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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Newly-minted St. John XXIII, the 'good pope,' convened Vatican II that brought sweeping changes in the ancient institution, even as post-conciliar era under Paul VI saw ‘turbulent weather.’ Not well known: how John XXIII helped avert what could have been worst Cold War crisis, by brokering peace between JFK and Khrushchev in Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Grateful Nikita thanked Pope by sending uncorrupted body of 17th century martyr St. Josaphat of Ukraine to Vatican.




This last of my blog series on the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II could raise valid complaints from the vast number of admirers of St. John: why only one blog about him when I’ve written four about St John Paul II? Is it discrimination or excessive love for one over the other saint? Not at all.

For one, there’s less material on the rotund much-loved smiling man known to the world as the “good pope,” and the “Good Shepherd” than on his colleague two successions removed, Pope JPII---who captivated the world with his profundity, theatrical talent (as the great British actor John Gielgud once said, JPII had this “perfect sense of timing”in his pronouncements) and telegenic looks.

The comparative lack of material on John XXIII doubtless arises from the fact that this "meek and gentle, resourceful and courageous, simple and ever active Pope," elected on Oct. 28, 1958 at the age of 76, reigned on Peter’s Throne only for four years and seven months, whereas JPII was Pope for nearly 27 years. Even the write-up on John in the handsomely-designed official misalette distributed by the Vatican at the canonizations was shorter.

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But there were two singular achievements of Pope John that cannot be taken away from him. 

One was his decision that stunned and shocked the Church and the world, to convene the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (Vatican II) on Oct. 11, 1962. By popular notion, Vatican II constituted the opening of the ancient institution's windows to let fresh winds blow inside it after an existence of almost 2000 years---akin to a "New Pentecost."

The 21st ecumenical council in Church history (the First Vatican Council was convened by Pope Pius IX from 1869 to 1870), Vatican II was considered by Church historians as the most important religious event of the century at that time. It allowed many significant and far-reaching changes in the Church---most familiar to us lay people is that now we can hear mass and the rituals in our own language, not the sonorous Latin of ancient past.

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For one thing, as Catholic scholar George Weigel noted, “The Church’s theology, its study of Scripture, its worship, and its approach to modern politics all needed development.” Or as author Thomas Bokenkotter put it, Vatican II was John’s “magnificent dream of a heart-to-heart conversation with the whole of humanity on the major spiritual issues of the day.” For Vatican II, 3000 bishops from around the world met in four three month-sessions at St. Peter’s Basilica itself over three  years, which saw it issue 16 documents---four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations.

John XXIII, however, would not be allowed by God to shepherd his dream council to its end, for on June 3, 1963, significantly the day after Pentecost, he died suddenly.

As in any post-earthquake period, the “post-conciliar” period after the close of Vatican II stirred a lot of tensions, confusion and controversy and it was left to John’s successor, 65-year old Giovanni Cardinal Battista Montini of Northern Italy, who became Paul VI, to heroically deal with them.  Our own Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle studied the influence of Paul VI over Vatican II for his doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., titled “Episcopal Collegiality and Vatican II.”  

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What’s also not known much by the outside world was how this smiling gentle Pontiff helped pull the world from the brink of what’s considered the worst nuclear crisis to hit in the Cold War era. The time was October 1962, a 13-day confrontation between the USSR and its ally Cuba, on one hand, and the US on the other. In May that year Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev proposed the idea of placing Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba in the US’ underbelly---to deter what he claimed would be future invasion attempts by the US, after the latter had placed nuke missiles in Turkey and Italy, aimed, said the Soviet leader, at Moscow. 

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A July secret meeting between Khrushchev and Fidel Castro ended with the agreement to start construction of missile sites in Cuba late that summer, and US defense intelligence produced photos by the U-2 of nuke missiles on the ground there. The US contemplated an air and sea attack, but ultimately decided on a military blockade, euphemistically called a “quarantine.”

Nikita protested the “act of aggression propelling human kind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war,” while JFK demanded dismantling of the missile sites and return of the weapons to USSR. What the world did not know at that time was that “secret back-channel communication” was going on between the two world leaders.

Very much in the midst of this back-channeling was John XXIII whom the Soviet Premier had secretly asked to negotiate with the US President. The Pope called President Kennedy and they talked about it, and to the huge relief of the world, the missile konfrontasi ended on Oct. 28, 1962. The USSR agreed to the dismantling in Cuba and the US agreed to pull out the weapons deployed in Turkey and Italy. That moral victory was among the highlights of JFK's all-too-brief Camelot reign.

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In the early part of the on-going Ukraine crisis, Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, reading my write-up on that crisis, emailed this blogger to recall that Nikita was so happy over John XXIII's "intercession" that he later dispatched his son-in-law to the Vatican to ask what he could present to the Pope in gratitude. John XXIII asked for only one thing: that the remains of 17th century Archbishop-martyr St. Josaphat be turned over to the Vatican from the Ukraine, which was part of the USSR at that time.

St. Josaphat was killed by a rival Christian Orthodox faction as he attempted to quell schisms and broker unity between warring factions. His body had remained unncorrupted for several centuries, despite being recovered from a river at one point; reports said it smelled of fragrance of roses and lilies.  Josaphat was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1867.

Khrushchev indulged the Pope's request and in fact, said Archbishop Arguelles, he was ordained bishop by Pope John Paul II not far from the altar of St. Josaphat at the Vatican. The Saint's Feast is on Nov. 12, which, happily, coincides with the Lipa Archbishop's birthday.

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Body of St. John XXIII, exposed to veneration in St. Peter's Basilica

Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, was born in Bergamo, Italy, of humble origins, in stark contrast to his predecessor, the patrician Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XXII who died in 1958. Ordained priest in Rome, John became secretary to a significant Vatican official named Giacomo Radini Tedeschi, at whose side he acquired profound contact with sainted bishops such as St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis de Sales and blessed Gregorio Barbarigo. He became seminary professor and spiritual assistant to various ecclesiastical associations, then bishop, archbishop and Cardinal-Patriarch of Venice, following in the ministerial footsteps of holy bishops such as St. Lawrence Guistiniani, Venice’s first Patriarch, and St. Pius X.

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One interesting stint of Roncalli---perhaps unique among church leaders---was his military service in the two World Wars. When Italy joined WWI in 1915 the future pope was called to be a sergeant medic behind enemy lines and later as military chaplain serving military hospitals and coordinating spiritual and moral care of soldiers. In World War II, while assigned in devastated Greece and Turkey as Apostolic Delegate, Roncalli sought to gain information about prisoners of war and helped many Jews escape by giving them transit visas. In the final months of the war and immediate peace, he also worked to restore stability to the life of the Church in France.  

If this blogger may be permitted this recollection, I wrote last year about the time when my husband, then a young lieutenant serving as junior aide-de-camp to then Vice President and Foreign Secretary Emmanuel Pelaez, accompanied his boss for an audience with Pope John XXIII in Rome in early 1963. When the Pope learned of the  young West Point-trained lieutenant’s background, he recounted to him  his service behind enemy lines in the trench warfare of WWI. Then John put his arms around him and said, “Don’t worry, my son. You’ll become a general someday.” That prophesy proved great, for General Cunanan was able to earn three stars in his military career. 

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