Today we celebrate Pope John XXIII, canonized (some would add “finally!”) by Pope Francis in 2014. The website franciscanmedia.org opens today’s reflection with a wonderful sentence: “A shy, retiring man with a wonderful sense of humor, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli became our beloved Pope St. John XXIII.” It is well known that he was elected by the College of Cardinals as a stop-gap pope to give them time to “get the politics ironed out for a more permanent candidate.” The Holy Spirit had other plans, however, as John XXIII rocked the Church by calling the Second Vatican Council, an aggiornamento (updating) that changed the face of Roman Catholicism for all time.
We remember Pope John for that cataclysmic event (1962-1965) as if he had never done anything in his life before, but here are a few of his credentials that should have alerted people to his fitness for the “job” of Pope even before the Council.
He was the eldest son of a farm family, simple and not interested in the limelight but rather proud of his down-to-earth roots. Having served as a stretcher bearer in World War I, he experienced war firsthand. After ordination to the priesthood he became a canon lawyer, secretary to his bishop, history teacher in the seminary and publisher of the diocesan newspaper in Rome. Subsequently, he was Italy’s national director for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith while also teaching in the seminary. He served as a papal diplomat in Bulgaria, Turkey and France. During World War II he became acquainted with Orthodox Church leaders and with the help of Germany’s ambassador to Turkey, helped save an estimated 24,000 Jewish people. As a cardinal, he was the Patriarch of Venice and a residential bishop, finally being elected Pope in his 78th year. As pope, He worked with political and religious leaders around the world and was deeply involved in efforts to resolve the Cuban missile crisis. He enlarged the membership of the College of Cardinals, making it more international, and wrote important encyclical letters to the world, most famously about the Church: Mater et magistra (Mother and Teacher) and the world: Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth).
It could be said that all of those credentials, so wonderfully documented at www.franciscanmedia.org, are overshadowed by his holiness and humility. Although it is useless to quantify such qualities, we would do well to think on these things and pray in gratitude for this saintly friend of God who served his Church and the world so well.