For all of those who may be disheartened, confused or discouraged by recent scandals in the Catholic Church, Thomas Cahill's "biographical essay" on Pope John XXIII is a welcomed read. In this book, Cahill probes into the historical, social, intellectual, moral, spiritual and personal development of a man who convened the Second Vatican Council and pioneered many of the contemporary reforms in the Church, especially during his brief reign as pope from 1958-1963. Written in a style that is accessible, critical and intelligent, while at the same time respectful of the core values of Christian life, Cahill gives us a window into the soul of a man who opened up the windows of the Church to renewal and transformation. He presents a humble man with a bold vision, whose humanness and candor spoke to believers and non-believers alike, a man of true spiritual and moral authority who was an apostle of the human heart.
The book is a reflection on Christian leadership, and specifically the papacy, before, during and after John XXIII. The first part of the book deals with the evolution of the papacy with major emphasis on the church's uneven development, imperialist fantasies, corrupt tendencies and pitiful inadequacies. Cahill's rather lengthy historical critique of the papacy is a colorful but painful read about the human frailty of Church leadership. In words that are poetic, ironic, and even sarcastic, but in many ways prophetic, Cahill chronicles the corruption, scandal, worldliness of the papacy, which, according to Cahill, reaches it's apex in John XXIII's immediate successor, Pius XII, in whom there was "never a short sentence, seldom an active verb, impenetrable paragraphs clotted with ornamentation and indirection, a language of effete churchiness, parading itself as imperial, far removed from biblical sounds and themes, and requiring a specialized education if one were to unlock its meanings and direction (46)."
From a literary perspective, this inglorious historical prologue of papal failures functions as a foil to the virtues of the pope who embodies for Cahill the ideals of Christian virtue, moral leadership and ultimately human life. Ultimately, Cahill's approach is not simply to point out the failures of the Church but ultimately to illumine its ideals. He does this by turning his attention in the second part of the book to a remarkable, simple, humble named Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who later became known as John XXIII. Though he grew up in an era where, according to Cahill, "the seminaries were meant to manufacture a uniform product that would neither scandalize the laity nor make waves that could disturb the sleep of the episcopate," he talks about the gradual humanization of a priest through his own life experience, his search for the truth, his openness to criticism, his care for the people he served, his meditative spirit, good will, and his desire to imitate Christ (83).
Cahill points to three secrets of John XXIII that governed the way he lived. His first secret was to allow himself to be carried by the Lord and to carry the Lord. His second was to mold his life according to the crucifix, which reveals God's undying mercy and universal welcome of humankind. And thirdly, to love people more than power. The themes of radical faith, unconditional mercy and fraternal care that bears fruit in universal service shape the vision of the man who brought forth an aggornimiento in the Church. He was man of his times who responded to issues in his times as a humble, spiritual man, dedicated to the poor, open to outsiders, focused on the life of Christ.
In essence, this book is an extended reflection on how the power of love accomplishes, in the long run, more than the love of power. Throughout the book, if there is one refrain, it is that John XXIII saw that the true power exists in relationships. Ultimately, John saw that power is not in a title but in a relationship; it is bestowed not from above but it is given from the people. Ultimately, for John, relationships reached their potential when guided by truth, love, justice and freedom. For Cahill, John XXIII becomes the standard, beyond that of Christ himself, by which many other popes are judged. In the last part of the book, Cahill looks at the Church since John XXIII, with a candid look at the strengths and weaknesses of his successors.
Also the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Cahill brings out as well some of the ways the Church might find salvation in the midst of its current crisis of clerical abuse. Cahill often highlights, directly or indirectly, the fundamental nature of the Church, which often gets lost as it becomes more powerful. The old maxim, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is no less true for Church leaders than it is for other leaders. Cahill points out the all-too-often temptation for Church to be pulled into the world of power as it seeks to be a powerful witness in the world. But it it does so to its own peril and often its own spiritual ruin. As the Latin dictum notes, Ecclesia Semper Reformandum Est, (the Church must always be in reform of itself). Without efforts at reform and renewal, Cahill rightly notes, the Church often falls victim to the law of institutions (i.e. self interest) and not the law of love (236). In a time when the faithful are calling for authenticity, accountability, honesty, humility and above all humanness from Church leaders, Cahill's biography of John XXIII offers not only hope amidst the current crisis but also a compelling presentation of the values of true Christian leadership.