I arrived back in Rome yesterday from a wonderful, happy, fulfilling and memorable three weeks in the U.S., weeks spent with family and friends and my consoeurs and confreres in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre as we celebrated the 2022 investiture of new Knights and Dames in Chicago. I posted just a few highlights (including the arrival on September 29th of my newest – and 27th – great niece Evelyn Anne) on my Facebook page but none on Joan’s Rome as I simply ran out of time!
I spent three weeks in three states visiting with people over long luncheons and dinners or just taking long walks. I’m a huge football fan so rejoiced in being able to watch Notre Dame as well as several pro teams play. If you’ve never been with me at a game in a stadium, there’s a cheerleader side of Joan that you’ve not seen!
I went to Grandparents Day at St. Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, with my sister Gail, grandmother to Sydney and Brooke who attend this school of 4,000 students on an awesome, very large campus in a beautiful California setting. After the opening Mass and welcome by the school president, three prizes were given out: one for most grandchildren (31), another for the oldest grandparent present (92) and a third for the grandparent or Special Guest who came the farthest – yours truly!
Back in the Midwest, I got to see a lot of the area around Milwaukee as I attended basketball, volleyball and soccer games with several great-nieces and –nephews and a tennis match with my niece Christie. Driving from one town to another allowed me time to chat and catch up on family news and also to enjoy the brilliant spectacle of autumn colors in this part of the world. Christie was to drive me to Illinois to visit Evelyn Anne (Evie) but I woke up that morning with a cold so we had to call that visit off, to my great dismay!
Final weekend in Chicago with some good friends and a chance to interview a friend of many years for Vatican Insider.
I arrived Rome yesterday morning, fully aware of the big anniversary the Church was celebrating – the start, on October 11, 1962, of Vatican Council II. I did watch the 60th anniversary Mass with Pope Francis during which I reminisced about John XXIII, the Pope who opened the council and who was the first Pope I ever encountered.
Interestingly enough, the Italian news agency ANSA wrote: “The body of Saint Pope John XXIII was exhumed Tuesday at a Mass marking the 60th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962.” The word “exhumed” refers to something, usually a body, that has been removed from the ground where it was buried. Obviously, St. John XXIII’s body was not exhumed yesterday, although it was moved from its normal altar spot in the basilica. It is incorrupt and anyone who visits St. Peter’s Basilica may pray before his tomb, as you can see from this photo I took two years ago.
Following is a story I posted a year ago about my first ever encounter with a Roman Pontiff….
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 XXIII 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 Vicar of Christ!”
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 colossal 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!