The recent decision by Pope Francis to add the feast of Our Lady of Loreto to the universal calendar made me think of Pope Leo XIII, the missionary prisoner. Permit me an explanation.
For the past 10 years I have spent a chunk of July in Kraków teaching in the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, an exploration of Catholic social teaching in the early third millennium. Our central text – in the city of St John Paul II and the spiritual capital of the 20th century – is Centesimus Annus, the 1991 encyclical that presented John Paul’s most complete teaching on the right ordering of culture, politics and economics.
But I have learned as well as taught, as is the case in any worthy academic enterprise. My colleague Professor Russell Hittinger has taught us about the essential importance of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) in reconfiguring the Catholic Church’s encounter with modernity. Our seminar’s leader, George Weigel, describes Hittinger as knowing “more about 19th-century Catholic history in general, and Leo XIII in particular” than anyone else. Weigel has added that knowledge to his own study of modern Catholic history for his latest book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History.
It presents much of what has been taught and learned, discussed and debated at our seminar. And the hero of the drama – which Weigel presents as a play in five acts – is not John Paul, but Leo. Make the necessary discounts for friendship and professional collaboration if you must, but I highly recommend it.
I think of Leo XIII as a “missionary prisoner”. He inherited from his immediate predecessor, Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878) his “prisoner” status. Having been stripped by force of arms of the papal states, Pius IX refused to recognise the new Italian republic, and therefore refused to leave the Vatican. This self-imposed “incarceration” lasted until 1929, nearly 60 years, including the pontificates of Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI.
Yet Leo, stripped of temporal power and even freedom of movement, reconceived the Church’s encounter with modernity. Rather than a contest of social control, the Church would propose a conversion of modernity from within. Leo would explore the terrain beyond the Counter-Reformation, what John Paul would call the “new evangelisation” and Francis describes as a Church “permanently in mission”.
Weigel argues that the drama of Catholic history for the last 200 years has been the move from a hostile confrontation with modernity – as exemplified by the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX – to an attempt to provide a Christian foundation for the noble parts of the modern project. The latter would be exemplified by Vatican II’s declaration of religious freedom. The first protagonist was Leo XIII.
“Leo’s grand strategy took a dramatically new tack,” writes Weigel. “He would lead a Church that would neither reject modernity outright nor surrender to it, as much of liberal Protestantism was in the process of doing. Rather, the Church of the Leonine Revolution would engage modernity with distinctively Catholic tools in order to propose a surer moral and cultural foundation for the modern world’s aspirations.”
Weigel’s “Leonine Revolution” touched everything from biblical studies to philosophy, astronomy to diplomacy. But its high point was social doctrine, as Leo sketched out the principles of a modernity animated by the Christian tradition. In Weigel’s telling, Leo realised that modernity had at its core an empty shrine. Leo thought that Christian revelation could fill it.
That something revolutionary was afoot came early “when 15 months after his election, Leo named John Henry Newman a cardinal … a clear indicator of the Pope’s understanding that Catholicism evolved over time and it underscored the new pope’s willingness to engage the modern world with Catholic intellectual tools.”
Back then to Loreto. The recent addition to the Church’s universal calendar of a new Marian feast has a connection to Vatican II, St John XXIII and the Church’s engagement with modernity.
The new feast may not get much traction, given that it falls on December 10, putting it between the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. Most parishes would not opt to celebrate three Marian feasts in five days, all the more so in Advent.
Loreto, though, remains linked to Vatican II. John XXIII went there on the eve of the Council, to pray for its success. It was the first time a pope had left Rome since the time of Pius IX. Even though the “Roman Question” had been settled in 1929 with the creation of the Vatican City State, neither Pius XI or Pius XII would travel beyond Rome.
When St John XXIII left Rome, it was a visible manifestation of the missionary impulse he desired Vatican II to have, and which he placed at the heart of his opening address indicating the programme of the Council.
Weigel sees here the “grand strategy of John XXIII: focus the energy that had been let loose in the Church by the Leonine Revolution through the prism of a general council of all the world’s bishops, and call the Church to a new engagement with the world, precisely for the sake of the world’s conversion.”
Leo had been a missionary prisoner. John XXIII decided that it was time to stop being a prisoner in order to be a better missionary.
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