Thursday, February 16, 2017

Two men named John

I have been reading about two remarkable figures of the 20th century, both of whom died in 1963:  Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy, born one hundred years ago.

It's hard to take that in since JFK seems forever an icon of youthful energy, despite being burdened by daily pain and much suffering.  The list of his life-long ailments is astounding, mostly hidden from public view during his life.  I have been reading Gretchen Rubin's Forty Ways to Look at JFK, a handy way to approach this complicated man (even if she doesn't really give us forty perspectives).

Why does this assassinated President, who served barely three years in the White House, remain in our minds as one of the greatest presidents, even if his actual accomplishments are less than great?  Rubin does a good job of responding to this issue of image and character; I might comment more fully later when I give a talk on this book.

The other talk I am giving deals with Pope John and the Jews: both his courageous work to secure the rescue of thousands of Jewish and other refugees during his days in Istanbul (1943-44), which is not well known, and his breakthrough outreach to Jews as pope.  In calling the Second Vatican Council, he addressed the Catholic Church in relation to the world and to other religions, and found, as a former diplomat, that a major cause of anti-Semitism is rooted in Christian belief and practice.

Hence came the landmark document Nostra Aetate, which declared, officially, that the Jews should not be held responsible for the death of Christ and should not be blamed but respected as the elder brothers of Christians.  He and his successors went on to condemn anti-Semitism as a great evil.

He was, in the words of Rabbi Moguilevsky of Buenos Aires, "a man truly created in the image of God." He could not have done more than he did to save the lives of thousands of Eastern European Jews at the end of the war, and later to re-orient Christianity in a more positive way, especially in embracing Jews.  He is now known as St. John XXIII.

The two Johns worked together, indirectly, at one of the most critical moments of the century: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  Because Pope John, warm and genial and skilled in diplomacy, believed in reaching out to adversaries, he had been in contact with Premier Khrushchev. Kennedy, desperate for a solution, had sent the writer Norman Cousins to Rome; this resulted in the Pope writing the Russian letter begging for peace. Khrushchev, an atheist, welcomed the gesture and saw the papal letter as a means to end the stalemate between the Soviet Union and the U.S. over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Nuclear war was averted.

The full details are outlined in many books, including the two biographies of John XIII I have consulted: one by Peter Hebblethwaite, the other by Thomas Cahill. I am grateful to both authors, and to Gretchen Rubin, for reminding me of the two major figures of the 1960s and the century.

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