Fifty-nine years ago today, Pope John opened Vatican Council II! Just a year and a half earlier I had been in his presence, the first Pope I ever saw! See my story and photo from that day below!
OCTOBER 11, FEAST DAY OF ST JOHN XXIII
(franciscanmedia.org) – Although few people had as great an impact on the 20th century as Pope John XXIII, he avoided the limelight as much as possible. Indeed, one writer has noted that his “ordinariness” seems one of his most remarkable qualities.
The firstborn son of a farming family in Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo in northern Italy, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was always proud of his down-to-earth roots. In Bergamo’s diocesan seminary, he joined the Secular Franciscan Order.
After his ordination in 1904, Fr. Roncalli returned to Rome for canon law studies. He soon worked as his bishop’s secretary, Church history teacher in the seminary, and as publisher of the diocesan paper.
His service as a stretcher-bearer for the Italian army during World War I gave him a firsthand knowledge of war. In 1921, Fr. Roncalli was made national director in Italy of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. He also found time to teach patristics at a seminary in the Eternal City.
In 1925, he became a papal diplomat, serving first in Bulgaria, then in Turkey, and finally in France. During World War II, he became well acquainted with Orthodox Church leaders. With the help of Germany’s ambassador to Turkey, Archbishop Roncalli helped save an estimated 24,000 Jewish people.
Named a cardinal and appointed patriarch of Venice in 1953, he was finally a residential bishop. A month short of entering his 78th year, Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope, taking the name John after his father and the two patrons of Rome’s cathedral, St. John Lateran. Pope John took his work very seriously but not himself. His wit soon became proverbial, and he began meeting with political and religious leaders from around the world. In 1962, he was deeply involved in efforts to resolve the Cuban missile crisis.
His most famous encyclicals were Mother and Teacher (1961) and Peace on Earth (1963). Pope John XXIII enlarged the membership in the College of Cardinals and made it more international. At his address at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, he criticized the “prophets of doom” who “in these modern times see nothing but prevarication and ruin.” Pope John XXIII set a tone for the Council when he said, “The Church has always opposed… errors. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”
On his deathbed, Pope John said: “It is not that the Gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have…were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.”
“Good Pope John” died on June 3, 1963. St. John Paul II beatified him in 2000, and Pope Francis canonized him in 2014.
Throughout his life, Angelo Roncalli cooperated with God’s grace, believing that the job at hand was worthy of his best efforts. His sense of God’s providence made him the ideal person to promote a new dialogue with Protestant and Orthodox Christians, as well as with Jews and Muslims. In the sometimes noisy crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica, many people become silent on seeing the simple tomb of Pope John XXIII, grateful for the gift of his life and holiness. After his beatification, his tomb was moved into the basilica itself.
POPE JOHN XXIII: MARCH 1961, MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH A POPE
My junior year in college was spent studying French in Fribourg, Switzerland during which time we had a six-week spring break, the first three weeks of which were spent in Italy. While in Rome, a papal audience took place. They were not weekly events at the time and there was no audience hall as we know it today. Rather, such group gatherings were held in the magnificent Hall of Blessings, the large room above the atrium of St. Peter’s Basilica – the room with the central loggia or balcony where newly-elected Popes first appear. (Vatican photo)
Pope John was carried into the room on an elevated chair known as the sedia gestatoria. The chair bearers were called sediari. Only Paul VI and John Paul I used the chair after Pope John. (JFL photo)
It was an amazing, wonderful, unforgettable, first-ever, “Oh my word, I am in the presence of the Pope, the Holy Father, the one and only head of the Catholic Church” moment – an experience that I’ve truly never forgotten. We did not speak Italian so someone had to summarize the papal talk for us but we heard a lot of laughter from Italians present and I later learned that John XXIII was known for his wit.
How very much I wanted to speak to the Pope, just to be near this man who struck me as someone who could be your favorite uncle, even your grandfather. There was almost a desire to hug him, as strange as that may sound! What he inspired me to do was to learn more about the Church, the papacy in general, but about him, Pope John XXIII, in particular.
I did learn how John XXIII was puzzled why his visits to orphanages, hospitals and prisons in Rome caused a stir in the press. Shouldn’t the bishop reach out to the neediest? He was his same simple self when talking with orphans and prisoners or presidents and diplomats.
When crowned Pope, he said it was his intention to be a pastoral Pope since “all other human gifts and accomplishments – learning, practical experience, diplomatic finesse – can broaden and enrich pastoral work but cannot replace it.”
By the way, John XXIII (he took the name John to honor his father Giovanni, John) and Paul VI were the last two Popes to be crowned. Pope John Paul I did away with then papal triple crown and from then on (September 1978), the ceremony was called an inauguration, not an incoronation.
What most stayed with me that March day in 1961 was a sense of the Pope’s great simplicity, that of a man who is true to his roots. After all, he was the first-born son of a 13 children born to a farmer and his wife. He came from a simple background and maintained that simplicity, I was told over the years, from his first breath to his last.
To be honest, in many ways he struck me more as a father, a simple priest but a holy father, someone who was easily relatable to the average Catholic in the pew.
In the ensuing years I tried to learn more about John XXIII, in particular, in preparation for a half hour television special I was to do on this Pope just before his 2014 canonization. I read many books and was struck by what he accomplished in a mere 5 years of papacy! One book in particular really struck me because it described not only his down-to-earthness but his great humor.
Here are just a few of the many stories that remained with me over the years! Enjoy!
One day John XXIII accompanied a visitor for a stroll in the Vatican gardens, explaining where they were in the gardens, some facts about the Apostolic Palace and anything else the guest wanted to know. At one point, he was asked: “Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?” The Holy Father responded, “Well, about half!”
Another of my favorite stories involves the day that Pope John wanted to go visit Santo Spirito hospital, Holy Spirit hospital, which is about five blocks from Saint Peter Square. He had a predilection for sick people and certainly wanted to visit this nearby hospital. The papal car arrived at the appointed time, and John got out as the nun who ran the whole show greeted him with these words: “Welcome Holy Father! I’m Mother Superior of Holy Spirit” to which John replied: “Lucky you, I’m just the Pope!”
Another anecdote comes from his time as apostolic nuncio to France (he had also been nuncio or papal ambassador to Bulgaria and Turkey). Archbishop Roncalli (the future Pope John) was presented one day with the chief rabbi of Paris and the two had a warm conversation. When they were ready to move into a nearby sitting room where other guests awaited them, the rabbi points to the door and courteously invited the archbishop to go first. Archbishop Roncalli responded, “Please, the Old Testament first…”
And lastly: As Vatican officials were discussing John’s surprising plans to call an ecumenical council, a colossial meeting that would entail great planning and organization, one official told the Pope it would be “absolutely impossible to open the Second Vatican Council by 1963. “Fine,” replied John, “we’ll open it in 1962!” And he did!
He did that 59 years ago today!
For so many reasons, Pope St. John XXIII was nicknamed “the Good Pope.”