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Pope Francis, Vatican II & 'the right Tony'

POPE FRANCIS has amply justified the faith in him that many Catholics expressed shortly after his appointment. The beautiful 85-page proclamation that Pope Francis released last week makes it official: Pope Francis is our generation's Pope John XXIII, pre

POPE FRANCIS has amply justified the faith in him that many Catholics expressed shortly after his appointment. The beautiful 85-page proclamation that Pope Francis released last week makes it official: Pope Francis is our generation's Pope John XXIII, preaching a universal call to love, serve and respect others in accordance with the teaching of Jesus Christ. More particularly, last week's "apostolic exhortation" should be read as his latest effort to get Catholic bishops, bureaucrats and believers to practice their faith in accordance with the dozen-plus documents that resulted from Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council (1962-65), better known as Vatican II.

Despite compromises with bishops that opposed Pope John XXIII's vision, Vatican II decreed that Catholic clergy, from the pope on down, were not the laity's superiors but its servant-leaders, each privileged to pastor a global religious community in which all the baptized have equal dignity. The council's doctrines directed all Catholics to engage and improve, not escape or condemn, the modern world; embrace other Christians as brothers and sisters; honor the Jewish people; and, in lifesaving ministries to the poor and in myriad other works, witness Christ's love to people of all faiths and of no faith around the world.

In striving to revive both the spirit and the letter of Vatican II, Pope Francis has a most intriguing ally in Philadelphia's own Dr. Anthony T. Massimini. Born in 1928 into a large Italian-American family in South Philadelphia, Tony, as Dr. Massimini likes to be called, was ordained as a priest in 1959. Three years later, he was in Rome and participated in Vatican II. Several other brilliant young priest-intellectuals from other nations flanked Father Massimini there, including Poland's Father Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) and Germany's Father Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).

But even in that world-class company, Philly's Tony stood out. His theological erudition and mastery of Latin made him indispensable to the American delegation. He was favored to meet with Pope John XXIII himself, and later had private time at the beloved pope's deathbed.

But, after returning home from Rome, Tony struggled to get Catholic leaders in Philly to preach, teach and practice in obedience to what Vatican II had decided. At various points, after giving public speeches at Protestant churches and at synagogues - speeches that were scheduled and preapproved by the Archdiocese, and speeches in which he merely explicitly quoted and applied Vatican II texts - he was officially "silenced." He was also disciplined for bringing Vatican II messages about interfaith outreach and other topics to students at a local Catholic university.

Even after silencing Tony to the outside world, the then-Philadelphia cardinal, John Krol, called upon him to serve as chairperson of the local seminary's theology department. Tony complied, but soon thereafter he decided to leave the priesthood. He did not, however, leave the church. In 1971, he received dispensation from Pope Paul VI and returned to the laity. His last assigned post as a priest was as chaplain of the University of Pennsylvania's Newman Center, the secular Ivy League school's hub for Catholic student life.

The rest of Tony's incredible story, his personal witness and journey in relation to Vatican II, is captured by an in-depth, five-part video interview with him made last year after he returned to Penn and gave a warmly well-received talk to Catholic, Jewish and other student groups (

With a doctorate in theology, post-priesthood study and practice in psychiatry, and writings on topics ranging from contemporary physics to classical philosophy, Tony's deep humility and heartwarming humor make his reflections on Vatican II and contemporary Catholicism compelling. The video interview was filmed in 2012 before Pope Francis was appointed. But if you view it all the way through, you will encounter strong "echoes" of what you may have heard or read from Pope Francis over the last many months.

There was another young priest, also Italian-American, and also nicknamed Tony, who served in Philadelphia when Massimini did; he appears in a group photo with Krol and Massimini that is included in the video. But Anthony "Tony" Bevilacqua would not be driven from the post-Vatican II clergy. Instead, Tony would go on to succeed Krol in 1988. Cardinal Bevilacqua stepped down in 2003. The region's Catholic clergy and laity are still reckoning with the financial, managerial and moral breakdowns that occurred during his two decades in charge, none worse than his decisions regarding priests that were known sexual predators.

Too often, the American Catholic Church, post-Vatican II, praised, promoted and protected "the wrong Tony." But, with Pope Francis, we believe that it is not too late. And we have deep faith in our present-day bishops, priests, nuns and other Catholic religious in Philly and beyond. Many are people who have spent decades working, each in his or her own way, to make the Catholic community a blessing to all peoples; like our Tony, they deserve blessings, both papal and popular.