October 11: Saint John XXIII, Pope—Optional Memorial
Patron Saint of papal delegates
Canonized by Pope Francis on April 27, 2014
Liturgical Color: White
Since the Lord chose me, unworthy as I am, for this great service, I feel I have no longer any special ties in this life, no family, no earthly country or nation, nor any particular preferences with regard to studies or projects, even good ones. Now, more than ever, I see myself only as the humble and unworthy “servant of God and servant of the servants of God.” The whole world is my family. This sense of belonging to everyone must give character and vigor to my mind, my heart and my actions. ~Saint John XXIII, journal entry
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born in Sotto il Monte, a small village in the province of Bergamo, Italy. He came from a materially poor but spiritually rich family of tenant farmers who worked in vineyards and cornfields and who tended cattle. He was the fourth of thirteen children. As a child, he received an excellent education from his parish priest. He was confirmed at the age of eight and received his First Holy Communion a month and a half later. At the age of eleven, he began his eight years at a high school seminary in Bergamo. During this time, he also became a member of the Secular Franciscans. When he was fourteen, he began keeping a journal that he kept throughout his life and which was published after his death. One journal entry at the age of eighteen reflected, “And you, O God…opened my eyes to this light which sheds its radiance around me, you created me. So you are my Master and I am your creature. I am nothing without you, and through you I am all that I am. I can do nothing without you; indeed, if at every moment you did not support me I should slip back whence I came, into nothingness.”
At the age of nineteen, given Angelo’s strong potential for higher studies and priestly ordination, he received a scholarship to study at the Apollinaris Seminary in Rome. Shortly after Angelo arrived in Rome, his brother was drafted into military service. Because his brother was needed at home, Angelo volunteered to take his place and served for one year. After returning to Rome, he completed his studies for the priesthood, earning a doctorate in theology. He was ordained a priest on August 10, 1904, and completed studies in canon law the following year.
In 1905, Father Roncalli was appointed as the secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo and assigned to teach history and patrology in the Bergamo seminary. He served in these roles for the next ten years, assisting the bishop in numerous ways. He participated in a diocesan synod, helped edit the diocesan journal, La Vita Diocesana, assisted with pilgrimages, and engaged in various social works, about which his bishop was passionate. In 1910, he received the additional assignment of the pastoral care of the Catholic Action movement that sought to involve the laity in timely social needs within the Church and wider community. After ten years as a priest, he wrote in his journal, “My dominant thought, in my joy of having accomplished ten years as a priest, is this: I do not belong to myself, or to others; I belong to my Lord, for life and death. The dignity of the priesthood, the ten years full of graces which he has heaped upon me, such a poor, humble creature—all this convinces me that I must crush the self and devote all my energies to nothing else but work for the Kingdom of Jesus in the minds and hearts of men.”
In 1915, the year after the start of World War I, Father Roncalli was drafted into the Italian army, first as a medic, then as a chaplain for soldiers. Upon completing his service in 1918, he returned to Bergamo where he opened a hostel for students, taught in the seminary, and became a chaplain and spiritual director.
In 1921, Father Roncalli’s life moved from service of his local church to the universal church. Pope Benedict XV called him to Rome and appointed him as the President for Italy of the central council of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In that role, he made many pastoral visits to the Italian dioceses, where he helped to organize missionary activity. In 1925, he was named a bishop by Pope Pius XI and assigned as the Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria. He chose as his episcopal motto, Oboedientia et Pax (Obedience and Peace), which summarized his ministry for the rest of his life.
After nine years of service in Bulgaria, Bishop Roncalli was appointed as Apostolic Delegate in Turkey and Greece, where he not only cared for the Catholics but also entered into ongoing dialogue with Muslims and Eastern Orthodox. During World War II, he became especially concerned for the welfare of Jews and, according to some estimates, personally assisted several thousand Jews in escaping the Holocaust by providing them with forged baptismal certificates and visas in order to help get them to Palestine. Years later, his actions were honored by the State of Israel when, in 2011, he was posthumously awarded the honor “Righteous Among the Nations.”
In 1944, several months after France was liberated from Nazi Germany, Bishop Roncalli was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to France by Pope Pius XII, where he assisted with the liberated prisoners of war and helped France rebuild after four years of occupation. His love of priestly ministry shone forth during this time as he worked to inspire the faithful and help them renew their faith after an excruciating period of national suffering. He remained in France for nine years, was named a cardinal in 1953, and subsequently made Patriarch of Venice, a traditionally prestigious position in the Church. At the age of seventy-one, Cardinal Roncalli threw himself into the pastoral ministry in Venice, where he planned to spend the rest of his life.
When Pope Pius XII died in 1958, Cardinal Roncalli was among the cardinal-electors. To his surprise and that of many, the seventy-seven-year-old Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope and took the name of his father, Giovanni, making him Pope Giovanni (John) XXIII. He soon became known as the “good pope” because of his humble, kind, and active papacy. His pastoral heart led him to visit the sick and imprisoned, his diplomatic background enabled him to see the world as his family, and his courage led him to make profound changes within the Church and world.
During the four and a half years he served as pope, John XXIII issued eight encyclicals. Among them, two stand out. Mater et magistra (Mother and Teacher) addressed the Church’s role in social progress amidst a time of rapid technological change and increasing social and economic inequality. Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth) dealt with human dignity, rights, and responsibilities of all peoples and nations to seek peace and harmony. He also convened the first Synod of the Diocese of Rome and began a revision of the Code of Canon Law.
The greatest surprise during his papacy came just three months after he was elected when, on January 25, 1959, while making a pastoral visit to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, he announced the twenty-third Ecumenical Council, which came to be known as Vatican II. In 1962, he wrote in his journal, “After three years of preparation, certainly laborious but also joyful and serene, we are now on the slopes of the sacred mountain. May the Lord give us strength to bring everything to a successful conclusion!” Though Pope John XXIII died before the conclusion of the Council, his courageous and pastoral heart is to be credited for the inspiration and instigation of the process that changed the Church in ways never seen before. Though some have criticized some aspects of the aftermath of Vatican II, this pastoral council, initiated by a pastoral pope, has transformed the Church in profound ways. Pope John XXIII was canonized in 2014 by Pope Francis, on the same day that Pope John Paul II was canonized. Many have suggested that their shared canonization prophetically illustrates that Saint John XXIII initiated the Council and Saint John Paul II definitively implemented it.
As we honor this holy pastor of the universal Church, ponder the amazing fact that God could use a poor, humble, and simple man in such a profound way. As a divine institution, God always has and always will guide the Church through the Vicar of Christ. Sinful and weak though even popes are, God’s grace suffices where human weakness is present. Pray for the pope today, and know that he is God’s gift to the Church in our day and age.
Saint John XXIII, you were raised in humble conditions, were formed well in the faith, responded to God’s grace, and were used in powerful ways that have had a profound effect upon the Church and world. Please pray for me, that I will always remain faithful to God’s will so that He can use me in the particular ways He chooses. Saint John XXIII, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.