Michael Novak Recalls the Good Humoured John XXIII and the Polish Pontiff Who Called Him a Friend

Tells ZENIT Why Joint Canonization Made Sense

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Michael Novak, former ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, theologian, and author of some 30 books, including «The Open Church» and «Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative» spoke with ZENIT in Rome days before this weekend’s canonization.

An eyewitness to Vatican II, who was both given one of the last wedding blessings by John XXIII and who was publicly called a friend by John Paul II, Novak shared with ZENIT his thoughts about the two popes and the canonization.

ZENIT: What is the reason behind having a joint canonization? It’s said that Poles are unhappy with JPII being canonized on the same day as John XXIII.

Novak: The linking of the popes makes better sense of them both, than one by one.

At the end of John XXIII’s time as pope, his work was left very undone. Some were even speculating about a Vatican III. Once Benedict XVI was asked: «What’s the full meaning of Vatican II?» He responded: «We won’t know, as the fruits of the council take time to develop.»

This is very true and is evidenced by the fact that no other country or great organization has had a re-enactment of the council, in the sense that they took the initiative to reinvent themselves. We cannot name another institution that is or has effectively done this in the same way that the Catholic Church did through Vatican II.

The questions raised by the decisions reached by the decrees were incredibly far reaching and forward looking. It’s true that 50 years were needed to come to a common understanding of what happened.

ZENIT: Many say the joint canonization could be seen as a sign of continuity between the Popes and the council. Could you explain your view on this?

Novak: Yes, as I said in my book «The Open Church,» John XXIII ‘opened the windows of the Church’ when he announced there would be a Second Vatican Council. He knew better than to consult with the Roman Curia, which had been described in this way: «Popes come and go, but the Curia lives forever.» He just announced the Church needed this council and will be having it, whether the Curia liked it or not.

Vatican II was a tremendous event which advanced the Council of Trent. It announced a new era of the Church which, after John Paul II, Benedict XVI was about to build on in a very scholarly way and Francis would build on in a very populist way.

ZENIT: In what ways did John Paul II himself carry out the fruits of the council?

Novak: John Paul II took the initiatives of John XXIII and ‘rounded them out,’ completing them and making them international. By ‘rounded out,’ I mean he did something unimaginable in the way he carried out the council’s decrees. No one had any idea what he was thinking. 

If someone would have predicted that the wall would come down, they would have locked him up. This is a testament to Wojtyla who, effectively did the impossible, in crumbling communism, in a roughly 11 year time frame.

He changed the contours of the world, traveling, more than any pope ever had. He showed the Church structure is not a pyramid, it’s concentric rings, which were visible during his travels, at which he would be on an altar surrounded by bishops of the region and hemisphere. John Paul introduced this to the world.

ZENIT: Tell us about the «The Open Church.» With your personal account of being present at Vatican II, could you give some insight to the persons who would like to know more about John XXIII?

Novak: John XXIII was so wonderful. He was known as the smiling pope. He was very easy-going, kind, warm, and friendly. He enjoyed a good joke and laughed often. He had that personal touch that people see in and love about Pope Francis today. He was not all puffed up about himself.

ZENIT: Can you please give an example of this humorous and playful side of the Italian pontiff?

Novak: Yes, once, when walking with a journalist in the Vatican gardens, he was asked whether he knew how many people worked at the Vatican. He joked saying, «about half.»

ZENIT: How else were John XXIII and Pope Francis similar?

Novak: They were both pastors of the Church. They possessed that warmth. They fall into the category of someone with whom you would like to have a coffee or cigar with.

John XXIII had «opened the windows of the Church» with Vatican II and brought an «aggiornamento,» meaning it brought the Church to today. Yet, he was aware, like how Francis is, that sometimes there are ‘winds.’ Not everything that comes in through the open window is good. There are noxious fumes. Likewise, not everything of today is good. 

ZENIT: What aspect of John XXIII and John Paul II’s relationship is important to this canonization?

Novak: The council that John XXIII proposed brought the Church together and nailed down clear, positive statements of faith built around prayers of the Church. This allowed for the evangelization, which John Paul II brought to fruition.

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': http://www.gracewing.co.uk/page219.html or https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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