Legacy of a Visionary: The Life of Pope John XXIII (Part II)

The following is a guest post by Brian W. Geary. The first part of this article can be found here.

Part II: “Obedience and Peace” (1958 – 1963)

Pope John XXIII wave

Obedience and peace. This phrase, while so simple, so brilliantly captures the essence of Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, “The Good Pope.” From a small mountain town, to Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, France, and Venice, Roncalli was driven by a love of service to the people of God, in humble accordance with the promise of obedience he took upon is ordination in 1904. The path wasn’t clear, but Roncalli’s trust in God was, and it was this trust and obedience that must have weighed on his heart in the Conclave of 1958.

It was a rather long conclave (by modern standards). By the end of day three, only black smoke had appeared from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel (admittedly, white smoke did appear for about five minutes, but then turned black again). By the beginning of day four, the smoke was white. A pope had been elected. Inside the Sistine Chapel, the Dean of the College of Cardinals approached the newly elected candidate.

“Do you accept the election, canonically made, of yourself as pontiff?”

The words of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, written on a sheet of paper composed the previous night and during his lunch hour, are worth recounting here: “At the sound of your voice, I am made to tremble, and I fear. For what I know well of my poverty and insignificance is enough to bring me to confusion. But seeing the votes of my brothers…I bow my head and my back to the chalice of bitterness and to the yoke of the cross.”

“What do you wish to be called?”

“I wish to be called John. This name is sweet to us because it is the name of our father. It is sweet to us because it is the name of the humble parish church in which we were baptized; it is the name of innumerable cathedrals scattered throughout the world and first of all the sacred Lateran Basilica, our cathedral….But we love the name John so dear to us and to all the church, particularly because it was borne by two men who were closest to Christ the Lord, the divine Redeemer of all the world and Founder of the Church; John the Baptist…and John the disciple and Evangelist…May God dispose that both of these Johns shall plead in all the church for our most humble and pastoral ministry.”

The new pope was then taken to the traditional “room of tears” to don his new white vestments. Not present during the voting, John’s two assistants were allowed in to see him. In typical Roncalli wit, Pope John looked at them and said, “Well, you see what has happened to me.”

Those familiar with the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis in 2013 will remember the frenzy of activity and media speculation in the following days and weeks. So it was with Pope John XXIII in the fall of 1958. He had chosen a name not used since the fourteenth century (the last person to use it was the Antipope John XXIII). From the beginning he was different, and it was clear this would be a different type of papacy. I think Lawrence Elliott describes one such episode at the beginning of his pontificate the best:

[The official Vatican newspaper] flowered its every reference to the pope with such phrases as “The Illuminated Holy Father” and “The Highest Pontiff,” and prefaced accounts of his public statements with the likes of, “The chosen one, in his inspired and sublime discourse…” [The Pope] wished for an end to inflated and convoluted terminology.

“It’s the twentieth century. Let us have a style that suits the times. Wouldn’t it be better simply to write, ‘the pope said this,’ or ‘the pope did that.’?”
The stricken look on [the editor’s] face impelled John to soften his words. “I myself would prefer it,” he said gently. And, at the other’s final wince of pain, hastily corrected himself: “We would prefer it.” (256)

The papal use of the royal “we” would eventually be done away with by Pope John Paul I in 1978, but it’s clear that John had a different vision for the papacy. According to tradition, popes usually took their meals alone. After enduring several weeks of this, he remarked that he felt “like a seminarian under punishment” and did away with that. In another long-standing tradition (no pun intended), it was dictated everyone kneel when in the presence of the pope. After seeing an aide genuflect out of respect for him multiple times a day, John finally asked, “Don’t you think I believed you the first time?” He even threatened to walk out on an interview if the interviewer didn’t conduct the interview sitting in a chair, rather than on his knees. The first time he sat on his golden throne chair, the Seda Gestatoria, carried high above the crowds in public events, he sadly noted, “It’s windy up here.” He would later joke to the eight carriers of the chair that they should be paid extra, because he weighed so much more than his predecessor.

Soon, he made unannounced trips outside of the Vatican, showing up in unexpected places, and surprising the citizens of Rome from his car. He planned to make visits to every parish in his new Roman diocese. No doubt those who remember the election of Pope Francis will also remember the media frenzy he sparked after choosing to wear his own black shoes, instead of the traditional red. In 1958, every pope in recent memory had worn a set of red velvet slippers. Because of all his traveling, John broke with years of tradition, and had a new set of sturdy red walking shoes made. One gets the feeling he wouldn’t have gotten too worked up over Pope Francis’s choice of footwear.

John XXIII wasn’t one to accept what some had referred to as the “passive papal lifestyle.” Unlike Pius XII, who lived by a strict schedule, John wasn’t about to follow suit. His advisors put up a fuss about his unscheduled walks in the Vatican gardens, saying that they would not have enough time to close the cupola balcony on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, adding with a look of horror that all the tourists might see him. John, with his characteristic good humor, promised he wouldn’t do anything to scandalize them.

So then, it also came as a surprise that only three months into his papacy, Pope John called for an ecumenical council, soon to be known as Vatican II, to “let some fresh air in here,” throwing open his study windows one afternoon. For a man who spent his life in dialogue with the world, with the geographical and intellectual fringes of Christianity, standing by the pillar of truth in a world threatened by secularism, an “open-forum” council was his way of preparing the Church to reach out to the modern world. He was a man of peace to his core, and his landmark encyclical, “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth), written in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, would pave the way for ideological dialogue for years to come. A young Polish priest named Fr. Karol Wojtyla would take this text to heart, and later carry on John XXIII’s commitment to peace and dialogue in the spirit of Vatican II as Pope John Paul II.

Pope John opened the council on October 11, 1962, and the Church would never be same. Sadly he never saw the council closed, and it was up to Popes Paul VI and John Paul II to close it and struggle through its implementation. Shortly before the council opened, John was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. The disease began to take its toll during the early part of 1963, and he began to suffer from internal bleeding. He spent his last days surrounded by doctors, aides, and friends. As his condition became serious, the pope was confined to his bed, moving in and out of consciousness. A vigil was held in the square outside of the Papal Apartments, and an outdoor Mass for the ailing pope was planned on June 3rd. Pope John XXIII took his last breath as the mass outside concluded with the words, “Go, the mass is ended.”

Coda: The Third Millennium

The body of Pope John XXIII was entombed in the grottoes beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. He was viewed as a father to millions, and an inspiration to an entire generation of Catholics. His body, discovered to be incorrupt, was later moved beneath the altar of St. Jerome in St. Peter’s, and can now be viewed by the faithful. Coincidentally, when he passed away in 2005, the body of John Paul II was laid to rest in the same alcove where Pope John’s tomb once stood. John Paul worked closely with him as a bishop at the Second Vatican Council, and in 2000 he beatified the man he viewed as a father of faith:

How many people were won over by his simplicity of heart, combined with a broad experience of people and things! The breath of newness he brought certainly did not concern doctrine, but rather the way to explain it; his style of speaking and acting was new, as was his friendly approach to ordinary people and to the powerful of the world. It was in this spirit that he called the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, thereby turning a new page in the Church’s history: Christians heard themselves called to proclaim the Gospel with renewed courage and greater attentiveness to the “signs” of the times. The Council was a truly prophetic insight of this elderly Pontiff who, even amid many difficulties, opened a season of hope for Christians and for humanity.

Two years later, the mission of Pope John XXIII came full circle, when John Paul made a visit to Bulgaria in the footsteps of his predecessor, presenting Bulgarian Catholics with a relic of their beloved Ambassador/Archbishop/Pope. Exactly fourteen years after his beatification, a group of pilgrims from Pope John’s home diocese of Bergamo gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica with his successor Francis. The two successors of Peter were already being compared for their warmth and humility. Perhaps the words of Pope Francis, the man who cleared the way for John XXIII’s canonization by bypassing the need for a second miracle, summarizes the life of “the Good Pope” best:

Exactly 50 years ago, at this very time, Blessed John XXIII departed this world. Those who, like myself, have reached a certain age have vivid memories of the emotion that spread everywhere in those days. St Peter’s Square had become an open-air shrine, welcoming by day and by night faithful of all ages and social backgrounds, fearful and praying for the Pope’s health. The whole world had recognized Pope John as a pastor and father; a pastor because he was a father. What had made him one? How had he been able to reach the heart of people so different from each other and even many non-Christians? To answer this question we may refer to his episcopal motto, Obedientia et Pax: obedience and peace. “These words”, Mons. Roncalli noted on the eve of his episcopal ordination, “in a certain way sum up my story and my life”. Obedience and peace.

So, maybe like me, you’ll be awake at three in the morning on Sunday to watch Pope Francis (and maybe even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) canonize John XXIII and John Paul II, two men who radically engaged the world, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, in a new way, ready to bring the light of Jesus Christ to the farthest reaches of the earth. Maybe you’ll watch it on a replay later in the day. That’s cool too. May we learn to look to both of these men as spiritual fathers, as guides, and as intercessors. As we watch these two men elevated to the rank of Saint, let us remember their legacies, so providentially intertwined, and remember the path they laid for us, and for the church in the Third Millennium.

“Finally, may Christ inflame the desires of all men to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong. Through His power and inspiration may all peoples welcome each other to their hearts as brothers, and may the peace they long for ever flower and ever reign among them.”
– Pope Bl. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris

Popes John XXIII & John Paul II, PRAY FOR US!

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII

Elliott, Lawrence. I Will Be Called John: A Biography of Pope John XXIII. New York: Readers Digest Press/E.P Dutton, 1973. Print.
Francis. Address to a group of pilgrims from the Diocese of Bergamo. 3 June 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014
John Paul II. Homily for the beatification of five servants of God. 3 Sept. 2000. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
John XXIII. Journal of a Soul. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965. Print.
John XXIII. Encyclical Letter Pacem in terris: Peace on Earth. 11 Apr. 1963. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.
Tobin, Greg. The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church – The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II. New York: HarperOne, 2012.
Weigel, George. The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. New York: Image, 2010. Print.
Weigel, George. Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

About the author:
Brian Geary graduated from the University of Illinois in 2013 with a Bachelor’s of Music Education degree. During his time at Illinois, Brian was involved in the Marching Illini, as well as several choirs at St. John’s Newman Center. He was an active student leader for FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, as well as a retreat leader. He has a special interest in the history of the Catholic Church and the Papacy.


Legacy of a Visionary: The Life of Pope John XXIII (Part I)

The following is a guest post by Brian W. Geary

Part I: Sotto il Monte (1881-1958)

Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII

Not too long from now, on April 27th, the Catholic Church is going to do one of the things it does best: throw a big party! The occasion? Two popes, arguably two of the most influential in the history of the church (and that’s saying a lot) will be elevated to Sainthood. It’s Catholicism’s way of saying they made our All-Star team.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you probably know who they are….Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) and Pope John XXIII (1958-1963). Perhaps you’re like me, and grew up in the waning years of John Paul II’s life. I can recall news reports of him waving before enormous crowds, with that huge Polish grin on his face. I remember the love he exuded wherever he set foot. Perhaps you also remember the news reports as his health began to deteriorate, and perhaps you even remember turning on the TV as I did, to learn that he had “gone to the house of his father.” One thing is certain: he electrified a generation, and if you grew up in the 90’s like I did, some would even say you were born in the tail-end of what’s now being called the “John Paul II” generation.

Well, almost ten years have passed since his death, and his face is once again all over the news, as the Church prepares for his canonization. And we should be excited! Yet, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the man who’s being canonized with him, remaining in relative obscurity in the midst of all the hustle and bustle. In fact, the Church owes an incredible debt to the man we know as Pope John XXIII. He’s been revered since his death in 1963, so much so that two of his successors (John Paul I & John Paul II) even chose to honor him when choosing their own papal names. Yet, among younger generations, his name has gotten lost. So who is John XIII, and why is he so important for us today?

When compared to the story of any other famous figure who rose “from humble beginnings,” Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli’s story could almost write itself. He was born in the shadow of the Alps, in the small, out-of-the-way town of Sotto il Monte (literally, “Under the Mountain”) in northern Italy. His family was poor, and his birth in 1881 bumped the number of family members living in their small house to thirty-two. He would eventually have nine more siblings. They were a family of pious Catholic farmers, and it really wasn’t any surprise young Angelo felt the call to the Priesthood at an early age, eventually being ordained in August of 1904. His priesthood was interrupted by a stint of military service in the First World War, and like so many other young men experimenting with their new-found facial hair, grew a mustache. He’d later describe it as a “weak moment on my part.”

Young Fr. Roncalli (Pope John XXIII)

Following the war, Roncalli became a lecturer at the local seminary, and even taught for a bit in Rome. In 1925, Pope Pius XI appointed him ambassador to Bulgaria. The appointment came out of left field, and some have speculated it was due to suspicions that Roncalli was a “modernist” (a rather vague term that grouped together proponents of a rising tide of new and possibly unorthodox ideologies), after maintaining correspondence with a friend and excommunicated priest. After he was elected pope, he settled the question once and for all and asked to see his official Vatican file. Sure enough, written next to his name were the words “Suspected of Modernism.” In anger, and yet with a twinge of wit, he took a pen and wrote on the file, “I, John XXIII, Pope, declare that I was never a Modernist!”

And so, consecrated a bishop, Roncalli ventured to Bulgaria – an Orthodox country with no real Catholic heritage, with little diplomatic experience, where the title of “Archbishop” didn’t carry much weight. And yet, it was this experience that would help pave the way for the Church in the twentieth century, and indeed, Vatican II. Let’s look at a quote from his Journal: “May my ministry be one of reconciliation ‘in word and deeds’, and my preaching ‘not in the persuasive words of human wisdom but in the manifestation of the Spirit and power’ and the authority conferred on me by the Church never be used for my own glory – used not to break down but to build up.” And that’s precisely what he did. Roncalli built relationships with the Orthodox Church, arriving unannounced at Orthodox liturgies and monasteries, breaching a thousand-year gap nobody yet dared to cross. In a part of the world where the Catholic Church was viewed as no more than a missionary outpost, where Catholics even viewed themselves as subordinates of some sort, Archbishop Roncalli brought renewed life and hope. He even sought to establish a Bulgarian seminary to train priests in the Western and Eastern Catholic rites. Sadly the dream was never realized, and the long-awaited funding from Rome never arrived.

The years went on, and he was eventually sent as a diplomat to Turkey and Greece, where he encountered new struggles. Largely ignored by the Vatican, he was at times discouraged. World War II broke out across Europe, and again Roncalli went to work, using his diplomatic skills to send aid to German-occupied areas. As rumors of concentration camps began to leak, he used his network of connections to delay the transfer of thousands of Jews to concentration camps – enough time to get them immigration certificates to neutral countries. As if he had not done enough in his life, he was sent to France in 1944, a country in crisis after the war, with a government ready to oust its own bishops. He plowed forward, working closely with the people he came to serve, fervently defending the faith against an ever-rising tide of communism, socialism, and new existentialist philosophy that threatened the Church.

Pope John XXIII as bishop

Those who knew him personally could never say enough about Roncalli’s sense of humor. For a man of his experiences, to have kept his sense of humor is a testament to his greatness. Once, after overhearing a frustrated French carpenter utter a stream of obscenities so lengthy it could no longer be ignored, he approached the man and said, “What is all this my good man? Why can’t you say sh*t like everyone else and get on with your work?” In another instance, after a microphone malfunction, the Archbishop came down to the floor of the church. “Dear children,” he said, “you have heard nothing of what I was saying. That doesn’t matter. It wasn’t very interesting. I don’t speak French that well.”

In true diplomatic fashion, he was elevated to the rank of Cardinal and appointed Archbishop of Venice, where he told a welcoming crowd at his first mass there, “I commend to your kindness someone who simply wants to be your brother.” Now in his 70’s, age and health had begun to take their toll and Roncalli hoped to finally settle down. Pope Pius XII died in October 1958, and Cardinal Roncalli came to Rome to elect a new pope with a return ticket to Venice in his pocket. It soon became clear that God had different plans for the aging Cardinal.

Check out Part 2!

Cases for the Catholic Church: Sacraments

Mass before the March for Life

About a month ago, I was talking with someone who remarked, “You know, the hardest part about living a relationship with God is that I can’t talk with or touch Him.” Obviously she’s got a ways to go in terms of developing a prayer life, the best way to communicate with our Lord (and the way that Jesus Himself talked with the Father!), but she makes a great point. Would God really just leave us all alone after Jesus ascended into Heaven?

Jesus promised that He would never leave us, saying “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Yet despite that, He ascended into Heaven, so how does this make any sense? First off, God is still with us always. Even the Father personally guided the Israelites personally in the Old Testament times, He is always loving us and desiring the best for us. In addition, the Father and Son gave the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost (Acts 2).

But it makes sense that God would want to give us a tangible way of encountering Jesus through the Church. Jesus gave us the sacraments as signs of God’s love, ways to physically encounter God’s grace. Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to administer the sacraments themselves, and they have continued to carry on this ministry throughout the ages in the Church.

For those who aren’t familiar with the sacraments at all, I sometimes think of them as “power ups” in real life because of the grace that they give. Baptism is like an “extra” life that you get where it initiates you into the Church and is necessary for salvation*. Confirmation is a power up to grow in your faith which gives you more gifts from the Holy Spirit. Confession is how you get “full health again” and God forgives you of your sins. Eucharist is pretty much where you win the game and get to have a meal ZIP with the creator of the game. Marriage… um I guess that one’s pretty self explanatory, I hope, haha. Holy Orders gives men special powers to act in Jesus’ place in administering the sacraments, helping everyone else get their power ups. Finally, Anointing of the Sick is a way to instantly win the game despite being about ready to die.

Ok those comparisons were pretty hilarious for me… but they show the importance of taking advantage of all of the help that we can get in our lives! In video games we try to get the most power ups that we can so that we can do the best. In real life, we should do the same! God has given us help.. the Holy Spirit, the Church, the sacraments, the Bible, so that we wouldn’t have to live our faith all alone.

Instead of doing an in-depth scriptural and general apologetics study at the end to defend each of the 7 sacraments, feel free to check out this more thorough web site: Catholic Apologetics

Dr. Peter Kreeft also defends sacraments as a whole here.

Previous posts on the sacraments:
Baptism: Why Wait?
Mass: The Liturgy of the Eucharist
Why do Catholics have to go to Mass on Sundays?
Too Wise to Get Married?
Why Can Only Men be Catholic Priests?

Other Cases for the Catholic Church:

Cases for the Catholic Church: Universality

When Jesus founded the Church, it wasn’t a bunch of separate churches with their own individual doctrines, but a body with different parts throughout the world. We can see this from how Sts. Peter and Paul jumped from church to church around the Mediterranean Sea, founding churches that supported each other and had the same doctrine and rules.

It only makes sense that if Jesus founded one Church, it would be for the whole world. The word “catholic” comes from the Greek word “katholicos” which means universal. With that in mind, the Catholic Church is the Universal Church for all of humanity founded by Jesus. Only a single Church founded on Christ can fulfill the Great Commission, baptizing and making disciples of all nations.

One of the most beautiful things about the Catholic Church is its universality. No other Church can claim to have 1.2 billion members from nearly every single country on earth. I can attend mass pretty much anywhere around the world, and though I might not know the language, it’ll be the same liturgy with the same Eucharistic Lord and the same beliefs. Do you really think that a Christian missionary in Mongolia is going to have success asking people if they want to be Southern Baptist? In Mongolia people have nothing in common with the American South. The Church must be able to adapt to different cultures without changing the doctrine or liturgy, which has been shown by the Catholic Church time and time again, on all 6 continents.

The most recent cardinals around the world appointed by Pope Francis give a beautiful testimony to the universality of the Church:

Pietro Parolin, Italy
Lorenzo Baldisseri, Italy
Gerhard Ludwig Műller, Germany
Beniamino Stella, Italy
Vincent Nichols, Great Britain
Leopoldo José Brenes Solórzano, Nicaragua
Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, Canada
Jean-Pierre Kutwa, Ivory Coast
Orani João Tempesta, O.Cist., Brazil
Gualtiero Bassetti, Italy
Mario Aurelio Poli, Argentina
Andrew Yeom Soo jung, Korea
Ricardo Ezzati Andrello, S.D.B., Chile
Philippe Nakellentuba Ouédraogo, Burkina Faso
Orlando B. Quevedo, O.M.I., Philippines
Chibly Langlois, Haïti

Catholic Population Around the World

Catholic Population Around the World

Other Cases for the Catholic Church: