John XXIII — Mystic Pope

My guiding principles remain the same: humility in everything, especially in my speech, union with God and the will of God, and not my own, in all I do. — Pope John XXIII

  • In the days immediately after being elected Pope, John XXIII received a letter from Bruno, a twelve year-old boy. “My dear Pope: I am undecided. I want to be a policeman or a pope. What do you think?” The new pontiff replied promptly saying: “My little Bruno. If you want my opinion, learn how to be a policeman. . . . Anybody can be a pope; the proof of this is that I have become one. If you ever should be in Rome, come to see me. I would be glad to talk all of this over with you.” 
  •  During the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, American Journalist Norman Cousins acted as an emissary hand delivering messages between John Kennedy, Nikita Krushchev and Pope John XXIII. As Cousins sat in Pope John’s study to report on his encounter with Krushchev, he recalls how the Pope, whom he had never met, went out of his way to put Cousins as ease: “We have very much to talk about,” the Pope said. “Just remember, I am an ordinary man; I have two eyes, a nose — a very large nose. . . You must feel completely relaxed. We will talk man to man.” 

Those two vignettes convey the warmth, kindness and humility which consistently characterized Pope John XXIII, making him one of the most admired and loved popes by both Catholics and non-Catholics. The man who would become “Good Pope John” was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli on Nov. 25, 1881 (130 years ago), in a tiny village in the province of Bergamo, Italy. His parents were tenant farmers. 

As a child, Angelo lived in an atmosphere of faith that instilled in him a deep and profound sense of spirituality. In the household where he lived with his large extended family, the Catholic faith was practiced and lived out daily. They attended Mass each morning and recited prayers each evening after dinner. This was vital spiritual formation for young Angelo. 

In 1893, when he was 12, Angelo took an entrance exam in which he placed third and which allowed him entry into a “seminary,” a Catholic school where he received a high school education. By the time he was a young teenager, his mind was entirely focused on the spiritual life and service to the Church as a priest. In fact, in his fourteenth year he began to keep a journal and maintain it for the next 67 years of his life. Published as Journal of a Soul, it is one of the finest modern spiritual autobiographies ever published. 

Angelo’s first entry, when he was only 14, begins with a listing of spiritual practices he wanted to engage in. His first priority was to “choose a spiritual director from among the most exemplary, prudent and learned, in whom you may have full trust. . .and complete confidence.” In the journal he describes what he wanted to do daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. Anyone seeking to evolve spiritually would do well to follow young Angelo’s blueprint. Some examples from his journal include: 

Daily
• Devote at least a quarter of an hour to prayer upon waking up; devote a quarter hour to spiritual reading; 
• Before dinner make an examination concerning ways to rid yourself of vices or failings and replace them with virtues;
• Read carefully and thoughtfully a whole chapter from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A. Kempis; 

Weekly
Confession; fast Friday and Saturday; on those days devote an extra quarter of an hour to prayer or spiritual reading, if possible in the quiet of some church; meet with the spiritual director for accountability. 

Monthly
• Ask one of the “most exemplary and zealous” spiritual friends to observe your behavior and candidly but charitably identify any faults;
• Confer with the spiritual director about faults identified and the best way to correct them. 

Yearly
Go on retreat to do the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola; before going on a yearly vacation, consult with spiritual director for suggestions to use the time for spiritual profit. 

Continuing his theological education, young Roncalli was ordained a priest in August 1904 and assigned as secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo. This appointment proved to be deeply formative for the young priest as the bishop was a spiritual visionary deeply concerned about the poor and about generating social reforms to improve their condition. When World War I erupted, Father Roncalli enlisted in the Italian army and served in both the medical corps and as a chaplain. 

Because of Balkan tensions, Pope Pius XI established Vatican diplomatic relations with Bulgaria and asked Father Roncalli to be his apostolic delegate to Bulgaria. To emphasize the importance of his appointment, the pope made Roncalli a bishop in 1925. Surprised, the young priest wrote in his journal, “I have not sought or desired this new ministry. The Lord has chosen me. . .so it will be for him to cover up my failings and supply my insufficiencies. This comforts me and gives me tranquility and confidence.” 

Though he was now becoming an ecclesiastical official of considerable importance, Roncalli expressed his desire to remain spiritually focused and grounded. Shortly after accepting the appointment, he wrote in his journal, “I want to be all and wholly for God, penetrated with his light, shining with love for God and the souls of men. . . . In my new stage of life, prayer must take on a new aspect.” 

This diplomatic assignment was the first of several that would last three decades for Roncalli. After nine years in Bulgaria, he was appointed apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece (1935). In his role as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece, Roncalli was also instrumental in saving thousands of Jewish lives by launching “Operation Baptism.” In early 1944, American Jewish leader Ira Hirschmann requested an interview with Bishop Roncalli in Turkey. Hirschmann came prepared with statistics and eye-witness accounts of the Jewish plight in Hungary, pleading with Roncalli to assist Jews in that country. 

After listening carefully, Roncalli proposed Operation Baptism, explaining that he knew that some nuns in Budapest had given baptismal certificates to Jews and that the Nazis recognized those and left the holders alone. Roncalli told Hirschmann he was prepared to make available as many baptismal certificates as were necessary, adding he had no vested interest in whether any Jews actually attended Mass or, when the war ended, remained in the Church. His only concern was with saving lives. 

An exuberant and joyful Hirschmann returned to Washington. He wrote, “The Catholic hierarchy, which enjoys a large influence in Hungary, took unusual spontaneous measures to rescue Jewish citizens wherever possible. . . . [I refer] to the baptism of thousands of Hungarian Jews in air raid shelters.” Of course, Hirschmann was discreet and never revealed Bishop Roncalli as the source of those baptismal certificates. 

Following the liberation of France in 1944, Roncalli was named Vatican representative to that country and, in 1953, Pope Pius XII made him a Cardinal and Patriarch of Venice. It was an appropriate appointment for a priest who had served arduously and loyally for many decades. Then in his 72nd year, Roncalli noted in his journal, “I am beginning my direct ministry at an age — seventy-two years — when others end theirs. . . . In the few years I have still to live, I want to be a holy pastor. . . Sometimes the thought of the short time left to me tempts me to slacken my efforts. But with God’s help I will not give in. I neither fear to die nor refuse to live.” 

Believing that the position as Cardinal of Venice would be his final service to the church, no one was more surprised than Roncalli when, five years later in October 1958, he was elected pope. In fact, he even arrived at the Vatican for the consistory having purchased a return train ticket to Venice. From the first moment of his papacy, Pope John continued in his determination to be a truly spiritual leader. A month after his election, he wrote, “Nothing has value for history and human life, nothing has any value for the Church and for souls, unless the pontiff is holy in deed as well as in title.” 

Though his election was also a surprise to Catholics around the world, his warm pastoral style immediately began to attract attention and admiration. As he began his papacy, he not only maintained but heightened his pastoral concern — especially for the poor, some of whom worked directly for the Vatican. This reality came to his attention one day in 1959 when he saw an electrician doing some work on the Vatican grounds. Approaching the man, the pontiff inquired about the man and his family. The electrician poured out the frustration of his struggle with poverty. Shortly after that conversation, Pope John raised the pay of Vatican employees from 25 percent to 40 percent. The employees who were being paid the least received the largest increase in wages. Explaining this change to Vatican administrators, the pope said, “We cannot always require others to observe the Church’s teaching on social justice if we do not apply it in our own domain. The church must take the lead in social justice by its own good example.” 

On Dec. 25, 1958, a mere 10 weeks after he came to the papal throne, John became the first pope since 1870 to make a pastoral visit in his diocese of Rome. He went to visit prisoners at the ironically named “Queen of Heaven Prison” in Rome. Parts of the Queen of Heaven prison buildings dated back to 1654. It was the oldest, largest and most notorious prison in Rome. Addressing the large group of inmates who gathered to see him, John explained, “You could not come to me, so I came to you.” 

Though prison officials received little advance warning, they managed to map out a course for the papal visit by putting down a red carpet. Almost immediately, Pope John veered off the runway and ventured down gloomy and musty corridors. He arrived at one cellblock where the most violent were confined. Upon noticing that prisoners were still locked behind bars, he said in his loudest voice, “Open the gates. Do not bar them from me. They are all children of our Lord.” 

While the pope was at the prison, an old man with a lengthy prison record approached him, confessing: “I have made many mistakes, Holy Father.” Bending down to the kneeling man, John wiped his tears away, raised him and embraced him with a warm bear hug. He consoled the man with these words, “I looked into your eyes with my eyes. I have put my heart near your heart.” As some 1,000 prisoners assembled to meet and greet the Holy Father, he addressed them as “dear sons and brothers,” telling them that his own brother had once been arrested and jailed for hunting without a license and that he understood why a man might break the law to steal for his hungry family. 

His visit was a sensation, not only among the inmates and prison officials but also by news reporters who were fascinated by a pope who visited a jail. Later, John wrote in his journal, “. . . great astonishment in the Roman, Italian and international press. I was hemmed in on all sides: authorities, photographers, prisoners, wardens. . .” 

Because of his age at election — 76 — it was assumed he would merely be a transitional or ‘‘caretaker’’ pope. Though his reign was brief, only five years, it is regarded by many historians as the most important pontificate since the Middle Ages. This is due to his decision to call an ecumenical council of the Universal Church, the first since 1870 and only the 21st in the Church’s history. 

Unfortunately, John XXIII did not live to see his Vatican Council vision realized. From the start of the first session, his health began to diminish. Only those closest to him knew he was suffering from stomach cancer. Because of his age, surgery was deemed too risky and, as a result, his health continued to decline. He appeared at his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square for the last time on May 23, 1963. Shortly after that he reassured those around him, “My bags are packed and I am ready, very ready to go.” Earlier, he spoke of the same readiness in a letter written to his older brother Savero, “My eighty years of life complete tell me, as they tell you, dear Savero, that what is more important is always to keep ourselves well prepared for a sudden departure, because this is what matters most: to make sure of eternal life, trusting in the goodness of the Lord who sees all and makes provision for all.” 

Angelo Roncalli — Pope John XXIII — died quietly on June 3, 1963. It was the Vatican press office that issued this final bulletin: “He suffers no more.” Outside the papal window, thousands of faithful pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square began to grieve along with millions around the world. 

Many times Pope John XXIII came before groups saying “I am your brother.” The world believed him!

REV. PARACHIN, an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), writes from Tulsa, Okla.

Action: How To Be Like Pope John XXIII  

1. Live with a sacred optimism. John practiced a “cheerfulness at all times” and rejected voices of “those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.” 

2. Ask others to pray for you. When it became known that John was to be made a cardinal he wrote his family to share the news and request them to “ask (God) to make me a good cardinal, a peace-loving and gentle cardinal.” Whenever you face a difficult decision or a major life challenge, ask those close to you for their prayers. 

3. Curtail criticism. “See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little,” was John’s philosophy. Curtail criticism. You’ll be happier. So will your family and friends. 

4. Practice self-restraint. Follow John’s lead: “It is my nature to talk too much. A ready tongue is one of God’s good gifts but it must be handled with care and respect, with moderation, so that I may be welcome and not found to be a bore.” 

5. Read biographies of spiritual lives. One of the best ways to deepen your own spiritual life is to read about others who are models of spirituality. Pope John loved St. Francis de Sales, calling him the “gentlest of saints” and a “magnificent figure.” He wrote, “I have read his life so many times!” 

6. Practice what you preach. In all your relationships be a model of integrity by practicing what you preach. “I really must make sure that I never tell others to do what I do not try to practice myself,” John noted in his journal. 

7. Be kind. This was a lifelong goal of John. “My dealing with others must always be marked with dignity, simplicity and kindness, a radiant and serene kindness.” 

8. Observe yourself. John called this an examination of conscience, and it was something he did all his life. From time to time, take a deep and honest look at yourself so that any issues may be addressed before they enlarge. After one period of self-study John wrote, “Having made a general examination of my behavior during these recent days, I have found good reason to blush and feel humble.” 

9. Remember that you are a role model. We are visible to family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances. Be a positive influence. That’s the sentiment John expressed. “One learns Christian behavior in social and economic matters by actual Christian action in those fields.” 

10. Don’t take yourself so seriously. A few days after he was elected pope, John’s family was granted a special audience. The Roncallis entered the papal apartments timidly and nervously dropped their gifts. Peasant bread, ham and wine, packed in brightly covered cloths tumbled to the floor. John eased their embarrassment. He smiled and said reassuringly, “Don’t be afraid. It’s only me.” The lesson from John for us: lighten up. Don’t take yourself so seriously.