Pope St. John XXIII, pope from 1958 to 1963, is seen in this undated photo released by the Vatican in December 2010. Pope John XXIII said that human rights “are inextricably bound up with ... many duties.” CNS photo/Vatican

On Pope St. John XXIII

Reflections on a humble and humorous pontiff

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October 11, 1962, was the opening session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican; it seemed unlikely that any world event could top all the attention this gathering of over 2,000 attendees was receiving — yet, something else was taking place much more important in the course of history.

Three days after the council opened, a U.S. spy plane uncovered photos of Russian nuclear missile sites being constructed in Cuba. U.S. President John Kennedy took immediate exception, demanding the sites be dismantled and missiles removed. Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev refused, and suddenly the world was on the edge of war. If you happened to be in Florida during that time, you could have easily thought the state would sink into the ocean from the weight of all the deployed military equipment. These were days of anxious waiting and prayer as the superpowers made threats and counterthreats. The Russians continued shipping missiles and the United States responded by putting a naval blockade around Cuba. Both countries turned to the pope for help.

On Oct. 24, Pope St. John XXIII (r. 1958-63) sent a message pleading for peace to the U.S. and Russian embassies in Rome. The next day he delivered the same message on Vatican Radio: “We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity. That they do all that is in their power to save peace. They will thus spare the world from the horrors of a war whose terrifying consequences no one can predict. That they continue discussions, as this loyal and open behavior has great value as a witness of everyone’s conscience and before history. Promoting, favoring, accepting conversations, at all levels and in any time, is a rule of wisdom and prudence which attracts the blessings of heaven and earth.”

This message provided the United States and Russia a way to defuse the pending catastrophe; both could back away in order to save world peace without losing face. At length, the missiles were removed from Cuba and the United States removed missiles from Turkey. Many readers recollect the Cuban Missile Crisis, but few may recall Pope John XXIII’s role in bringing the world back from potential Armageddon. He would seek world peace throughout his life, a goal clearly evidenced in his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”). Focused on human rights and peace, this document is regarded as among the most profound in papal history. It is known as the “immortal encyclical” because the contents are so often quoted and referenced. Pacem in Terris is the first encyclical from the Chair of Peter addressed not only to Catholics but to “all men of good will.”

Early Years

The future Pope John XXIII was one of 14 children in a sharecropper’s family, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli on Nov. 25, 1881, in Sotto il Monte, Italy. At about age 12 he entered the local seminary at Bergamo, and 11 years later was ordained a priest.

Until 1915, Roncalli acted as secretary to his bishop and taught in the seminary; when Italy entered World War I, he served first in the Army medical corps and later as a chaplain. After the war, he went back to duties in the seminary and later was head of Italy’s Society for the Propagation of Faith. Following his ordination as bishop in 1925, he was, for 10 years, the apostolic visitor to Bulgaria and then named the apostolic delegate to Greece and Turkey, a position he held during World War II.

From Istanbul, he is credited with assisting thousands of Hungarian Jews flee the Nazis. The Nazis were preparing to exterminate the Hungarian Jewish population but allowed Jews possessing a baptismal certificate to leave the country. Archbishop Roncalli helped provide thousands of forged baptismal certificates to Jews in that country and was similarly influential in the distribution of visas and immigration documents to the same people. He also helped settle many terrorized Jews that escaped to Turkey. He is considered a lifelong friend of the Jews.

In 1953, while serving as the papal nuncio to France, he was named a cardinal and became the Patriarch of Venice for five years. Despite his well-rounded experiences and training, he was not high on the list of those considered for the papacy at the papal election in 1958. But to the surprise of many, he was elected the 261st supreme pontiff on Oct. 28, 1958.

Viewed as a transitional pope, the 77-year-old Pope John XXIII was anything but a placeholder. To the chagrin of various members of the curia, and only three months after his election, he announced that he was calling a Churchwide ecumenical council, known as the Second Vatican Council, to begin in 1963. The decision caught the world by surprise.

Vatican II

Church members inside and outside the Vatican wondered what was on the pope’s mind? Ecumenical councils were called in times of crisis, to combat heresies or affirm Church doctrine or teaching — that is, something demanding resolution or debate by the Church. But at the time there was no obvious crisis; the pope said he wanted the council “to let some fresh air into the Church.”

Pope John’s concern was that Church teachings and doctrines were presented in such a fashion that they were having little impact on mankind. He recognized that the world was changing; significant enhancements in science and technology, especially in communications and transportation, were shrinking the world. Every continent was being impacted; people had been through two world wars and the Holocaust in the previous 50 years. There was a growing trend, a newfound attitude among mankind wanting to experience freedom and prosperity while challenging the status quo. Many in the Church’s curia much preferred the status quo and were slow in giving their full support for a council. One Vatican official confronted John with: “It is not possible to get ready for a council in 1963.” The pope said, “OK, we will begin in 1962,” which is what happened.

His opening speech at the council explained what he had in mind for the conference. He said, in part, “The substance of the ancient doctrines of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way it is presented is another.” He explained, “Illuminated by the light of the council, the Church … will look to the future without fear. In fact, by bringing herself up to date where required, and by wise organization of mutual cooperation, the Church will make men, families, and people really turn their minds to heavenly things.” He continued: “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. … In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the numerous fields of human activity … it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.” Pope John died within a year of this speech. The council became one of the most controversial in Church history.

Pope John’s Character

Immensely popular, John XXIII was a humble and pious man known as “the good pope” and possessed a great sense of humor. Once when asked, “How many people work in the Vatican?” he replied, “About half of them.”

On another occasion, following a pay raise to many on the Vatican staff, a cardinal complained that he had just talked with an usher who was now making as much as the cardinal. Pope John answered, “Well, that usher has 10 children, I pray that you don’t have any.”

Neither vain nor puffed up, he easily related to everyone he met and as pope became more accessible than many of his predecessors. When traveling around Rome he had his entourage go slowly and would often stop and greet the people. One lady, seeing the pope for the first time, said: “Wow, is he fat.” Pope John heard the comment and responded, “Madame, the papal conclave is not a beauty contest.”

His natural demonstrations of charity and love were not lost on the faithful. He frequented local jails and hospitals, listening to and embracing the prisoners and patients. He was often seen in the Vatican greeting the employees and getting to know many. These were not common acts by previous popes. Under his reign, there was a noticeable reduction in the formality, pomp and circumstance in the Vatican.

John died June 3, 1963, and was canonized along with Pope John Paul II (r. 1978-2005) on April 27, 2014. His feast day is Oct. 11, which coincides with the opening calendar date of Vatican II.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Pennsylvania.


From the Last Will and Testament of Pope Saint John XXIII

Pope St. John XXIII’s last will and testament provides an insight into the inner thoughts and spirituality of this holy man. Here are two extracts:

“On the point of presenting myself before the One and Triune Lord who created me, redeemed me, chose me to be his priest and bishop, and covered me with unending graces, I entrust my poor soul to His mercy; I humbly ask pardon for my sins and deficiencies. I offer Him the little good, although petty and imperfect, that with His aid I have succeeded in doing, for His glory, for the service of Holy Church, for the edification of my brethren, begging Him finally to receive me, like a good and kind father, with His Saints into eternal happiness.”

“Born poor, but of honorable and humble people, I am particularly happy to die poor, having given away, in accordance with the various demands and circumstances of my simple and modest life, for the benefit of the poor and of the Holy Church that had nurtured me, all that came into my hands — which was little enough, as a matter of fact — during the years of my priesthood and episcopacy. Outward appearances of ease and comfort often veiled hidden thrones of distressing poverty and kept me from giving with all the largesse I would have liked. I thank God for this grace of poverty, which I vowed in my youth, poverty of spirit as a priest of the Sacred Heart, and real poverty. This grace has sustained me in never asking for anything, neither positions, nor money, nor favors — never, not for myself, nor my relatives or friends.”


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