A Washington Post columnist recently wrote an op-ed article expressing the hope that the Catholic Church would confer sainthood on the late Pope John XXIII, and I heartily second the motion.
Although I am not a Catholic, I was among the many outside the Church who found Pope John to be an inspirational figure during his tragically short Vatican tenure in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War.
What was especially appealing was Pope John's open-minded acknowledgement of modernity and the challenges it posed for resolving conflict and assuring a decent quality of life. As an environmentalist, I marvel in retrospect at how he anticipated many of the global environmental problems that lay ahead, and how he led the Church at least half way towards addressing them before his untimely demise.
His advocacy of cooperation and interdependency among all the nations of the world presaged the necessary formula for effectively confronting climate change, which was just beginning to emerge as a concern. His preaching in favor of wealthy countries sharing their modern technology with poorer nations laid out what is now considered a key strategy for combating widespread poverty and environmental degradation.
Pope John reminded us that property rights were not absolute, that we were custodians, not sovereign rulers of God's wondrous creation we call Planet Earth. At that time, there was no more eloquent entreaty for preservation of biodiversity. Pope John's rural roots were evident when he declared "Those who live on the land are in close harmony with nature. They work with the life of plants and animals, a life that is inexhaustible in its expression and rich in allusion to God, the Creator and Provider."
Would John, the "liberal" Pope (who is already beatified) have closed the environmental circle for the Church if he had not died five years into his reign? Perhaps. He never lived to see the commission that he appointed issue a recommendation by a vote of 57 to four to discontinue the Vatican's absolute ban on the use of birth control pills. Pope John's successor, Pope Paul VI, sided with the tiny minority and retained the controversial total artificial contraception prohibition that many otherwise devout Catholics have always felt free to ignore.
One can never be sure, but given John's open-mindedness, my guess is he would have supported the commission majority.
During his papacy, John's receptivity to new ideas and his warm spontaneous outreach to all who crossed his path enabled him to break down barriers between countries, religions, and many dissonant individuals.
At his death, I scribbled these lines and my mind has not changed to this day.
The flickering light is out
But in its place a puissant beacon shines
From where, we cannot see,
Yet does it illuminate all things.
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