It's Your Church, Lord: Pope St. John XXIII
Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958 having shepherded the Church through World War II and into the early stages of the Cold War. The rising Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Battista Montini, was not yet a cardinal, so the Cardinals chose Angelo Cardinal Roncalli as a kind of “stop gap” pope. Little did they know that he would be so consequential.
The future Pope St. John XXIII was born on a stormy night in 1881 to hardworking, farming parents in the town of Bergamo, Italy. He understood from a very young age the difficulties of a life of poverty and so the importance of perseverance, of honest labor, and of the sacramental life. Ordained in 1904, he would have been content to be a parish priest, but his intelligence and his skill at organization brought him to the attention of his new Bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Maria Radini-Tedeschi. He became the bishop’s secretary, and it was this 9-year relationship that most helped to form Fr. Roncalli.
Pope Benedict XV, successor to Pope Pius X, asked Roncalli to Rome in 1920 to be the head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, a position which put him in relationship with bishops and priests all over the world. Fr. Roncalli’s natural optimism and work ethic made him an ideal candidate for difficult missions, so Pope Pius XI would in 1925 call on him to become the Apostolic Delegate to Bulgaria a land where he would have a Catholic flock made up of two different rites, the majority of which were refugees. He dealt with those tension so well that he was then moved in 1934 to be the Apostolic Delegate to Turkey. There, open hostility to religion of any kind made his work difficult, but he still strove to visit the few Catholics that still existed in the majority Muslim Turkey. It was also during this time that he ran a network of nuns, priests, and diplomats who forged visas and baptismal and immigration certificates to Jews so that they could escape the Nazi occupied Balkans.
His successes in Turkey caused him to be sent to France in 1944 where some Catholic collaboration with the Nazis resulted in the post-war government rejecting the Apostolic Nuncio and thirty-three bishops. Archbishop Roncalli was sent to repair the damage. His pastoral care, his simplicity, his joyfulness, his wit, his cultured appreciation for good food and art, all of it won the French over. He would eventually become the Cardinal Archbishop of Venice, where again he became beloved by his people, and then he was placed on the chair of St. Peter.
Roncalli took the name John XXIII, which was controversial because during the Western Schism (1378-1417), one of the anti-popes had taken the same name. Some complained that one ought not refer to such a difficult time of the Church’s history. However, many more saw it as the perfect way to put that history behind.
As is well-documented, not a month after having become pope, John XXIII announced the beginning of the Second Vatican Council which sought to update the way the Church communicates the same, true, apostolic faith. Less known, though, are his efforts to reform Vatican finances. On December 26, he shocked the world by being the first pope – perhaps in centuries – to visit prisoners. Pope John’s simple goodness made him a beloved pope while he lived and, as we have seen in the years since his passing, a clearly holy man.
Pope John died from cancer on June 3, 1963, in-between the first and second sessions of Vatican II. He is reported to have said upon going to bed each night, “Lord, it’s Your Church. I’m going to bed.” May we pray to have the same trust and simplicity as we remember Pope St. John XXIII on this day.