Pope JOHN XXIII, Essential Writings. Selected with an introduction by Jean Maalouf. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008. pp. 192. $18.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-761-7.
Reviewed by Andrew W. LICHTENWALNER, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC 20064

Pope Blessed John XXIII (1881-1963) is well-known for summoning the bishops of the world to gather as he convened the Second Vatican Council, a significant event which came as a surprise to many who did not expect the elderly Pope to call for an ecumenical council. The usual storyline emphasizes the difference in styles between Pope Pius XII and John XXIII, the startling reality of a new council, and the “fresh air” brought into the Church by “Good Pope John.” Often overlooked are the interior strength and traditional piety, in continuity with Pius XII, which reveal a man open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit precisely because he was thoroughly ecclesial and dependent upon a life of prayer. John XXIII’s motto, Oboedientia et Pax, reveals both his ecclesial rootedness and his interior life. The call for the Second Vatican Council, while prepared for by various preceding realities including magisterial teachings and theological developments, arose from a humble heart which embraced the virtue of obedience and sought for the only true peace which, as he put it, is the “peace of Christ.” John XXIII understood that any real peace which encompasses the social order must be founded ultimately upon the interior peace of a soul in union with Christ. This volume, one of a series on Modern Spiritual Masters, allows the reader to encounter these deeper aspects of this influential Pope.

Jean Maalouf’s selection of writings spans from John XXIII’s personal diary begun at age fifteen to his encyclicals as Pope. These writings demonstrate a man deeply devoted to holiness and the interior life as well as keenly perceptive of the social order and peoples’ hopes and struggles. Maalouf groups the writings into six chapters which treat the call to holiness, leadership, the Church in the modern world, the global social order, prayers and devotions, and brief and notable sayings. The book includes a thirty-page introduction to Pope John by Maalouf with additional brief introductions to every chapter. Maalouf’s contribution is helpful and informative for the most part, though in some instances he falls into the caricatures often found in treatments of the Second Vatican Council which do not attend to the formative decades and magisterial contributions prior to the Council.

This book testifies to the contemporary relevance of John XXIII’s writings and example as present-day threats to the social order continue to abound despite growing global awareness, as individualism and materialism thrive, as the dignity of human life and the person remain under attack from various quarters, and as individual “spiritualism” often substitutes for a deeply rooted ecclesial faith. In the face of these challenges, John XXIII witnesses to the fundamental optimism that should mark the life of every Christian, an optimism and openness grounded in the Cross of Christ. Maalouf’s introduction cites these words of the Pope: “The secret of my ministry is in the crucifix….Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate: they say that Christ dies for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness” (19).

Any general reader interested in Pope John XXIII and/or the Second Vatican Council can benefit from this volume. While not academically oriented, it can be used as supplemental reading in an undergraduate course on the Second Vatican Council or in an adult enrichment course. For its most advantageous use, the book is best suited for spiritual reading.


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