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Pope John’s message gave hope to world


I will always remember the joy and thrill that I experienced on April 14, Easter Sunday, in 1963 when I read Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace in the World) that had been issued on Holy Thursday.

The world knew almost instantly that this remarkable document (173 paragraphs) was a landmark. An arm of the Ford Foundation sponsored a splendid conference in New York City on the document. I participated in that event and soon recognized that this coming together was the beginning of an exciting ecumenical adventure that ushered in Vatican II.

Pope John Paul II gave official acknowledgment to that feeling in his message on Jan. 1, 2003, World Peace Day. In a moving presentation (an abridgment is in the London Tablet of Jan. 4) the present pope summarized the worldwide hope created by the man who is now Blessed John XXIII.

John Paul II recalled that Pacem in Terris gave specific endorsement to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and said prophetically that it is hardly possible to imagine that any modern war could be justified.

The 40th anniversary of Pacem in Terris brings back the memory of when Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, at age 77, was elected Oct. 27, 1958, on the 12th ballot by a conclave of 51 cardinals. His pontificate was only five years, ending June 3, 1963 -- a few weeks after the issuance of Pacem in Terris. The pontificate of Pope John XXIII was brief, but the Encyclopedia Britannica writes, “His reign must be considered as the beginning of a new era in the history of the Roman Catholic church.”

Pacem in Terris is openly optimistic. It assumes that peaceful coexistence among nations was possible and necessary. This is why the Soviet Union gave such widespread attention and support to the pope’s message of peace. The pope wrote that trust and not fear should be the key factor in relationships among nations. He made an ardent plea that the stockpiles of weapons be reduced, that nuclear weapons be banned and that a general disarmament be reached.

One of the passages (Number 41) that was particularly electrifying to the world related to women: “Women are having an increased awareness of their natural dignity. ... They are demanding both in domestic and public life the rights and duties that belong to them as human persons.”

The vast appeal of Pacem in Terris throughout the world cannot be separated from the universal reverence and affection the world felt for John XXIII. He personified love. He made it clear that he disliked the bureaucracy of the Roman curia. He did what he could to diminish the cult of the pontifical personality.

It has always been clear that Roncalli’s election was inspired and prophetic. He called Vatican II because, he said, the idea came to him in a flash of grace. He issued Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) and Pacem in Terris because he felt a deep personal and God-given impulse to make the church beautiful.

He linked the message of the church to the quest for the triumph of universal human rights everywhere.

An example of the spirit of love that permeated Pope John’s personality came from his expression in greeting Jacqueline Kennedy. For days his aides helped him with his limited English to rehearse his greetings to the first lady, “Madame Kennedy.” When Mrs. Kennedy appeared the pope threw out his arms and cried out, “Jacqueline!”

The impact of the beatification of Pope John was constricted and muted when the Vatican paired him with Pope Pius IX, the archconservative who in the 1850s issued the embarrassing “Syllabus of Errors.”

The world needs to return again and again to the achievements and the aspirations of the five years of the papacy of Angelo Roncalli. The 40th anniversary of his most remembered encyclical Pacem in Terris offers the ideal moment for this remembrance.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003