In the fall of 1962, the world was facing the missile crisis and there was a very real chance of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Both President Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev made use of John XXIII in a back channel manner. The pope clearly grasped the seriousness of the situation and urged both leaders to choose peace. Until his intervention, there was real risk of nuclear war. Happily, war was avoided and it is then that the elderly pope began to dream of a world that would develop structures that would ensure prosperity, cooperation and, most of all, peace across this planet. Out of his thinking and prayer came the historic document Pacem in Terris.
When we read the daily papers and watch the evening news there is so much information about wars and the threat of war, about killings, about dangers, risk and conflicts that it is hard to imagine that things really are better today but they actually are. The world of 2013 is a much better organized and cooperative and a more peaceful world than was true in 1962. First of all, human rights have surged to the front and negotiations among peoples all over the world. While there is much to be done, the issue of human rights has become a major factor in international law and diplomacy. Many new transnational agencies and organizations have sprung up. A form of global governance has begun and, like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, who formally played nuclear brinkmanship but now are both pushing for the removal of all nuclear weapons. This new and profound interest in human rights certainly began to strengthen inside the life of the Church in a way that had not been present before 1962.
While Pope John XXIII was supposedly elected as an “interim” pope, he surprised everyone and was one of the most influential popes of the last century. While I write here today about Pacem in Terris, we must not forget that he is the man who had the courage and wisdom to convene the Second Vatican Council. That Council was a great gift to the Church but its work is far from being completed. Speaking just for myself, I pray fervently that Pope Francis will convene yet another Council in the near future.