GOOD POPE JOHN

A Reflection for the Feast of Saint John XXIII

By Cliff Garvey

On May 10, 1963, Pope John XXIII was driven to the Quirinal Palace in Rome which is approximately two miles from the Vatican City. The palace, one of the largest in the world, had served as a residence for thirty popes, four kings of Italy, and twelve presidents of the Republic of Italy. That spring evening, Good Pope John, as he was known and loved around the world, would be given the Balzan Prize in recognition of his longstanding efforts to bring peace into a troubled world.

Knowing that the Holy Father was suffering from stomach cancer and living with severe pain, President Antonio Segni of Italy offered to make the award presentation at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Ever the humble shepherd, the pope declined. He said that it would be wrong for a sitting pope to be so honored above the tomb of the first pope, Saint Peter, who had been martyred by crucifixion. Pope John’s visit to the palace was his last public appearance. He died twenty-four days later at the age of eighty-one.

Nine months later, just ten days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, awarded the late pope the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The citation for the medal reads: “His Holiness Pope John XXIII, dedicated servant of God. He brought to all citizens of the planet a heightened sense of the dignity of the individual person, of the brotherhood of man, and of the common duty to build an environment for peace for all human kind.”

The dignity of the human person.

The brotherhood of man.

World peace.

Pope John XXIII was preoccupied with these themes until his final breath. His last words speak to these concerns. He said: “My time on earth is drawing to a close. But Christ lives on and continues his work in the Church. Souls, souls. That they all may be one.” This final phrase is derived from the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John during which Jesus blesses the disciples with peace, commands them to love each other, and calls them to overcome the world by sharing this gift of love.

That they all may be one. This phrase is inspiration for all who work toward building bridges between different denominations, different walks of faith, and different ways of life. These were the last words of Good Pope John, the last words of a saint, and the last words of a man who worked tirelessly for love, peace, and unity in a human family so divided for so long by so much anger, division, and violence.

Saint John XXIII is venerated as the patron of Christian unity; the patron of the Church’s abiding desire to reunite the Christian family into one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. But we might also think of him as a patron of peace; a patron of fraternity among all cultures, nations, peoples, and religions.

Consider that during his five-year papacy, Pope John XXIII became the first pope to apologize for and seek to make amends for centuries of antisemitism in the Roman Catholic Church. He became the first pope to leave the City of Rome in almost one hundred years. He did so in order to make pastoral visits to parishes and prisons, juvenile detention centers and children’s hospitals throughout the Diocese of Rome and beyond its borders. He also engaged in diplomacy with the Soviet Union and the communist governments of Eastern Europe, not to condemn them, but to seek some common ground with them in order to build better relations between church and state; to negotiate relief for persecuted Christians; and to lay the foundation for a future world peace.

Upon his election to the papacy in 1959 at the age of seventy-six, John XXIII was widely considered as a caretaker pope — as one who would serve as a brief custodian of the Chair of Peter; as a provisional figure between the long-serving Pope Pius XII and a younger man perhaps more suited to the times. But Good Pope John had other plans. Just three months after his installation, the Holy Father called the Second Vatican Council. In countless conversations before the Council began, Pope John said again and again that it was time “to open the windows [of the Church] and to let in some fresh air.” In this spirit, the Council sought to renew and reenergize the ancient teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church for the modern world.

Over the course of three years, the Council produced a series of documents that refocused the Church from being an isolated, other-worldly institution toward being the “pilgrim people of God” who both carry the Cross of Christ, but also joyfully share the Light of Christ with a dark world. The Council revised the Sacred Liturgy so that all people, not just all priests, could understand the prayers that bring the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ into our midst. The Council revived the Church’s efforts toward Christian unity and challenged the Church to build bridges between itself and other religions and between itself and the modern world. Finally, the Council renewed the Church’s missionary zeal by boldly declaring that evangelization, formation, and cultivating community are its most basic and fundamental goals.

On October 11, 1962, fifty-seven years ago this very night, thousands of pilgrims made their way to Saint Peter’s Square to celebrate the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In the midst of such great anticipation and excitement, Pope John suddenly and surprisingly appeared at the central balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica overlooking the great square where so many people had now gathered.

The pope then did what few popes (if any) had done before. He spoke publicly without a script. He spoke with God’s family as a good father speaks with his children; as a good pastor speaks with his parishioners; as a good shepherd speaks to his little sheep. The Holy Father said:

My dear children, I hear your voices.
Mine is just one voice but it sums up the world’s many voices.
Here, the entire world is represented.
I should say that even the moon has come here tonight;
to witness this amazing moment; and to greet all of us.
When you go home to your families,
be tender to your children, to the elderly,
and to all people who suffer.
Embrace them all and tell them:
this embrace comes from the pope!

These simple words are remembered as the “Moonlight Speech.” After six decades of priesthood, episcopal service, and countless homilies, these would be remembered as Good Pope John’s most famous words because they came not from a prepared text, but from the heart of a truly holy man.

Eight months later, Pope John XXIII was called home to the Lord. He did not live to see the end of the Second Vatican Council. He did not live to offer his guidance about how we should embrace it, implement it, and live it in our home parishes. But in his writings, we find some clues. In his diary, he writes: “The whole world is my family.” He also wrote: My day must be one long prayer; prayer is the breath of my life.” And finally, in his very first encyclical, he writes: “Our spirits will rest in peace and joy only when we have learned the truth of the gospel and then turned into action in our lives.”

Through the intercession of Saint John XXIII, let us pray for the courage, grace, and perseverance to live the Gospel, share God’s love, heal God’s family, and rebuild the Church through our dedicated prayer, fellowship, and service. Saint John XXIII, pray for us!

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The Assisi Project
A Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit
Pilgrimage & Retreat Ministry

Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with members, friends, and followers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Africa. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages to more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. Our team of certified and experienced spiritual directors are available for days of prayer and retreats for your parish, fraternity, or organization. Recent offerings include:

  • The Joy & Power of the Rosary
  • Joy & Suffering with Padre Pio
  • Prayer & Healing with the Children of Fatima
  • Mary, Mother of God & Mother of the Church
  • Living Scripture with Saint Francis & Saint Clare
  • The Little Flowers of Saint Francis & Pope Francis
  • Light & Darkness: Workshop on Spiritual Combat
  • Everyone’s Vocation to Everyday Holiness
  • Rebuilding the Church with Saint Francis of Assisi

Since our founding, the Assisi Project has led thirteen pilgrimages (to Assisi, Fatima & Lourdes, and the Holy Land); twelve weekend or week-long parish retreats or missions; and dozens of days of prayer for adult disciples of all ages. For more information about how we can help you deepen your community’s life of prayer, please contact Cliff Garvey at cgarvey@assisiproject.com. Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us! Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us! Our Lady of Angels, pray for us! May the Lord give you peace!

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About Us

Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with members, friends, and followers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Africa. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages to more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a tax exempt non-profit charitable corporation. All donations support our ministry and our tax deductible. For more information about the Assisi Project and our upcoming opportunities for faith formation, prayer, and pilgrimage in the Franciscan spiritual tradition, please contact Cliff Garvey at cgarvey@assisiproject.com. May the Lord give you peace!

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