Pope St. John XXIII

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Today, October 11, is the Memorial of Pope Saint John XXIII.

John was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli on November 25, 1881 in Sotto il Monte, a small village in the Bergamo province of Lombardy in northern Italy. His family were sharecroppers and ran a small vineyard.

Angelo was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Bergamo in 1904 and served as his bishop’s secretary. During World War I he was drafted into the army as a sergeant to serve in the medical corp as a stretcher-bearer and as a chaplain. After the war he served as spiritual director of the seminary in Bergamo. In 1921, Pope Benedict XV appointed him the Italian president of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

In 1925, Roncalli began his life in the diplomatic service of the Vatican, which made him a bishop and also took him to Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Through his diplomatic efforts, he was instrumental in saving the lives of many Jews in the 1930s and throughout World War II. He also played an important role in the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel. In 2000, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation began in investigation of Roncalli’s work for the benefit of Jews and others persecuted by the Nazi regime, resulting in a 2011 report submitted to Yad Vashem recommending that the title “Righteous Among the Gentiles” being bestowed on him. In 1944, Roncalli was named Nuncio to newly liberated France, where he was responsible in arranging the retirements of bishops who had collaborated with the Nazi government during their occupation of France.

In 1953, Roncalli returned to Italy as Cardinal Patriarch of Venice. Cardinal Roncalli had every reason to think he would end his days as Patriarch of Venice. However, in 1958, on the death of Pope Pius XII, Angelo Roncalli was elected pope of the universal Church. He took the name John. This was a surprise to many, because popes had avoided the name John since the time of antipope John XXIII in the early 15th century. The last legitimate Pope John reigned in the 14th century. It is well known that, after the long pontificate of Pius XII, the cardinals were looking for a transitional pope, who wouldn’t reign long and wouldn’t do a lot. John XXIII was about to surprise them all with more than just the choice of his papal name.

It didn’t take long for Pope John to endear himself to his Roman diocese and to the world. He began a series of pastoral visits in Rome, the first pope to do so in almost a century, including to the children’s hospital and to the local prison. Pope John was also widely respected as an advocate for peace and human rights. He offered to mediate the conflict between the U. S. and U. S. S. R. over the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the weeks before his death promulgated the encyclical Pacem in terris (“Peace on Earth” in which he wrote: “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, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.”

But, of course, Pope John’s greatest achievement was calling the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II literally transformed the Church, reforming the liturgy and calling the Church to greater mission in the modern world. Pope John would open the Council in 1962 but would not see it to conclusion. Pope John died of peritonitis on June 3, 1963, at the age of 81. His pontificate lasted only four years and seven months, but at the time of his death he was universally loved and declared a saint by the people. Everyone called him “Good Pope John.”

Pope John XXIII’s cause for canonization was opened during the last session of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. He was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000. On April 27, 2014, both John XXIII and John Paul II were canonized saints by Pope Francis.

Pope Saint John XXIII, pray for us.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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