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At a pope's deathbed

Those of us of a certain age will remember that fifty years ago today Pope John XXIII lay dying. Here is what I wrote in a piece published some years ago in Commonweal:

Several times in his writings Pope John quoted a description of St. Martin: “he neither feared to die nor refused to live.” The sentence conveys what is called “holy indifference,” an attitude of utter openness to the will of God. For the last fifteen years of his life, the idea that his death could be near is a frequent theme in his notes. He prayed that he would be able to endure pain. When in fact his final illness came upon him (doctors diagnosed his stomach cancer in October 1962 but do not seem to have told him), he was ready. His notes detail the onset of the difficulties, embarrassments, and sufferings of his disease (“How do you feel, Holy Father?” he was asked. “Like St. Lawrence on the grill,” he replied.), until on May 31, 1963, his secretary, Msgr. Loris Capovilla, fulfilled a promise he had made long before and told him: “Holy Father, I am now performing the same duty that you performed for Msgr. Radini at the end of his life. The hour has come; the Lord is calling you.” The press was informed and, as older people will remember, it seemed that the whole world gathered  in a vigil around his deathbed.

At 7:00 on the evening of June 3rd, the Monday after Pentecost, a Mass was celebrated for Pope John in St. Peter’s Square below the apartment where we knew he lay dying. Half full as it began, the square was crowded by the time it ended. Around 7:40 the Ite missa est was chanted and we began to sing “Ubi caritas et amor ibi Deus est.” Above in his room, where the hymn could be heard, John XXIII trembled for an instant and peacefully died.

The days that followed were a remarkable tribute to the person and the work of Pope John. The paradox of mourning the death of a pope was noted by more than one Protestant. The universal grief was a first testimony in the process that this year will pass a major milestone when Pope John Paul II beatifies him and confirms the Gospel peace and freedom that characterized the serene man and defined his bold ministry.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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Angelo Roncalli, Papa Giovanni, was arguably the greatest apostle since Peter and Paul.  A true genius of the human heart, I doubt that we shall see his like again for at least another millenium.

Blessed John XXIII, pray for us!


Pope John acceptance of the suffering of his last illness confirmed for us that the grace of God can indeed enable us to endure all things, even great suffering.  

Such grace is reaffirmed yet again in an article I just read in a (gasp!) highly conservative blog.  It's about a girl from MacLean VA, Margaret Leo, who died six years ago.  She was only 14.  She was born with spina bifida, and the attempts to alleviate her condition resulted only in very great and constant suffering.  However, all who knew her (from a Supreme Court Justice on down) agreed that she bore the pain without complaining, not even to her parents.  From the tender age of three she was known to be a lover of God, and throughout her short life everyone agreed that she radiated love of God and man.  Already some miracles have been attributed to her intervention.

Her father, Leonard Leo, is one of the most conspicuous and powerful political conservatives in Washington, D. C.  I bring this up because, I'm ashamed to say, when i read that  Margaret's father is an ultraconservative, I re-acted immediately as a good knee-jerk liberal would, saying to myself:  "A saint produced in such an ultra-conservative household?  Not bloody likely!!"  But I did quickly realize that that was an awful, uncharitable thing to think -- as if a conservative couldn't raise a saint.  So I've decided to start my own little devotion to Margaret, asking her to help me be more objective about  conservatives.  I'm sure she'll help. 

And maybe some others amongst the Commonwealers might want to ask for the same assistance from her.  (N. B.  I'm including you conservatives here as well -- you ain't no lilies !!)  (Oops, there I go again  . . .  Holy Margaret Leo, help me understand and appreciate the conservatives!  And, dear Pope John, do help me too!

Oops again ==  Here's the address at Austin Ruse's blog:

Dying seems like such a private thing, its hard to conceive of someone leaving the world so publicly.  Did ti help the Pope havng the world with him do you think? Did he know? Did it matter to him?  

Why did doctors not tell him?


JP II suffered greatly at the end, and quite publicly at times.  He wanted to inspire people to accept the will of God even when it hurt.  I thought he was sort of amazing.  

In the pantheon of world leaders, it may be that this willingness to suffer and die so publicly is almost unique to the papacy.  Most heads of state perpetually need to be looking over their shoulder at political enemies and/or foreign enemies, and don't have the luxury of displaying weakness.  "When I am weak, it is then I am strong" is very counter-intuitive in those circles.

I think it's a a little bit sad.  Once you take that job, your life's not your own any more, not even your dying.


In the news about this anniversary:

your life's not your own any more

That much seems pretty normal to me. Isn't it how it's supposed to be for priests and religious in general? That's also true for many mothers: you'd lay down your life for your children in an instant, wouldn't you? Not easy for me, perhaps, but straightforward for more than one person I know.

When I graduated Catholic grammar school, I was given rosary beads blessed by Pope John XXIII. Today I still have this rosary and cherish it not because it has any special blessing but because it symoblizes the life and foresight of this great pope.

It is perplexing to me how various popes in the last part of the 20th century are called "Blessed", while at the same time they can be at opposite poles in terms of the path forward for the Church. Pope John XXIII's crowinging acheivement was Vatican II, yet many of the reforms called for, in particular collegiality, have never been adquately implemented because they were not the opinion of both John Paul II or Benedict XVI. IMO, more collegiality would have meant that decision making would move from:

> the Pope with the Roman Curia in a quasi-decision making role, and the Bishops of the World in a consultative role and little or no role for theologians and laity...


> the Pope with the Bishops of the World in a quasi-decision making role, and the Roman Curia in a purely consultative role, along with theologians and the laity. 

Blessed Pope John XXIII, pray for us.




". . .  many of the reforms called for, in particular collegiality, have never been adquately implemented because they were not the opinion of both John Paul II or Benedict XVI."

What were the positions on collegiality of Woytila and Ratzinger during the Council?  Where did they stand then?  And what about Pope John XXIII -- did he have anything to say about collegiality?

JAK, if you're reading this, do you know?

NCR has the Pope's reflections on Pope John's death; he remembers,too, the days as the Pope lay dying .

Ann:  Your questions are too big for my to answer hurriedly. I'm on my way out the door for travels for the next several days. I'll try to reply when I get back.

Thanks, JAK.  Have a good trip.


Below is an excellent article on the opinions of Wojtyla/JP II and Ratzinger/Benedict XVI  on the Vatican II's collegialty.

Note Ratzinger/Benedict's reversal of opinion and JP II's definitive declaration cementing the centrality of power and authority in the papal office and Roman Curia and killing any sense of collegialtiy.

Pope John XXIII died before Vatican II ended, but IMO he would have endorsed the reforms proposed.




The article is accessible as shown below.


Vatican II 'collegialityremains roadmap for journey ahead | National ...

Mar 4, 2013 – National Catholic Reporter. The Independent News Source ...Vatican II ' collegialityremains roadmap for journey ahead. Thomas C. Fox | Mar.



I also am uncomfortable with fast-track sainthood for popes.  Some will consider this and believe it is because the popes are so holy.  Some, and I have to include myself among these cynics, will see it as all too cozy for what is probably the world's most exclusive old boys' club.  A bit of feathering one's own eternal nest,  To my skeptical mind I have to wonder how likely the move to call JPII, "John Paul the Great" was a conscious or unconscious option for s later Benedict the Great.

No one can know another's motivations, and i can't measure another by the light of my own life experiences; but I do know I usually, maybe always, have more than one motive for acts and omissions.  The older verssion of the Act of Contriition acknowledges repentence is motivayed at least in part by wishing to avoid the loss of heaven and the pain of hell..  The later version glosses over it.

When considering further pope canonizations, I hope the Holy Father will remember what Lord Acton had to say in regard to the absolute power of the pope: that is corrupts absolutely.  

We are taught one is to avoid not only evil but the appearance of evil.  Avoiding scandal has confounded the administrations of the last two papacies and much of rest of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and even some of the clergy..  A future pope will wish earnestly to avoid  even the appearance of cronyism and corruption, lest faithful Catholics continue to abandon the institutional RCC in favor of other Christian bodies that seem closer to the life and teachings of Jesus and perhaps that seem willing and better able to allow the Holy Spirit to blow where She will.

Maya Angelou reminds us that "he who never visits thinks his mother is the only cook."  Catholics who never visit outside the RCC, becuase they are admonished that it is sinful to take part in non-Catholic worship, think Holy Mother is the only one who can set God's table and provides the only way to God's heart.  

Teachings like this, also, can give scandal, especially to well-educated Catholics who tend to see such teachings as the self serving nonsense of the man behind the curtain, another Wizard of Oz, when we have had so many already.  

Please, dear future Bishops of Rome, take a lesson from the Emperor.  Don't become the Pope who has no clothes.  The world is always watching, especially skeptics like me.  Be one of the few exceptions to Lord Acton's rule.  No more Saint Pope causes for a century or two -- until another real pope, a man or woman of extraordinary holiness, humble leadership, a pastor with wisdom worthy of a Solomon -- another John XXIII .  Then maybe, just maybe another Saint Pope will justify the rationale: That s/he was so holy.  I don't judge any of the popes as good or bad.  That's God's business, not mine.

I like the thought that the two living popes both took the names of founders of orders--A Jesuit named from Assisi not Xavier.  Next we could have a Dominican who takes the name Ignatius of a Mercy who becomes Pope Claire.   

Yikes!  No spell check; and something prevented me from copying my blog into Word so I could check my spelling and catch my typos.  I am a terrible typist and find, with spell check, my spelling skills have slipped bdly.  Help, Commonweal.  Spell check, please.

Michael B. ==

Thanks for the Fox article.  Yes, isn't it ironic, as Fox points out, that Benedict's insistence on maintaining the exorbitant power of the papacy led to its crushing most of his own energy out of him, and thus it led to his own abdication..


Regardless of the topic, be it catechesis, sexual ethics, evil and sin, culture, etc, the issue always boils down to living the truth. This is why I find it irresponsible and profoundly hypothetical to make an argument about the truth from "authority" when this very authority smothers the majority of voices of the body of Christ, in partiuclar the bishops as a quasi-decision making group with the pope. Instead, we have the pope and those who he picks in the Roman Curia that advise him on important matters of doctrine. They have the same philosophy and never challenge his authority of decisions. Where is diversity? Where are the voices of the bishops, theologians and the laity as a collected body? 

Do we not have inconsistency and contradiction between the word, as in doctrine, and practice, as in pastoral advice? Does this not fuel individualism, one of the very reasons that the Church claims is causing non-reception and that lead them into sin. If the average Catholic is getting mixed messages and the answers they get to concrete cases are both in tension with human experience and their informed consciences, then Catholics naturally turn to their God-given reason and intellect to discern what to do.

If Catholics do not obey Church teachings, the Church says they are infected with a diabolic evil from our Western secular culture that prevents them from grasping the truth. One could equally argue that a diabolical evil infected many clergy who sexually abuse children, caused JP II and Cardinal Ratzinger from dealing with the profound evidence and sinful horrors against Marcial. What good I ask turns the heads of cardinals, bishops and Rome from dealing with inconsistency and contradiction? What type of Church do we have where all the power and authority rests in the pope and the Roman Curia, and Vatical II's call to collegiality has been deliberately undermined?




Michael B. --

Once again the problem of contradictory teachings rears its ugly head.  I see the Vatican's claim that it cannot err in matters of dogma as one of the great problems in the contemporary Church.  The whole question of infallibility, even in a restricted sense, is one big mess.

Thank you for your words, Jim Jenkins.

I was out of college a year when John XXIII died, a few months shy of getting married.

His reign was a true light marked by our burning hearts.

Some years later a Jewish classmate visited us with her husband and brought a large book with text of Pacem in Terris interspersed with photographs by some of the world's great photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams. It's been gathering dust for 45 years but I just found it.

"Every human being has the right to honor God according to the dictates of an upright conscience."

Michael B, let me suggest benign neglect or indifference may be warranted when authority is so distorted in practice: "If Catholics do not obey Church teachings, the Church says they are infected with a diabolic evil from our Western secular culture that prevents them from grasping the truth." Noisy gongs or theological bullying sometimes?

Prayerful consideration of what living the truth means, when words resonate deeply, carries more meaning for me.

A few days ago I saw a press photo of Papa Francesco kneeling in prayer at the shrine of J23rd along the nave in the Basilica di San Pietro in Rome.  The photo captures essentially the image left in my memory - a remanent of my family vacation in Italy just a few years ago.

This altar reliquary of J23rd's remains was the only place in the cavernous basilica where pilgrims could pause in devotion, kneel, light a candle, and remember the great apostle who was entombed there.  I lingered there for quite awhile contemplating the waxed enclosed remains of an old man's dreams and visions that once stirred the world's imagination of what our world could be with his encyclical, Pacem in Terris.  

I remember reflecting that there amid all those other grandiose and overblown side-altar monuments to other lesser pontiffs - who were probably consumed with the idea that they personally were indispensable to the church and the Gospel - that the People, the "folks in the pews," had many years ago already improbably proclaimed this man as their saint.

The People had usurped the customary traditional hierarchs' role in recognizing their saint.  No wonder that the dons in the Vatican had moved the bodily remains of Papa Giovanni from the crypt so that more 'folks' could easily come physically close to their venerable patron.

The spirit of Angelo Roncalli still enfuses the People all these years later in the opening words of the Vatican2 document, Lumen Gentium - the Light of the Nations! 

Carolyn Disco -- I completely agree with what you said if you permit me some lattitude: "Every human being has the right to honor God according to the dictates of an upright (informed) conscience." Nevertheless, there is much more to this pith saying to ensure it does not mislead Catholics into thinking that they can decide which doctrines and articles of faith suits their needs.

I don't think it is benigh neglect of indifference may be warranted when authority is so distorted in practice. That would demean the intelligence and spiritual integrity of thoses priests who disagree with certain Church teachings. I don't think they would characterize what they are doing as "neglect" be it benign or indifferent.  The problem is not that pastoral practices are in contradiction with some Church teachings. The problem is that that hierarchy does nothing to correct it. Make no mistake about what I am saying. I disagree as do many priests with certain teachings. My point is that if the hierarchy is claiming that certain teachings are the truth, eternal law, God's will, and a moral absolute, then they are being hypocritical in knowing that many priests (e.g. 40%-45% or more depending on country) disagree and council parisioners accordingly, yet they don't have the courage to enforce obedience due to the consequences.

The hierarchy will be quick to tell Catholics that some teachings require courage and fortitude as many of our ancient fathers went to their deaths in standing firm in their faith. Yet, at the same time, where is their courage and fortitude in bringing clergy to justice that sexually abused children and those in hierarchy that covered up such crimes? Where is the courage and fortitude in standing firm regardless of consequences and enforcing teachings claimed to be the truth and a moral absolute? Could they fear the closing of more parishes due to a lack of weekly contributions caused by more Catholics leaving the Church? What is wrong with a smaller Church as Pope Benedict XVI often has said.

We may neve see the reform that is needed in our Church for decades, and there is much truth in what you say:  "Prayerful consideration of what living the truth means, when words resonate deeply, carries more meaning for me." Would it not be much better if we had a Church solidified than divided?




Sorry not to catch responses earlier; hope the thread is still active.

Michael Barberi: I appreciate your response, but let me be quick to indicate that the quote "Every human being..." is not mine, but from Pacem in Terris. I should have made that more clear.

As to: "The problem is not that pastoral practices are in contradiction with some Church teachings. The problem is that that hierarchy does nothing to correct it." But, but might there be some hesitation on their part, some instinct that may reflect an uncertainty that they dare not admit either openly or to themselves? Is some other grace at work?

A unified church is much better than a divided one, but truly I wonder if in most periods of church history there has been as much uniformity, or even unity, as we surmise. If the church is an organic reality, then discussion, change and transformation are always part of the historical process.

The bitterness of today's divide is sad and burdensome, yet the Spirit must prevail enough to see us through. Maybe that smaller church would not be all we suspect. I still like the scent of James Joyce's "here comes everybody."

Carolyn Disco,

I believe we are on the same page but for nuances. If bishops have some hesitation or uncertainty with a teaching, and this is the reason why they don't correct inconsistency and contradiction, then this is indicative of a much larger problem.

I have no statisitcs that can serve as a measure of divisiveness within the Church of the past to the Church today. What I do know is that the issues today cut a wide divide across the general laity, theologians and priests. The confidence in the hierarchy is likely at an historic low.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church will survive this crisis in truth because the Holy Spirit guides us all to the truth. This will take time and we are all called to practice patience quickened by love.



Sad news from Vatican City.  Apparently the health of our Emeritus Pope Benedict is delining quickly, or so report some friends who have visited him.  See for instance the Washington Post,

Ann, I hope that you are wrong and that those are just unfounded rumors. Now that pope Francis seems to be asserting himself, I like the idea of the pope going for a walk in the Vatican gardens  and encountering a former pope warming himself in the sun. After a lifetime of studying, working, arguing, scheming, strategizing, deciding, how strange it must seem to be just relaxing.

Claire --

I suspect that the reports are well-founded.  When Benedict resigned I expected him to perk up when the load was finally lifted from his shoulders.  Instead he looked much worse.  Maybe it's mainly psychological, though.  It must be hard for him to see those awful secrets being revealed.  Plus, being human, he must feel like something of a failure when he sees the thoroughly positive reaction Pope immediately inspired.  Or maybe he just needs new doctors.  But I can't really believe he has incompetent ones.  Whatever the reason, I dare say he needs prayers.

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