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.


1 thought on “Legacy of a Visionary: The Life of Pope John XXIII (Part II)

  1. Enjoyed your beautiful historical review of St. Pope John XX 111.

    I did not know he was Beatiffed? In 2000, however, when I realized the purpose of the journey of my life, with an incurable degenerative, but not terminal illness, I searched for a novena to him praying for a cure, iGW.
    However, As I could not find one, I wrote one. The wish was my cure would allow him to be made a saint one day. I had great reservations about the fast canonization of Pope John Paul 11, and felt Pope John XX111 was overlooked by the mass media and Vatican Materialism. How thrilled I was when Pope Francis another potential , what I describe as a True Pope, announced his Cannonisation. I was discharged from hospital on the Sunday he was cannonised, with a new hip TG, to allow me continue my journey in less physical pain. To date I know gw. St. Pope John XX 111 will allow. Me to have a cure or remission in my illness.

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