Issue 39 - 12 Oct

Monday 11th October is the newly established feast of St John XXIII.
A story told about the last days of John XXIII, even if apocryphal, is instructive about the Church at that time. On 1 June 1963 the Vatican said that the Pope had the flu and asked for our prayers. On 2 June we were told the Pope was in bed and very ill. By the 3 June it was announced that he had died of cancer. At least officially, the Holy Father’s demise had been very quick indeed. We now know that he had been battling a stomach carcinoma for eight months, with the associated dramatic weight loss that accompanies it. Without telling us, this genial and generous man had been dying before our eyes.  
When John Paul II beatified John XXIII he announced that his feast day would not be the day of Papa Roncalli’s death but 11 October, the anniversary of the opening day of the second Vatican Council, which he had convoked. It was an inspired decision. One of the many guiding principles which John hoped would guide the Council was the saying which he quoted in his 1959 encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram: “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity”. I wonder what he would make of us now. Except that a saint cannot be unhappy in heaven, John XXIII would surely be rolling in his grave.
The petulant critics snapping at Pope Francis seem to have as their motto: “in all matters, unity; in doubtful matters, hostility; in no things, charity.” I note that these same cardinals, bishops, theologians and laypeople now throwing stones at the Pope were often the ones who sternly lectured the rest of us, from 1978 to 2013, that the litmus test of one’s Catholic orthodoxy was public fidelity to the teaching of the Holy Father. How things have changed – for them; the rest of us continue to remain loyal to the See of Peter.
Some of his detractors even cast doubt about the validity of Pope Francis’ election. Apparently, either the Holy Spirit abandoned the cardinal electors on 12 March 2013, or she never entered the Conclave in the first place. So much for trusting the Lord’s promise that he would never abandon his Church until the end of time; apparently that only works out if I get the Pope I want.
In previous pontificates I remember being warned against the grave sin of “scandalizing and confusing the faithful”. I move in very wide circles and I can attest to Pope Francis’ extraordinary gift of inspiring faith, hope and love in believer and unbeliever alike – in sharp contrast to the nasty taste left by the ugly language of online character assassins, the pompous demands for Yes or No answers by dubious cardinals, and the pious claims of theologians that they feel forced to point out the Pope’s errors “out of charity”. Could anyone imagine what would have happened to people whose charity impelled them to behave in similar ways towards St John Paul II or Benedict XVI? Honest, open, respectful disagreement: yes, of course. We edge closer to the truth through arguments between friends. But as one of Christ’s faithful I am confused and scandalised by these arrogant and sanctimonious stone-throwers.
They don’t care about the schismatic tendencies they are encouraging because 
the present not-so-loyal opposition to the Pope argues that “error has no rights”, which masks an inclination to creeping infallibility which forecloses debate on issues about which there is legitimate disagreement. This has serious pastoral fallout at the grassroots. One gets the sense that their doctrinal edifice is very shaky indeed – give any ground on anything, and the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. The bottom line for Christians is that every person has rights, even those who hold what we might believe is an erroneous position: the right to dignity; to respect; to charity; and to being listened to and interpreted with generosity. If we fail to honour these rights, the evil one is certainly not far away. 
Without changing a single jot of essential Catholic doctrine, Pope Francis challenges us all to reflect on the complexity of every life, the struggles everyone faces, and everyone’s need for God’s mercy, and he invites the Church to look afresh at its pastoral practice and its teaching on peace, social justice and the environment in the light of scripture, theology and tradition, the “signs of the times” and the best science and psychology. 
This of course is just what John XXIII asked of Vatican II. And he and Paul VI were each to discover that there were powerful forces in the Church filled with fear of change and frightened about where it would all end. They were prepared to do anything to stifle reform, to halt and reverse the work of the Council. The present bitter brawling in the Church shows that the struggle to bring the unfinished work of Vatican II to fruition has reached a new crisis point. St John XXIII pray for us.
Richard Leonard SJ latest book is The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom.