Today, June 4, the Episcopal Church calendar commemorates Pope John XXIII. The commemoration is a trial; the Episcopal Church’s General Convention will vote next month on whether to formalize the arrangement. However, the trial is significant for three reasons.
First, Christianity has changed remarkably since the time of Martin Luther. The Roman Catholic conciliar commission known as Vatican II, convened by Pope John XXIII, formalized some of those positive moves. Among these were the recognition that salvation exists outside the Roman Catholic Church for Jews (more on this in my last post, Border Crossers) and for Protestants. As Apostolic Delegate to Turkey during World War II, the then Angelo Roncalli had saved the lives of several thousand Jewish children from Bulgaria and Romania by giving them blank baptismal certificates.
Similarly, commemorating a contemporary Roman Catholic in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar shows that Protestant attitudes towards Roman Catholics have also changed for the better. Incidentally, John XXIII is not the only contemporary Roman Catholic included in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar. This broadened inclusiveness represents a tremendous reversal from my youth when it was a sin for a Roman Catholic to enter a Protestant church and most Protestants considered it equally unforgivable to marry a Roman Catholic.
Second, John XXIII shows the potential for those normally discarded by the world to make a difference. John was seventy-six when his fellow cardinals elected him pontiff and widely expected to be a caretaker pope. Yet more than most popes, he his brief, five-year pontificate saw major changes in the Roman Catholic Church. Not only did the Roman Catholics acknowledge that there was salvation outside the Church (a critical step for ecumenical and interfaith relations), but they also replaced Latin in the mass with the vernacular, updated their liturgy, and renewed their commitments inclusivity and caring for the most vulnerable. Pope John XXIII said, for example, “Truth calls for the elimination of every trace of racial discrimination and the consequent recognition of the inviolable principle that all states are by nature equal in dignity...”
Third, the commemoration underscores the difference between the Roman Catholic and Anglican concepts of a saint. In the Roman Catholic Church, a saint is a deceased Christian to whom people pray and for whose assistance the Church has documented at least two miracles (i.e., supernatural interventions by God – for my thoughts on this subject, cf. Ethical Musings: Is God supernatural?). In the Anglican tradition, a saint is a person who has lived the Christian life writ large, i.e., somebody from whom others can learn how to live and in whom others can see the light of God shining. By all accounts, John XXIII was such a man, a saint of God.