The Good Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII
All images are from Wikimedia Commons

The life of Pope Saint John XXIII reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways and that sometimes God even has a sense of humor.

After all, the 261st pope did not come from a wealthy or noble background. Instead, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (1881-1963) was born on a farm in northern Italy. His parents were so poor that they couldn’t afford their own land and instead worked the fields of their landlord. But they worked hard enough at farming to keep a family of thirteen children fed, clothed, and healthy.

That hardworking, “do what needs to be done without complaining about it” attitude was clearly evident throughout Angelo’s life. He discerned a call to the priesthood when he was young and entered the seminary, but he obediently interrupted his studies for a year when he was called upon to serve in the Italian infantry. Although he was not considered an exceptional student in the seminary, he worked hard and earned a doctorate in canon law. During World War I, he was called back by the army and served as a medic and a military chaplain.

Young Father Angelo Roncalli

Many of the pivotal moments in Angelo’s life might appear to have been directed by random chance. Merely because he was a priest in Bergamo, he happened to be the one who was asked to assist the new bishop prepare for his installation Mass. The bishop took a liking to the friendly young priest and made him his secretary. As assistant to the bishop, Angelo learned about ecclesiastical matters and was asked to teach in the nearby seminary. When his bishop died in 1914, Angelo wrote a sympathetic biography about a man he had greatly respected.

His affection for his bishop apparently got the attention of Pope Benedict XV, who assigned Angelo to serve as the head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Italy. In this position, Angelo met many important Church leaders, and they met him.

Angelo’s next three assignments were to sensitive posts, but not particularly flashy ones. After being made an archbishop, he was sent first as an apostolic visitator to Bulgaria. His job was to support the rights of Eastern rite Catholics, who were an overlooked minority in that country. Then he was sent to Istanbul to serve as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece, where relationships between Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims were (and are) often tense. After World War II, he was named nuncio of Paris, which was a particularly difficult post because his predecessor had collaborated with the Vichy (pro-Nazi) government. Since Angelo had quietly helped many Jews escape Nazi persecution during the war, he had the right credentials to unite and heal the post-war Church in France.

Angelo was not an exceptional diplomat or a theological expert, and he did not possess extensive political connections or great wealth. What he did have was an ability to put people at ease. Through his friendliness, sympathy, and sense of humor—all bounded by Christian virtue—he managed to improve the Church’s relationships with disparate and unfriendly factions throughout all his assignments.

He was named a cardinal and patriarch of Venice in 1953 as a recognition of his years of obedient service of the Church. He probably had no idea that his name would come up in the papal conclave of 1958. After all, he was seventy-six years old, which made him the oldest pope to be elected in more than two centuries when he was, surprisingly, named pope.

This humble Italian priest who had simply and obediently tried to complete whatever assignment he was given now began to surprise everyone. Even the name he chose was surprising. No pope had taken the name of John in five centuries because antipope Baldassare Cossa had called himself Pope John XXIII. But Angelo simply re-took the name of the beloved disciple, John, brushed aside that past scandal, and set his own agenda as pope.

Just as people all over the world were becoming more concerned about social justice, often in problematic ways, the new pope penned an encyclical on the topic: Mater et Magistra. After the Cuban missile crisis had sparked worldwide tension, he wrote Pacem in Terris, an optimistic encyclical that focused not on diplomacy but on the foundational beliefs that are required for any true peace: freedom, truth, justice, and love.

One of Pope John’s first acts was to declare that, for the first time in the history of the Church, the diocese of Rome would hold its own synod. Perhaps this was to help people get used to the idea before he called for an even greater meeting: the Second Vatican Council. By setting the stage for a positive, pastoral council to explain the Catholic Church to the modern world, Pope John hoped that Vatican II would respond to modern criticisms that the Catholic Church had been too focused on anathemas and prohibitions. Pope John demonstrated his own past experience in dealing with people of different faiths by inviting Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders to serve as observers to the council. While Vatican II certainly caused upheaval in the Church—and there were those who manipulated it to suit their own personal agendas—Pope John’s great hope for the council was that it would bring about a “New Pentecost”, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that would bless the Church and the entire world.

Pope John XXIII, Opening Mass of the Second Vatican Council

During his brief pontificate, Pope John became widely loved for his fatherly manner and sense of humor. When he visited inmates at a prison in Rome, he quipped, “Since you could not come to me, I came to you.” He found an amusing way to convince a communist diplomat to allow a pope to bless him: “I know you are an atheist, but won’t you accept an old man’s blessing?” As a poor woman shyly tried to touch him during an audience, Pope John stopped, clasped her hand, and said, “There is no reason why you shouldn’t get as close [to me] as the king of Jordan did.”

When Pope John was dying slowly from cancer, two years before the conclusion of the council he had opened, he reminded those around him that, “Any day is a good day to die. My bags are packed.” After all, he didn’t believe in random chance any more than the rest of us should; he believed in Divine Providence. Pope John died on June 3, but the Church celebrates his feast day on October 11, the opening date of the Second Vatican Council.

As for the grandeur and power of the papacy, Saint Pope John XXIII demonstrated, once again, that he was the down-to-earth son of a farmer at his death. In his will, he left his total personal fortune to his family: approximately $20.

Canonization of Saint Pope John XXIII
Posted in Saints.