Randall S. ROSENBERG. The Vision of Saint John XXIII. New York: Paulist Press, 2014. Pages xvii + 141. $14.95. ISBN 978-0-8091-4886-8. Reviewed by Stephen S. WILBRICHT, Stonehill College, Easton, MA 02357
The Second Vatican Council decreed in its document on the renewal of religious life, Perfectae Caritatis (October 28, 1965), that “the spirit and aims of each founder should be faithfully acknowledged and maintained” (number 2). While not the founder of a religious community, the imagination and vision of Angelo Roncalli for both the Church and the world are deserving of attention and interpretation, as they played an undeniable role in setting both the tone and the agenda for Vatican II.
Such is the goal of Randall S. Rosenberg, assistant professor of systematic theology at Saint Louis University and former holder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought at Fontbonne University in St. Louis. The inspiration for Rosenberg’s The Vision of Saint John XXIII stems from a keynote lecture he delivered at the 2nd Annual Newman Academic Convocation at Saint Louis University in 2011.
After the foreword by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, in which he connects the present style of Pope Francis, especially his “loving yet not uncritical friendship with the modern world,” to that of Pope John, Rosenberg sets out to uncover the building blocks of the bridge that John XXIII’s pontificate constructed within the Church, with non-Catholic Christians and people of non-Christian backgrounds, and the political scene of the world in general. His goal is not to prepare another biographical sketch of the now-canonized saint, but rather to consider how John XXIII contributed to the “widening of the Catholic imagination” (xvi). Citing the work of Charles Taylor (Modern Social Imaginaries, 2004), Rosenberg employs the notion of “Catholic imaginary” throughout the entire work to paint the picture of how Pope John helped to transform the way in which Catholics frame their existence, their “relationship to modern economic, political, social, technological, and cultural developments” (xv).
In the course of six chapters—Chapter One: Pastoral Vision, Chapter Two: Catholic Imagination, Chapter Three: A Builder of Bridges, Chapter Four: Ecumenical and Interreligious Vision, Chapter Five: Political Imagination, and Chapter Six: A Joyful Presence—Rosenberg consistently illumines Roncalli’s worldview, what went into forming his pastoral style and what predominated his Catholic sense. For example, in Chapter One, Rosenberg places John XXIII in the schema of Aristotle’s categorizations of friendship: usefulness, pleasure, and virtue. Rosenberg writes that friendships in their deepest sense “are marked by openness to the other as other, by wishing the good of the other; these relationships involve growing together in virtue, love, and vulnerability, but also critically and charitably challenging one another to blot out the biases and blind spots that hinder full human flourishing” (2-3). Rosenberg suggests that this desire for “friendship” serves as the foundation for John XXIII’s dual tasks of aggiornamento (“updating”) and ressourcement (“a recovery of the riches of the past”) as he called for worldwide discernment at Vatican II.
Another example of the “Catholic imaginary” that flows from the vision of John XXIII, is his friendship with the saints, Rosenberg’s topic in Chapter Two. Here the author explores a number of the disciplines and religious practices that shaped Roncalli’s childhood and life as a young priest. Among the saints with which he dialogued for inspiration and guidance were St. Francis de Sales, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Gregory the Great. It is from this last saint that John XXIII learned to see himself as “servant of the servants of God.” Rosenberg writes: “A recovery of the pastoral, evangelical nature of the papal office has been accomplished throughout the centuries of reforming popes; in the modern era, John XXIII was pioneering in this recovery” (51).
There are certainly voices within the Catholic Church today that feverishly oppose the attitude of openness to the world and its ideas that John XXIII pioneered. However, few will deny the extraordinary power of this saint’s spirit. His was a pastoral vision of friendship in all things. Rosenberg concludes: “John XXIII challenges those dedicated to the pastoral and educational missions of the church to see their work as a kind of ‘upbuilding’: to connect their parishioners and students, their audiences, readers, and colleagues to the ‘vast deep’ of the Catholic tradition, while at the same time being cognizant of the complicated dynamics of contemporary culture” (129).
The Vision of Saint John XXIII is a handsomely printed book that is able to be read with both contemplation and speed. This volume is not prepared for those interested in researching Roncalli’s life and writings, but rather, its purpose is to supply a fresh vision of joy and hope for the pilgrim Church in the turbulent world of the third millennium.