Rome. He had linked emperor and bishop in public display and private association.
Such association could only encourage the bishop to adopt a more regal, even an imperial style. The bishop took over the emperor's title of Pontifex Maximus, Supreme Pontiff or Bridgebuilder (which the emperor had held as head of the city of Rome's college of pagan priests). Damasus began to call his fellow bishops "sons" rather than "brothers"; his immediate successor, Siricius (384-99), began to issue "decretals," normative rulings on ecclesiastical disputes throughout the empire, consciously modeled on the emperor's own decretals. In Rome, Damasus acted the part of the shady municipal politician, arranging the mob violence that cut down his Arian rival, Ursinus, following a little episcopal tte-ˆ-tte with the city's chief of police. The bishop was now distinguished by the parallel purple stripes running down his shining senatorial robe. The wealthy matrons of the city vied for the prestige of his presence, a presence he was happy to lend their social gatherings in the hopes of cadging yet another benefice from their trembling hands. Damasus was known as matronarum auriscalpius, the matrons' ear-tickler; and the shenanigans of the episcopal party did not go unnoticed by more detached commentators, such as the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who describes the senior clergy of Rome as "forever secure, enriched with offerings from the matrons, riding out in their carriages splendidly bedecked, hosting banquets so lavish they surpass the tables of kings." Conveniently ignored was the example of the apostle Paul, who, despite his heroic missionary labors, had always worked at the humble trade of tentmaking, lest he "become a burden" to anyone or need to accept unseemly favors.
Here we have, already securely in place by the last quarter of the fourth century, the entitled, touchy, parasitical clerical culture that is with us still and to which John XXIII referred obliquely in his opening address at Vatican II. The bishop never allowed the matrons to get too close, of course. The sense of unspeakable distance was part and parcel of the "spiritual" aura that surrounded him. His intimate circle was exclusively male, composed of younger clergy whose only desire-to emulate their master-was announced by their own smartly striped dalmatics, the origin of distinctive clerical dress. Jesus's contemptuous description of "those who wear soft garments" was completely forgotten. God, it seemed, had created the Roman empire so that Christianity-this peculiar, hothouse Christianity-might triumph.
But there were storm clouds on the horizon. After Constantine, the empire was divided between East and West, an Eastern emperor residing at Constantinople, a Western one at Arles, Milan, or Ravenna-never again at Rome. If it was partly the emperor's absence that encouraged the bishop of Rome to assume the imperial style, this absence also left Rome more vulnerable. By the beginning of the fifth century, the barbarian hordes were already pouring into the empire from the north and east, and nothing attracted them more than the settled farmlands and sweet vineyards of the Italian peninsula. Leo the Great, a bishop of massive dignity, intelligence, and intentionality, the polar opposite of his trivial predecessor Damasus, had to travel north from Rome to Mantua in 452 to persuade the barbarian chieftain Attila the Hun not to march on the defenseless old capital. Leo employed every weapon in his considerable arsenal of words and panoply and so impressed the Hun that he agreed to desist. It was an encounter of mythological proportions that would bolster the bishop of Rome's reputation in the West for centuries to come. Peter could not be withstood; he was invincible.
There had now been four ecumenical councils, the third-in 431 at Ephesus, where Jesus's mother, Mary, was thought to have died-declaring that Mary could be addressed in prayer as theotokos, God-bearer, because Christ's divine and human natures were united in one person. The fourth council of the whole Church was held at Chalcedon a year before Leo's victorious encounter with Attila. Its principal achievement was a clear statement on the two natures of Christ, true God and true man. The statement was based on the precise formulations that Leo had used in his Tome, written to dispel confusion on the subject. For much of the West, Chalcedon's declaration was vindication of the claims of Rome's bishop to lead the universal Church. "Peter has spoken through Leo," said the council fathers after the Tome was read aloud to them. But for the "Eastern" bishops (from Antioch to Jerusalem, from Alexandria to Constantinople) this simply meant that this time out Peter had spoken through Leo. It was up to the bishops, gathered collegially, to decide when the bishop of Rome spoke true and when he did not. Thus was set for all time the two different ways of imagining how authority flowed through the Church. For Rome and its allies (especially the other Italian sees), Peter in the person of his successor was the last word. For the East and for not a few in the amorphous "West" that lay beyond the borders of Italy (whether in Gaul, Spain, or northwest Africa), the last word, the ultimate measure of doctrinal orthodoxy, could only be the bishops together, representing the whole Christian world as they deliberated in council.
from Pope John XXIII: A Penguin Life by Thomas Cahill, Copyright © January 2002, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
Meet the Author
Thomas Cahill, former director of religious publishing at Doubleday, is the bestselling author of the Hinges of History series.
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This is Cahill's best book. It desribes very clearly the history of the Church, which all of us should know. I could not recommend it more highly!!!
This succinct account of 'the good Pope' John XXIII offers an insightful appreciation of the late pontiff's significance by providing a remarkable overview of the history of the Roman Catholic Church from its earliest beginnings up to the 1960s. The author, himself a Catholic, explores that history with grace, wit, and a very critical mind. The intelligent reader, then, gets far more than what the title of the book seems to promise. At the same time, Pope John XXIII's wonderfully warm pesonality and his relevance for today shine through. One can only hope that a paperback edition of this volume will be published and made more widely available.
Thanks to CSpan, I saw Thomas Cahill and the discussion of his book. Bought it, loved it. No scholar, I have not read all the books about the Catholic Church. AS a boy I attended Catholic boarding schools. The nuns were kind, my one year with Jesuits I found them cold. There was an implied anitSemitism and other religions were dismissed. Politics was right wing. Certainly I saw no sex abuse, but neither did I see true carig & understanding. This book may be brief, but it was informative for me as to the early history. The writer does not claim this is a 'biography' as a scholar might do in ten years and ten thousand words. But we do learn about the church bfore and after. The writer is loving about the man: Angeo Giuseppe Roncalli--dob Nov 25, l881. We learn that he was truly religious, and humble. He was a humanst in an era of fascism and latter day cold war dogma. Those who elected him Pope expected him to go along with the bureaucrats in the Vatican. He did not. One should read the book for an idea of what has been lost since his death after only a few years of grand progress-- He became Pope in the Fall of 1958 at the age of 76. He died in Spring 1963, not long before his 'Pacem in terris' was publishd. How sad that his words are all but forgotten. The writer tells a story that I had not heard-- of this Pope's intrvention between our President John Kennedy and Kruchef when the missle crisis threatened the world. This book restored my faith--not in the Church of today, but in the faith of
Dr. Cahill takes a fresh approach to the life of one of the bishop of Rome's greatest Christians to ever serve in this ministry. The refreshing humanity, historical or spiritual development and openness of "Joseph, your brother" touches the soul, intellect and will to be a faithful and gentle Christian. Cahill's reflective historical review of the bishop of Rome is painful at times but true. Those who know, cry; those who don't know condemn the facts. Enjoy the personal encounter with the bishop of Rome of the last century.
I've read several biographies of John XXIII and this one was very poorly written. The book was 240 pages long and only begins to discuss the life of John on page 73. It gave me the impression that Mr. Cahill got paid by the word. There are no footnotes and many of the 'facts' have an editorial spin that can be misleading. In the credits, Mt Cahill recognizes Peter Hebblewaite's 'Pope John XXII'. I'd recommend that anyone interested in the life of John XXIII read that book. This one is awful and overpriced.