cropped-good-pope-john-dove-1.jpgPatron of Peace

By Cliff Garvey

On May 10, 1963, Pope John XXIII was driven to the Quirinal Palace in Rome, located about two miles from the Vatican City. The palace, one of the largest in the world, was completed in 1583 and has served as a residence for thirty popes, four kings of Italy, and twelve presidents of the Italian republic. That spring evening, Good Pope John, as he was known and loved all around the world, would be given the Balzan Prize, a prestigious international award, in recognition of his efforts to bring peace to a troubled world.

Knowing that the Holy Father was suffering from stomach cancer and severe pain, Antonio Segni, President of Italy, offered to make the award presentation at Saint Peter’s Basilica. But ever the humble shepherd, the pope refused. He said it would be a great insult for the sitting pope to be honored above the tomb of the first pope, Saint Peter, who was martyred for the faith. Pope John’s visit to the palace was his last public appearance. He died twenty-four days later at the age of 81 on June 3, 1963.

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, our nation’s highest civilian honor. The citation 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 of peace for all humankind.”

Pope John XXIII was preoccupied with these themes of human dignity, fraternity, and peace until his final breath. His last words speak about them: “My time on earth is drawing to a close. But Christ lives on and continues his work in the Church. Souls, souls, souls. That they all may be one.” That they all may be one. This phrase comes from the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John (Chapters 14-17) during which Jesus blesses his disciples with peace; calls them to unity; calls them to love each other; and calls them to overcome the world by sharing his gift of love. That they all may be one. This phrase is inspiration for all who work toward better relations between different denominations, different walks of faith, and different ways of life. That they all may be one. The last words of Good Pope John. The last words of a saint. The last words of a man who worked tirelessly for love and peace and unity in a human family so divided for so long by so much anger, violence, and discord.

Saint John XXIII is officially the patron of Christian unity. But we might also think of him as a patron of peace. We might think of him as a patron of fraternity among all cultures, nations, peoples, and religions. Consider that during his five-year papacy, Good Pope John became the first pope ever to apologize for and make amends for centuries of antisemitism in the Roman Catholic Church. He became the first pope to leave the Vatican City in almost one hundred years; and he did so to visit parishes and prisons, children’s hospitals and juvenile detention centers throughout the Diocese of Rome and beyond. He also engaged in diplomacy with the Soviet Union and the Communist governments of Easter Europe, not to condemn them, but to seek common ground with them — in order to build better relations between church and state, find relief for persecuted Christians, and lay the foundation for a future world peace.

Upon his election to the papacy in 1958, at the age of 76, John XXIII was widely considered a caretaker pope: one who would serve as a brief custodian of the Chair of Peter; a provisional figure between the long-serving Pius XII and a younger man perhaps more suited to the modern world. Good Pope John had other plans. Just three months after his installation, on January 25, 1959, the Holy Father called the Second Vatican Council. In conversations before the Council began, Pope John said that it was time “to open the windows [of the Church] and to let in some fresh air.” In this spirit, the Second Vatican Council sought to re-energize the ancient teachings and traditions of the Church for the modern world.

Over the course of three years, the Council produced a series of documents that re-focused the Church to be not so much an isolated, other-worldly institution, but a “pilgrim people of God” who both carry the Cross of Christ and bring the Light of Christ into 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 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 world. And the Council renewed the Church’s missionary zeal by stating emphatically that evangelization, formation, and building community are among its most basic and fundamental responsibilities.

On October 11, 1962, on what would become Pope John XXIII’s feast day, thousands of pilgrims made their way to Saint Peter’s Square to celebrate the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In the midst of much anticipation and excitement, Pope John suddenly appeared at the central balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica, overlooking the great square where so many people had gathered. He then did was few popes have ever done. He spoke without a script! He spoke with God’s family as good parents speak with their children; as good pastors speak with their parishioners; as good shepherds speak with their little lambs.

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 who suffer. Embrace them all and tell them: this embrace is from the pope!” These simple words would be remembered as the Moonlight Speech. After six decades of priesthood and countless homilies, these would be remembered as Pope John XXIII’s most famous words because they came not from a prepared text, but from the heart of a holy man.

Eight months later, Good Pope John was called home to the Lord. He would not live to see the end of the Second Vatican Council. He would not live to offer his guidance about how we should embrace it and live it in our parishes. But in the writings of Saint John XXIII, we find some clues. He writes: “The whole world is my family.” He also writes: “Everyone who has joined the ranks of Christ must be a glowing point of light, a nucleus of love, a leaven of the whole mass of peoples.” He then offers these words of wisdom: “Our spirits will rest in peace and joy only when we have learned the truth that is taught in the gospels and then turned into action in our lives.” Finally, Good Pope John prays for peace:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you are the Prince of Peace;
you are our peace and reconciliation;
and you often said: “Peace be with you.”
Grant us peace now.
Make all men and women witnesses
to truth, justice, and fraternal love.
Banish from our hearts whatever endangers peace.
Enlighten our leaders,
so that they may guarantee and defend
the gift of peace.
May all peoples of the earth
become like brothers and sisters.
May longed-for peace blossom forth
and reign always over all peoples. Amen.

Through the intercession of Saint John XXIII, Good Pope John, let us pray for the courage and grace and perseverance to live the Gospel, heal God’s family, rebuild the Church, and be instruments of the Lord’s peace in our world with every thought, word, and deed. Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Saint John XXIII, pray for us!


About the Author & Presenter

Cliff Garvey is co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is an experienced spiritual director, retreat leader, university lecturer, and writer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation.

Thank you for listening to the Assisi Project Podcast: Good Pope John. This audio recording is produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project and our ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff Garvey at Copyright 2020. All rights reserved. Art Credit: “Portrait of John XXIII with Dove (1963)” by Frederick Franck. May the Lord give you peace!

Learn More: A Farmer’s Son: The Life of Saint John XXIII


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. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable  organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmileor by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project, please contact Cliff Garvey at May the Lord give you peace!

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