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Study in contrasts

NCR Staff

On a sunny early fall Sunday in Rome, John Paul II did something no other pontiff has ever done: He elevated two of his predecessors in the papacy, Pius IX and John XXIII, into the ranks of the “blessed” at the same time.

Beatification, the formal term for declaring someone blessed, is the final step before sainthood, authorizing prayer and devotion to the person.

Joining John XXIII and Pius IX as new “blesseds” were three lesser-known figures whose lives overlapped the 19th and 20th centuries: Italian bishop Tomasso Reggio, who founded the Sisters of Holy Mary; Guillaume-Joseph Chaminade, founder of the Marianist community; and Columba Marmion, a Benedictine abbot.

The lead-up to the Sept. 3 event was a study in contrasts, illustrating the widely varying reactions to the decision to make official role models out of these two men. Fond remembrances of John XXIII flooded the media, including the revelation of a heretofore unknown “deathbed message,” while the controversy surrounding Pius IX grew steadily more intense.

Though most Catholics know John XXIII (or il papa buono, “the good pope,” as he is universally known here) as the man who called the Second Vatican Council and thereby opened Catholicism to the modern world, several observers took last week to heap praise on his social and political accomplishments.

Romano Prodi, former prime minister of Italy and currently head of the European Union, suggested that John XXIII deserves credit for triggering the process that ended the Cold War. His decision to begin a dialogue with the communist world, and his visionary encyclical on world peace, Pacem in Terris, made peaceful co-existence seem possible and hence “deprived absolutism of its logic,” Prodi said on Italian national television.

John XXIII’s impact as a peacemaker and servant of the world was also highlighted in a new book presented to the media last week, titled A Joyous Soul (K.S. Giniger). It contains what Archbishop Loris Capovilla, the pope’s personal secretary, says is a statement John XXIII made from his deathbed in 1963. It represents, according to Capovilla, the pope’s final message to the world.

It reads: “Now, more than ever, more certain than in the past centuries, we are intent on serving humankind as such, not only Catholics, defending above all and everywhere the rights of the human being, not only those of the Catholic church. The present circumstances, the needs of the last 50 years, and doctrinal discussion have led us to new realities, as I said in the opening speech of the council.

“It is not that the gospel is changing; we are starting to understand it better.

“He who has lived longer and found himself at the beginning of the century facing new duties in a social activity investing all of man, he who has been, as I, 20 years in the East, eight in France, and has been able to compare different cultures and traditions, knows that the moment has come to acknowledge the signs of the times, to capture the opportunities and look afar.”

The near-universal good will surrounding John XXIII was matched by the acrimony generated by Pius IX. Jewish groups and an Israeli cabinet minister denounced the beatification, calling it a setback for Jewish-Catholic relations because of the accusations of anti-Semitism surrounding the pope who served the longest term in church history (NCR, Sept. 1).

Italians who remember Pius IX as an enemy of liberalism and a secular republic also expressed dismay. On the eve of the beatification, approximately 300 people turned out in Rome’s Piazza Bocca della Verità for a vigil commemorating two 25-year-old Italian patriots, Gaetano Tognetti and Giuseppe Montini, executed by order of Pius IX in 1868. The two had taken part in an attack on a French barracks two years before.

Since much of the rest of Italy had by then outlawed the death penalty, Pius IX came under pressure to cancel the executions. His reply was succinct: “I can’t and I don’t want to.”

Given such memories, Italy’s political establishment stayed away from the beatification -- the president, the prime minister, and the mayor of Rome were all noticeably absent, though they typically attend such events.

There was, however, at least one pro-Pius IX constituency: Rome’s “black nobility,” made up of ancient noble families with close ties to the Catholic church (hence “black,” the color of priests’ garments). The nobility sponsored a Mass in the church of San Lorenzo in Luccina, in the heart of an exclusive shopping area. After the event, the crowd shouted, “Long live Pius IX, pontiff and king!” a cry dating to the era of the Papal States.

Approximately 100,000 people showed up in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 3, far short of projections double that size, and well below the more than 200,000 present for the May 2, 1999, beatification of Capuchin mystic Padre Pio. Some observers blamed the controversy surrounding Pius IX for the light turnout; others noted that most Romans were just returning from the country’s annual vacation season.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000