Good Pope John: A Theologian's Tribute

Good Pope John: A Theologian's Tribute 1

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Murray wrote the following in response to Pope John XXIII's death on June 3, 1963. The Second Vatican Council had already met for its first session (October 11–December 8, 1963). After not being invited to the first session, Murray was preparing to serve as a peritus (expert) at the second session (September 29– December 4, 1963). The more positive attitude toward ecumenism of this piece contrasts to that the preceding article, as does its evaluation of John XXIII advance beyond Murray's earlier troubled response to Pacem in terris (see 1963j, "Things Old and New in 'Pacem in Terris'")—Editor.

[p. 854]

The office of the papacy is the one and only public office that is permanent in history; its occupants are destined to permanent presence in history. No Pope simply makes his private passage through death to his eternal personal reward, as all men must. Every Pope must also make, as few men do, a passage into history, not to become a figure of the past, but to remain a force in the ongoing present, an active participant in the church's permanent presence in the historical process.

One aspect of the abiding historical presence of John XXIII is immediately apparent. He will be present in the further sessions of Vatical Council II. The precise scope of the Council's work still remains to be defined. But in the process of definition, John XXIII will be present as the insight of genius is present in the later minds that strive to factor it out in concepts.

He made the premise of the council plain enough. It is the perennial, if sometimes hidden, premise of all the Church's thinking about herself and about her mission of bringing salvation to men in the moment when they need salvation, which is always today. The Latin maxim of Leo XIII states the premise: "Vetera novis augere" ("to make new things grow out of the old things").

John XXIII will be present in the utterance of the "old things" that the Council may say; for in them the collective voice of the centuries will be heard. He will, however, be more intimately present when the "new things" are said, whatever they may be. For even at this too early date, the historian, whose role for the moment is no more than necrological, can readily find the relative clause that states the significant deed: "John was the Pope who started something new."

What the "something" will be has not yet appeared in detail. But the

[p. 855]

basic component of the new thing has already caught the attention of all the world. He started the bishops talking, not privately to Rome in terms of question and answer, but publicly to one another in a free interchange of argument. He restored Rome to its traditional function, which is to be the apex of doctrinal and disciplinary decision, not the first source of theological thought and pastoral directive. Out of this new thing, which is also very old, there will issue—one is inclined to think—whatever newnesses the Council will bring forth. John XXIII will be in a true sense their author, present in their accomplishment.

One glimpses a future paradox. John XXIII was no great scholar; his purpose was fixed on being the pastor of souls. But he may live in history, not as the "theologian's theologian" (a title that might fall to his predecessor, Pius XII), but as the "theologian's Pope," who affirmed the uses and value of the theological function in the church, at the same time that he asserted the full dignity of the papal office. He raised some questions himself—notably the great, sprawling ecumenical question—to which he returned no definitive answers. He encouraged the raising of other questions, both old and new, both theological and pastoral—and even political. The symbol of him might well be the question mark—surely a unique symbol for a Pope.

He has left the questions behind him. They are a witness to his continuing presence among us, now that he is gone. They cannot be avoided. They are not to be summarily settled. Above all, they are not to find any answer without prior argument, catholic argument. For it remains true that to this sort of argument John XXIII summoned the whole Church—cardinals and bishops, priests and laity, pastors and professors, and not only the learned but also the simple, who are the "greater part of the faithful," today as when St. Thomas so named them.

The theologian's Pope, who listened while the theologians freely talked, had an even keener ear for the voice of the simple faithful, for whom alone the theologian undertakes to speak, and by whom, too he must be understood.

After John XXIII certain things are no longer possible. Chiefly, it is not possible abruptly to impose silence on any of the parties to the talk in the Church concerning old things and new. It is also not possible impatiently to turn away from the voices, within or without the Church, of whom it can now be said that a Pope once listened to them.

The Pope is dead—long live the Pope! The ancient cry of grief and gladness has multiple meaning. At the moment, it voices our sorrow that John XXIII no longer converses among us, listening, speaking. It also voices our joy that he will be long present in our midst, as the very spirit of the new conversation that he started.

(1)1963f: "Good Pope John: A Theologian's Tribute." (America 108 (June 15, 1963): 854–55).