By Cliff Garvey
Few world leaders had as much impact on the twentieth century as Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli (1881-1963). But as a modest man and lifelong Secular Franciscan, he avoided attention and celebrity as much as possible during a long and consequential life. Angelo Roncalli was the fourth of thirteen children; the eldest son of a farmer from Northern Italy. He was proud of his working class roots, but maintained a sense of humor about his modest beginnings. Angelo once said about his father: “Italian men face ruin in one of three ways: women, gambling, or farming. My father chose the slowest way.” Years later, he wrote: “The sense of my own littleness and nothingness has always been my good companion, keeping me humble and calm, and making me employ myself to the best of my ability in a constant exercise of obedience and charity for souls, and for the interests of the Kingdom of Jesus.”
Angelo Roncalli discerned a vocation to the priesthood and enrolled in the seminary. Despite his common origins, Angelo was uncommonly smart. In 1904, he was ordained to the priesthood and earned a doctoral degree in canon law. Soon after, Father Angelo was asked to serve as his bishop’s secretary, then as an instructor in church history at the seminary, and then as publisher of the diocesan newspaper.
During World War I, Father Angelo was drafted into the Italian Army. He served as a medic and stretcher-bearer. This real life experience gave him a first hand knowledge about the horrors of war. After the war, in 1921, Father Angelo was asked to serve as the Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Italy. He also taught at a seminary in Rome. By the age of thirty, he had mastered canon law, church history, and patristics, that branch of theology dealing with the lives and writings of early Church theologians. In 1925, Father Angelo was asked to serve as a Vatican diplomat: first in Bulgaria, then in Turkey, and finally in France, where he served as the pope’s personal representative. Not bad for a farmer’s son!
During World War II, Father Angelo refused to work with Nazi Germany’s puppet government in France. Instead, he worked tirelessly to transport French Jews out of the country by issuing immigration certificates to Palestine, offering “baptisms of convenience”, and negotiating with diplomatic contacts all around the world. In all, he saved more than 24,000 Jews from certain death. After the war, it was Father Angelo’s job to demand the resignations of pastors and bishops who collaborated with the Nazis.
In 1953, Father Angelo became Cardinal Archbishop and Patriarch of Venice. Rather than reside in the suite of rooms reserved and renovated for him in the Patriarch’s Palace, where Pope Pius X once lived, he chose instead a small single cell on the second floor. In 1958, Pope Pius XII died and Cardinal Roncalli was summoned to the Vatican City for the conclave to elect a new pope. Although he heard gossip that he could be elected, he left on the train for Rome with a return ticket. He was certain that he would return to Venice. But upon arriving in Rome, he did not attend the conclave until the eleventh and final ballot because he was secretly told that he had become the leading candidate!
On October 28, 1958, Angelo Roncalli, a farmer’s son, was elected Pope, Bishop of Rome, and Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. He was seventy-eight years old. He became Pope John XXIII, one of the most charismatic and popular popes in history; and he was known throughout the world as Good Pope John.
Pope John XXIII met with countless world leaders; was deeply involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962); and because of his efforts, Time Magazine called him the “Man of the Year.” He enlarged the College of Cardinals to make it more international, more representative of the worldwide church. He criticized those he called the “prophets of doom” who saw nothing more than “dishonesty and ruin” in the modern world. And he inspired the Catholic Church to become a pilgrim people, to journey into the world, and to make peace with it. Ever a farmer’s son, he said: “We are not here to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.”
Always sympathetic to the poor, the sick, and the working class, Pope John XXIII became a persistent advocated for the Catholic Church’s teachings on social justice. He said: “Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and finally, necessary social services…By consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health, disability stemming from his work, widowhood, old age, unemployment, or whenever through no fault of his own, he is deprived of the means of a livelihood (Pacem in Terris).”
As a friend to our Jewish brothers and sisters, Pope John eliminated the words in the Good Friday Liturgy that referred to them as “faithless.” In fact, he interrupted the first Good Friday Liturgy of his pontificate to condemn this practice; and he made a public apology for centuries of antisemitism in the Catholic Church. Over the years, his sense of God’s will empowered him to serve as an instrument of peace between the Church and the world; between Catholics and Protestants; between Christians and Jews; between Christians, Jews, and Muslims; and between capitalists and communists. Despite these good works, his cardinals still saw him as a caretaker pope, one who would hold the seat for a few years until a younger, perhaps more vigorous man could be chosen.
Good Pope John had other plans. On January 25, 1959, he called the Second Vatican Council. In announcing the council, he declared: “The Church has always opposed errors. But nowadays, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” Pope John would not live to see the end of the council, but he could foresee the good that would come from it. He said: “It is not the gospel that has changed; it is that we just understand it better. Those who have lived as long as me…are enabled to compare different cultures and traditions; and we know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity, and to look far ahead into the future.”
Pope John XXIII died from stomach cancer on June 3, 1963. He was beatified in 2000 by Pope John Paul II; and canonized in 2014 by Pope Francis. Saint John XXIII is venerated as a patron of peacemaking, Christian unity, and all who serve their country in uniform. In his diary, he wrote: “From the saints, I must take the substance, but not the accident of their virtues…God wants us to follow the example of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtue and by turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances (Journal of a Soul).”
In his Last Testament, he wrote: “At the moment of saying farewell…I once more remind everyone of what counts most in life: Blessed Jesus Christ, His Holy Church, and His Gospel (Testament).” Throughout his long life, Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli, a farmer’s son, walked with the saints, applied ancient virtues to modern times, and cooperated with God’s loving and merciful grace. His motto, obedience and peace, serves as a moral compass during these troubled times. He reminds us that Jesus comes first; that when we live the Gospel and share God’s love, the rest will come naturally. He reminds us that times change, people change, and even the Church changes, but the Gospel of mercy, charity, humility, and universal fellowship is timeless and ultimately victorious.
Pope John XXIII was initially interred in the crypt below Saint Peter’s Basilica, but his tomb was moved into the main basilica by Pope John Paul II because so many pilgrims from so places came to venerate his relics. When his tomb was opened, the Vatican declared: “The body of Blessed John XXIII is remarkably well-preserved.” The Vatican will not say that his remains are incorrupt, but they won’t deny it either. And despite the fact that Saint Peter’s Basilica can be crowded and noisy, it has been observed time and time again that pilgrims approach the tomb of Good Pope John with uncommon reverence and that a sense of peace and stillness pervades the space around his relics. The tomb of Saint John XXIII, pope, pastor, and farmer’s son, has become one of the most prayerful places in the whole world! 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2020. All rights reserved. Art Credit: “The Veteran in a New Field” by Winslow Homer (1865). May the Lord give you peace!
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 AmazonSmile; or 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 email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!