John XXIII prays after his election in 1958 at the Vatican. (CNS)


That’s how Archbishop Giovanni Ricchiuti, president of Pax Christi in Italy, described the surprising move to make Pope John XXIII the patron saint of the Italian Armed Forces.

Actually, he called it “roba da matti”. Literally, that means the stuff of crazy people.

The archbishop went even further and said the decision, which was announced and effected at a public ceremony September 12 in Rome, was “disrespectful, absurd and anti-conciliar.”

Well, this was, after all, the pope who wrote Pacem in terris. In that 1963 encyclical Papa Giovanni said it was a “sign of the times” that “people nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms.”

John XXII was also prophetic in convening the Second Vatican Council and when Archbishop Ricchiuti says making him patron of the military is anti-conciliar the Pax Christi leader means it is anti-Vatican II.

That’s because John’s brief period of service in the Italian army is insignificant compared to ushering in the Council and the other monumental contributions he made to the church and the world.

Even the way the sainted pope ended up being the military patron is also anti-conciliar. It was in stark contradiction to Vatican II’s principles of subsidiarity and collegiality—namely, that local bishops (or, in this case, a national episcopal conference) are the ones primarily responsible for decisions pertaining to their particular churches.

Point of fact, the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) was never consulted or informed about designs for Good Pope John’s military patronage until it was already a done deal.

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, the CEI president, said he didn’t find out about it until the day of the official ceremony. The cardinal’s perplexity was reported by the CEI-owned daily, L’Avvenire, in an article titled, “Roncalli (named) patron yesterday at a ceremony amidst many doubts.”

Even more astonishing than that, Archbishop Ricchiuti told the Florence-based daily, La Nazione, that Pope Francis was never consulted, either.

Nor was anyone at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

“No one told us anything,” said officials there, according to Corriere della Sera’s chief “vaticanista” Gian Guido Vecchi.

So who made the necessary decision on the part of the Vatican to allow John XXIII to be named the heavenly poster-child and patron saint for Italy’s soldiers?

It was the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW). And it did so on the promptings of a small group of Italian clerics who have been pushing the case since the mid-1990s.

Was this another way for Cardinal Sarah to defy the pope? If so, move over military industrial complex.

Most influential among them was Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, until recently the president of the Italian bishops’ conference. In 2003 he became a two-star lieutenant general when he began what ended up being a three-year period as head of the Italian Military Archdiocese. The push to make Papa Roncalli the military’s patron gained momentum during Bagnasco’s tenure as head of chaplains.

But in the end it was the CDW prefect and secretary, respectively Cardinal Robert Sarah (a Guinean) and Archbishop Arthur Roche (an Englishman), who took the final, decisive steps to make this happen. They were the ones who signed the decree in Latin that effectively gave the Vatican’s approval. They invoked the “faculties” attributed to the congregation as justification for doing this.

“It’s a surprise and a scandal,” wrote lay theologian Andrea Grillo in an editorial published September 14 by Il Regno, one of Italy’s oldest and most respected religious journals.

Grillo put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Cardinal Sarah.

“At the center of a small scandal,” he deduced, “is the artless incompetence and arrogance of the leadership of a Roman Curia office that is unable to find a position of influence.”

No doubt that was a reference to Sarah’s growing marginalization in the pontificate of Pope Francis, whose clear indications on a number of liturgical and other ecclesial matters the cardinal has publicly disagreed with and implicitly challenged.

Was this another way for Cardinal Sarah to defy the pope? If so, move over military industrial complex. This has the whiff of a military liturgical complex!

Now, let’s be clear, not everyone thinks that putting the Italian armed forces under the patronage of St. John XXIII is a bad idea. In fact, they say the controversy this has caused is way overblown, calling it utter nonsense (una stupidaggine).

They believe the brief time that Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli served in the Italian Army, and especially the future pope’s acknowledgment (in memoirs) of the valuable lessons and positive experiences he gained through military service, is sufficient proof of that.

But let’s get some facts straight. Roncalli, as a twenty-year-old seminarian, served one year of obligatory service in the Army. During World War I he was among some 2,700 Italian priests who were military chaplains. A number of them performed heroic deeds and many more years of service that Roncalli.

But those were different times. Italy discontinued obligatory military service in 2004. And according to the most recent Annuario Pontificio, in today’s volunteer forces there are now fewer than 700 military chaplains.

Still others have suggested that because Italy’s military steadily has become more focused on carrying out humanitarian relief efforts and peace-keeping missions, rather than waging war, this too makes Pope John’s patronage all the more laudable.

But honestly, soldiers are not girl scouts or aid workers. And euphemisms such as “peace-keepers” or “security forces” do not change the fact that armies are made up of trained and armed combatants. Italy has an arsenal: fighter jets, tanks and other means of “defense,” but which also cause death and destruction.

Most people probably missed this bit of sad irony: on the very day Pope John was being declared patron of the military, two officers belonging to one of the branches of the Italian Armed Forces—the national police unit called the Carabinieri—were under investigation for sexually assaulting two U.S. college students in Florence.

It is a stupidaggine (to borrow a phrase) to associate St. John XXIII so closely with the Italian military because doing so suggests that his brief time of service to the troops is one of the defining elements of his long life and pastoral service.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli served a total of five years in the Italian Army. However, he spent nearly three decades as a papal diplomat (1925-1953), taking as his episcopal motto Obedientia et Pax.

It would be more fitting if he were the patron of diplomacy and dialogue. The nearly twenty-nine years he served as the Holy See’s “ambassador” in Bulgaria, Turkey, and France truly were formative of his life and ministry.

Then when he became pope in 1958 he set in motion the biggest church-reforming event of the last 400 years: the Second Vatican Council.

His pontificate was prophetic and far-sighted. And he was a pope who had learned to read the signs of the times, prophetically urging the rest church and its leaders to do the same.

One of those signs John saw clearly is that it’s wrong to exult military might or the glories of the battlefield.

So, as Andrea Grillo has suggested, let’s make St. John XXIII the patron of church reform.

One might even present a good case for making him patron of military chaplains—but not patron of the military as an institution or of all in uniform.

As it stands, this latest move looks like one more effort to re-define the legacy of Papa Giovanni. But, of course, it will end up failing.

When the vast majority of people today think of John XXIII, they don’t even faintly associate him with the military.

And neither will future generations.


Follow me on Twitter: @robinrome

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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