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Pope John XXIII’s Role in Ending the Cold War; Thomas Merton’s prophecy on the assassination of JFK

Discussion in 'Books, movies, links, websites.' started by Richard67, Dec 24, 2017.

  1. Richard67

    Richard67 Powers

    Just finished reading the excellent book by Catholic author Jim Douglass, titled JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters. In addition to being the best book ever written on JFK as well as the JFK assassination, it really brought to light some little known facts about the Cold War, particularly the role Pope John XXIII played in mediating a peace between Khrushchev and Kennedy. The book is a must read for any Catholic, and also is very pertinent given that the same internal battle JFK waged with his Deep State, is the same battle Trump is facing today. I highly recommend reading it and would like to just highlight one section that stood out for me regarding Pope John XXIII as well as a little known prophecy made by Thomas Merton involving JFK:

    When John F. Kennedy was president, I was a graduate student struggling with the theological dimensions of the same question he grappled with more concretely in the White House: How could we survive our weapons of war, given the Cold War attitudes behind them? At the time I wrote articles seeking a way out of an apocalyptic war, without realizing that Kennedy—at great risk—was as president seeking a genuine way out for us all.

    At that critical moment in history, Thomas Merton was the greatest spiritual writer of his generation. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was seen as the post–World War II equivalent of The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Merton had gone on to write a series of classic works on prayer. However, when he turned his discerning writer’s eye in the early sixties to such issues as nuclear war and racism, his readers were shocked—and in some cases, energized.

    I first wrote Thomas Merton in 1961, at his monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, after reading a poem he had published in the Catholic Worker. Merton’s poem was really an anti-poem, spoken by the commandant of a Nazi death camp. It was titled: “Chant to Be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces.” Merton’s “Chant” proceeded matter-of-factly through the speaker’s daily routine of genocide to these concluding lines: “Do not think yourself better better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”

    When I read those words, I was living in the spiritual silence that in 1961 surrounded the threat of a nuclear holocaust. The reality underlying Cold War rhetoric was unspeakable. Merton’s “Chant” broke the silence. The Unspeakable had been spoken—by the greatest spiritual writer of our time. I wrote him immediately.

    He answered my letter quickly. We corresponded on nonviolence and the nuclear threat. The next year Merton sent me a copy of a manuscript he had written, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. Because his superiors had forbidden him to publish a book on war and peace that they felt “falsifies the monastic message,” Merton mimeographed the text and mailed it to friends. Peace in the Post-Christian Era was a prophetic work responding to the spiritual climate that was pushing the United States government toward nuclear war. One of its recurring themes was Merton’s fear that the United States would launch a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. He wrote, “There can be no question that at the time of writing what seems to be the most serious and crucial development in the policy of the United States is this indefinite but growing assumption of the necessity of a first strike.”

    Thomas Merton was acutely aware that the president who might take such a fateful step was his fellow Catholic, John F. Kennedy. Among Merton’s many correspondents at the time and another another recipient of Peace in the Post-Christian Era was the president’s sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy. Merton shared his fear of war with Ethel Kennedy and his hope that John Kennedy would have the vision and courage to turn the country in a peaceful direction. In the months leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Merton agonized, prayed, and felt impotent, as he continued to write passionate antiwar letters to scores of other friends.

    During the thirteen fearful days of October 16-28, 1962, President John F. Kennedy did, as Thomas Merton feared, take the world to the brink of nuclear war, with the collaboration of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Through the grace of God, however, Kennedy resisted the pressures for preemptive war. He instead negotiated a resolution of the missile crisis with his communist enemy by their making mutual concessions, some without the knowledge of JFK’s national security advisers. Kennedy thereby turned away from a terrible evil and began a thirteen-month spiritual journey toward world peace. That journey, marked by contradictions, would result in his assassination by what Thomas Merton would identify later, in a broader context, as the Unspeakable.

    In 1962-64, I was living in Rome, studying theology and lobbying Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council for a statement condemning total war and supporting conscientious objection. I knew little of John Kennedy’s halting spiritual journey toward peace. I did feel there was a harmony betweenhim and Pope John XXIII, as would be confirmed later by journalist Norman Cousins. When I met Cousins in Rome, I learned of his shuttle diplomacy as a secret messenger between the president, the pope, and the premier. I had no sense in those years that there may have been forces lining up to murder Kennedy. Thomas Merton did, as shown by a strange prophecy he made.

    In a letter written to his friend W. H. Ferry in January 1962, Merton assessed Kennedy’s character at that point in a negative, insightful way: “I have little confidence in Kennedy, I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task, and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensitivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self-forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that some day by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.”

    Merton’s skeptical view of Kennedy allowed for a grain of hope and a contingent prophecy. As the United States moved closer to nuclear war, the monk undoubtedly prayed for the president’s unlikely but necessary (for us all) conversion to a deeper, wider humanity—which, if it happened, would before long mark him out for assassination. As measured by the world, it was a dead-end prayer. But in terms of faith, such a sequence and consequence could be seen as cause for celebration.

    In the next twenty-two months, did Kennedy break through by miracle to a deeper humanity? Was he then marked out for assassination?

    John F. Kennedy was no saint. Nor was he any apostle of nonviolence. However, as we are all called to do, he was turning. Teshuvah, “turning,” the rabbinic word for repentance, is the explanation for Kennedy’s short-lived, contradictory journey toward peace. He was turning from what would have been the worst violence in history toward a new, more peaceful possibility in his and our lives. He was therefore in deadly conflict with the Unspeakable.

    “The Unspeakable” is a term Thomas Merton coined at the heart of the sixties after JFK’s assassination—in the midst of the escalating Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the further assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. In each of those soul-shaking events Merton sensed an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.

    “One of the awful facts of our age,” Merton wrote in 1965, “is the evidence that [the world] is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable...(cont.)
  2. Richard67

    Richard67 Powers


    Self-examination, Kennedy said at American University, was the foundation of peace. In that speech he asked Americans to examine four basic attitudes in ourselves that were critical obstacles to peace.

    “First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable—that mankind is doomed—that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.”

    I remember well the United States’ warring spirit when President Kennedy said those words. Our deeply rooted prejudice, cultivated by years of propaganda, was that peace with Communists was impossible. The dogmas in our Cold War catechism ruled out peace with the enemy: You can’t trust the Russians. Communism could undermine the very nature of freedom. One had to fight fire with fire against such an enemy. In the nuclear age, that meant being prepared to destroy the world to save it from Communism. Sophisticated analysts called it “the nuclear dilemma.”

    With the acceptance of such attitudes, despair of peace was a given. Thomas Merton wrote of this Cold War mentality: “The great danger is that under the pressures of anxiety and fear, the alternation of crisis and relaxation and new crisis, the people of the world will come to accept gradually the idea of war, the idea of submission to total power, and the abdication of reason, spirit and individual conscience. The great peril of the cold war is the progressive deadening of conscience.”[ 167] As Kennedy observed, in such an atmosphere peace seemed impossible, as in fact it was, unless underlying attitudes changed. But how to change them?

    Kennedy suggested a step-by-step way out of our despair. It corresponded in the world of diplomacy to what Gandhi had called “experiments in truth.” Kennedy said we could overcome despair by focusing “on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.” In spite of our warring ideologies, peace could become visible again by our acting in response to particular, concrete problems that stood in its way.

    As JFK was learning himself from his intense dialogue with Khrushchev, the practice of seeking peace through definable goals drew one irresistibly deeper. Violent ideologies then fell away in the process of realizing peace.

    “Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable,” he said in reference to his own experience. “By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.”

    The second point in Kennedy’s theme was that self-examination was needed with respect to our opponent: “Let us examine our attitude toward the Soviet Union.” We needed to examine the root cause of our despair, namely, our attitude toward our enemy. Kennedy cited anti-American propaganda from a Soviet military text and observed, “It is sad to read these Soviet statements—to realize the extent of the gulf between us.”

    Then with his listeners’ defenses down, he brought the theme of self-examination home again: “But it is also a warning—a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”

    It was a summary of our own Cold War perspective. The key question was not: What about the Russians? It was rather: What about our own attitude that can’t get beyond “What about the Russians”? The point was again not the speck in our neighbor’s eye but the log in our own.

    Kennedy’s next sentence was a nonviolent distinction between a system and its people: “No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.” With these words President John Kennedy was echoing a theme of Pope John XXIII’s papal encyclical Pacem in Terris (“ Peace on Earth”), published two months earlier on April 11, 1963.

    In response to the threat of nuclear war, Pope John had issued his hopeful letter to the world just before he took leave of it. He died of cancer one week before Kennedy’s speech. In Pacem in Terris Pope John drew a careful distinction between “false philosophical teachings regarding the nature, origin and destiny of the universe and of humanity” and “historical movements that have economic, social, cultural or political ends, . . . even when these movements have originated from those teachings and have drawn and still draw inspiration therefrom.” Pope John said that while such teachings remained the same, the movements arising from them underwent changes “of a profound nature.”

    The pope then struck down what seemed at the time to be insurmountable barriers to dialogue and collaboration with a militantly atheist opponent: “Who can deny that those movements, insofar as they conform to the dictates of right reason and are interpreters interpreters of the lawful aspirations of the human person, contain elements that are positive and deserving of approval?

    “It can happen, then, that meetings for the attainment of some practical end, which formerly were deemed inopportune or unproductive, might now or in the future be considered opportune and useful.”

    The pope’s actions were ahead of his words. He was already in friendly communication with Nikita Khrushchev, sending him appeals for peace and religious freedom. His unofficial emissary to the Soviet premier, Norman Cousins, had delivered a Russian translation of Pacem in Terris personally to Khrushchev, even before the encyclical was issued to the rest of the world. Khrushchev displayed proudly to Communist Party co-workers the papal medallion that Pope John had sent him.

    John Kennedy took heart from the elder John’s faith that peace was made possible through such trust and communication with an enemy. Kennedy knew from Cousins the details of his meetings with Khrushchev on behalf of Pope John. Kennedy sent along with Cousins backdoor messages of his own to the Soviet premier, as Cousins describes in his book The Improbable Triumvirate: John F. Kennedy, Pope John, Nikita Khrushchev. Something was going on here behind the scenes of Christian–Communist conflict that was breathtaking in the then-dominant context of Armageddon theologies.

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