Pope Francis got his saints half right

Sam Smith I suppose it’s none of my business, but if you had as many Catholic roommates and friends as I did as a young guy, it sort of wears off on you. And one of the things you pick up is that it’s alright to talk about it.

So I can tell you that I thought Pope John XXIII was really cool, and that Pope Paul II was just another one of those rightwing pompous Vatican prigs.

Pope John XXIII came along when I was a junior in college. I was a beret wearing, cigarillo smoking drummer who considered the way the rules had been set up to be pretty crummy but also pretty immutable. Nothing was happening in America so for the Vatican to start dumping part of its past was remarkable.

I wasn’t the only one. In his memoir Joseph Califano, later in LBJ’s cabinet, talks about the excitement in New York City when the new pope called for more lay involvement in the church. A few years earlier, his friend Ed Rice had started Jubilee, “a magazine of the church and her people” with help of others like a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton and articles by people like Jack Kerouac, whose book On the Road was published one year before Pope John took over.

It was a time when so little was happening that even a better pope could be considered your friend.

When Pope Francis came in, I wrote:

The church these days is widely seen for its failings, including its treatment of women and gays. But largely forgotten are times when there were those in the church seeking and practicing an approach that appealed far beyond the bells and towers.

For example in the early 1940s, a worker priest movement sprung up in France. As Time magazine described it later, the church was “putting young priests into secular clothes and letting them work in factories, to regain the confidence of the French working class, which [had] almost completely abandoned the Catholic faith.”

In 1945 Pope Piux XII reluctantly approved the idea but by the 1950s, reports Wikipedia, “the worker-priest movement fell out of favor with the Vatican due to their role in left-wing politics and perceived abandonment of the traditional priesthood. The worker priest movement was ‘severely constrained.…

“The French bishops informed the worker-priests that they must return to their parishes. About 50, however, chose to stay on at their work. Moreover, by 1953, of some 90 priests, 10 had married, and about 15 were working with the communists. ”The Pope sent verbal orders that the movement be suppressed, but the French cardinals managed to persuade the Pope to allow the worker-priests to continue ‘in principle,’ after some major changes in the setup.”

“In November 1953, all worker priests were recalled and required to leave their work and unions…. In 1963, priests were allowed to return to the industrial workplaces, and in the 1990s there were about 2,000 priests of the workers mission in France, although they were ageing in line with the wider population of Catholic priests in that country.

“However, the worker priests had gained certain insights about the alienation of the Church from the modern world and the poor from their experience as workers. These had been shared with many others including the bishops by means of letters, newsletters, books and meetings and the then Papal Nuncio to France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli. When Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958, he called the Second Vatican Council, at least partly as a result of what the worker priests had revealed. During that council, the French and Belgian bishops in particular were very influential in shaping its direction towards renewal and engagement with the modern world.”

To American activists involved in the 1960s, it was not strange to find oneself working closely with former or active priests.

And then there were ones you read about, like the Berrigan brothers, two priests put on the FBI’s most wanted list in 1968 for their anti-war protests.

It didn’t matter what one’s own religious or secular views were. If you were anti-war or pro civil rights, the godly were on your side. The theological issues you put aside for later.

By 1970, for Catholics it got even more so. Father Robert Drinan was elected to Congress from Massachusetts. He became the first member of Congress to introduce a referendum calling for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, was strongly anti-war and, yes, pro-abortion as a legal matter while being personally opposed.

If you like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren you would have loved Robert Drinan. And he wasn’t alone. In 1975, Wisconsin elected Father Robert Cornell as a member of the House after he had served for five years as chair of the Eighth District Democratic Party. On top of that, there was Gino Baroni, a priest who organized the Catholics for the March on Washington and became assistant secretary of housing under Carter. And another, Father Ray Kemp, was elected to serve on the DC school board. Kemp, a native Washingtonian who had worked with Saul Alinsky, went through the 1968 riots that included his church’s neighborhood. He was hit with police tear gas more than ten times during that period.

Then in 1980, things changed radically in the vast territories known as America and the Catholic Church. In the former, the great counter American revolution that is still underway was launched by corporatist toy boy Ronald Reagan. And in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II told all priests to get out of politics.

For both Americans and Catholics the party was over.

Which is why I squirmed when I heard of Pope John and Pope Paul being named saints at the same time. One had opened the door. The other had shut it. And that was before you get into things like the latter’s handling of church sex abuse and the Italian bank scandals.

As John Allen wrote in the Boston Globe, “In the Catholic street, John XXIII is an icon of the left, remembered as the pope who launched the reforming Second Vatican Council and opened the Church to the modern world. John Paul II is a hero to the right, the pope who brought down Communism, who fought what he called a ‘culture of death’ behind liberalizing currents on abortion and other life issues, and who insisted on strong Catholic identity vis-à-vis secular pressures to water down the faith.”

A story in the Guardian, noted, “When, last year, Francis announced the double canonization of the two very different popes, it was widely seen as a bid to give both sets of admirers something to cheer about.”

That was something politicians did all the time, but I thought there were higher standards for sainthood.

For me, Pope John had dramatically changed my mind about the Catholic Church for the better, and Pope Paul had turned it back again. Which Is why I was glad to learn about a new pope named Francis even if he only gets his saints half right.

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