Front Cover: Photograph of the tapestry of St. Kateri Tekakwitha hanging from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome at the Mass of Canonization last Sunday, October 21st, A.D. 2012. Kateri was ‘raised to the altars’ with six other saints by Pope Benedict XVI.
On the night of October 11th, 1962, capping the opening day of Vatican Council II, two hundred thousand people filled St. Peter’s Square. Youths from Catholic Action, carrying lighted torches, formed a giant cross of light around the central obelisk (photo:below). The large, enthusiastic crowd was chanting and singing. Finally, Pope John XIII appeared at his window. “Dear children, dear children,” he called down to them, “I hear your voices.” There followed a conversation between the Pope and the crowds below. “Now go back home,” he concluded, “And give your little children a kiss—tell them it is from Pope John.”
The following day, October 12th, Pope John XXIII had an audience with the diplomats of 79 nations who had come to Rome for the opening of the Council. In his welcome he expressed his hope that this Church Council would contribute towards world peace, “peace based on growing respect for the human person and so leading to freedom of religion and worship.”
The happiness and the expectation of the Vatican Council’s opening days were quickly overshadowed, however, by the event of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 15th, US reconnaissance photos confirmed that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba in close range of the United States. On October 20th, President John F. Kennedy imposed a naval blockade on Cuba. For the next eight days the catastrophe of nuclear war threatened.
Behind the scenes diplomatic efforts were underway to avert war, and in those efforts Pope John XIII played a crucial part as a discreet intermediary. After the Crisis was past the Soviet leader Krushchev himself acknowledged the Pope’s role: “What the Pope has done for peace will go down in history.”
On October 23rd, President Kennedy called Norman Cousins, author of a book which argued that the only “third-force” in a two-power stand-off was the Papacy, and said he wanted to make contact with the Vatican. Cousins then spoke with a Belgian Dominican priest Fr. Félix Morlion, O.P., who had contacts in the Vatican and who was also at that moment in Andover, Massachusetts, engaged in a dialogue with a delegation of visiting Soviet scientists. The scientists were anxiously trying to get home but Norman Cousins persuaded them to talk with Fr. Morlion, who had already received the go-ahead from the Vatican that Pope John would be willing to help in any way he could.
As a former Papal nuncio, Pope John understood what was expected of him. His help took the form of two signals to Krushchev—one through his weekly audience on October 24th, the other a message to the Soviet embassy in Rome, broadcast on Vatican Radio that afternoon, which would give the Soviet dictator the face-saving cover he needed to retreat, as a lover of peace. On Friday morning, October 26th, the official Soviet newspaper Pravda put Pope John’s message on its front page under the banner head-line: ‘WE BEG ALL RULERS NOT TO BE DEAF TO THE CRY OF ALL HUMANITY’.
On Sunday, October 28th, Pope John said the votive Mass for Peace in his private chapel. After the Mass he was brought a message which had just arrived from President Kennedy, thanking the Pope for his help. Krushchev had agreed to withdraw the missiles and the Soviet ships headed to Cuba were already turned back. Not only was the immediate crisis resolved but Krushchev wanted further contacts to discuss disarmament and détente. (John XIII: Pope of the Century, by Peter Hebblethwaite, revised edition, A.D. 2000.)
The newspapers in Rome that Sunday morning had been published before this latest news and were filled with alarm. At his noon Angelus Pope John XXIII was able to bring the anxious crowd gathered good news as well as hope. It was the Feast of Christ the King and the 4th Anniversary of his election as Pope.
There have been four years of prayer and service, of meetings and conversations, of joy but also some suffering: but everyday has been lived with a readiness to do the divine will, and in the confidence that all things work together for the edification of all. On today’s feast of Christ the King, I feel deeply moved and my spirit is led to serenity and calm. The word of the Gospel has not changed; but it rings out to the ends of the earth and finds its way into human hearts. Dangers and sufferings, human prudence and wisdom—all these should issue into a canticle of love, and a renewed plea, addressed to all men, to seek and restore the Kingdom of Christ.
In his Second Epistle to Timothy, Chapter 4, St. Paul the Apostle gives this command to his younger disciple: “Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke, in all patience and doctrine.”
In A.D. 1209 St. Francis of Assisi (Feast-day, October 4th) began to preach the Christian Gospel to people of his home region of Umbria with such energy and freshness that it ignited a popular religious renewal to the rest of Europe and beyond. Francis, three years before, had dramatically renounced all his inheritance rights as the only son of a rich merchant in the presence of the Bishop of Assisi, going so far as to surrender even his clothes back to his father. Shortly after, he went to live among the lepers, who had been cast out into the forest for their frightful disease.
Coming out of his obscurity, Francis preached repentance from sin and peace and reconciliation among his neighbors. He preached with great power, however, and was not cowed by any human respect. As one of his early biographers, St. Bonaventure, describes it:
And because he had first impressed upon his own mind by his works what he endeavored to impress upon others by his words, fearing reproof from no man, he preached the truth with great confidence. He was not accustomed to handle the sins of man delicately, but pierced them with the sword of the Spirit, nor did he spare their sinful lives, but rebuked them sharply and boldly. He spoke to great and small with equal constancy of mind, and with a like joyfulness of spirit, whether to many or to few; people of every age and sex came forth to see this man, newly given to the world by God, to look upon him and listen to his words.
St. Francis of Assisi’s unction was of a high degree which no preacher should presume to imitate as a style. Nonetheless, it is much to be wondered at, with all of the market-style strategizing on how to “get people back to Church”, is there any thought given to the solemn charge: “be instant in season, out of season…”