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!


“The Church is Behind the Times”

What a compliment.

People love to say that the Church is “behind the times,” “clueless,” and “traditional to a fault.” People complain that the Church never changes anything. Sometimes they even get pretty mad, as if the Church is holding them back from happiness. Heck, sometimes it’s even someone like Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini who voices these opinions. Now, his quotes might have been taken out of context, but I have a few thoughts..

Dear non-Christians, we are only “behind the times” because we believe in Jesus Christ and what He taught and we will continue to follow his teachings.

Dear Christians, beware the temptation to adhere to the norms of the world. Check out the words of our Lord:

“If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word that I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” – Jesus in John 15:18-20

Is the goal of the Church to do whatever popular culture thinks is appropriate? Is the goal of the Church to give humanity the most freedom and pleasure in this world?


The goal of the Church is call humanity to lives of holiness, to be all that God created us to be. The Church’s job is to protect the teachings of Jesus, to warn the world when they are straying from the ways of the Lord. The Church has the end of all things in mind, so sometimes Her decisions might not make sense right here, right now, but in the eyes of eternity, the Church -guided by the Holy Spirit- will continue to be a light in the world for all to see.

Cardinal Napier of Durban, South Africa: “The Church is behind the times because the world is so far ahead in terms of shutting out God & his law. Only surprise is number of “years behind the times”. Like Jesus, Catholic Church has always been behind the times. 2000 years more like it!”

First Things First

If we do not understand the basics of things, there is no way that we will be able to understand the more in-depth ideas and concepts.

Point #1:You will not understand the Church unless you understand Jesus.

People in general don’t convert to Christianity because of the teachings and philosophies of Christianity. They convert because they have an encounter with Jesus. Often times this is because of the example of Christians. Other times this is from an encounter with Jesus in their hearts, in prayer, in the scriptures, in the sacraments. Either way, there will never be another person like Jesus, and He has captivated billions.

However someone comes to encounter Jesus, that encounter moves them to more fully integrate themselves with Jesus, with the Church that He founded: which is the Body of Christ. The teachings of the Church and beliefs of Christians are silly if you take them without Jesus. So of course the world is confused and thinks that Christians are terribly mistaken! How could they understand the more complicated issues without knowing Jesus? Authority comes from God, from Jesus, and He gave that authority to the Church (Matthew 16:18-19).

So as important as it is to focus on Jesus first, we can’t just forget about the Church that He founded, as Pope Benedict reminds us:

“. . . the Twelve Apostles are the most evident sign of Jesus’ will regarding the existence and mission of his Church, the guarantee that between Christ and the Church there is no opposition: despite the sins of the people who make up the Church, they are inseparable. Therefore, a slogan that was popular some years back, ‘Jesus yes, Church no,’ is totally inconceivable with the intention of Christ. This individualistically chosen Jesus is an imaginary Jesus.”

I’d like to clarify that the Church is essential for the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus to the world. That’s the mission that Jesus gave His disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) and it is the main mission of the Church still. How else would we come to know of Jesus without the Church proclaiming Jesus, keeping His teachings intact, sharing the scriptures? So basically we need the Church to do the proclaiming, but we need to know Jesus before we can know the Church. It all goes hand in hand.

Tangent paragraph: One thing to keep in mind is that some people live the Christian life without truly knowing and following Jesus. Often times, they are influenced by a friend or family member in situations like this. In this situation, it seems pretty clear they aren’t truly living as disciples of Jesus yet, because Jesus called us not to a religion of convenience but a religion of service and obedience. So we must be wary of that and strive to share the person and message of Jesus, which is lasting faith, hope, and love, and not just fun and friendship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). These situations are not bad, but they are something to keep in mind so that we do not assume that everyone knows Jesus when they actually don’t, even if they act like they do.

Point #2: Christians aught to follow Jesus, not political parties. America is about to get crazy political for the next few months, so this is something that many people will encounter soon enough.

Which of the political parties were founded by God? Which of the political parties are correct on every single issue? None, neither, I doubt there was a single one in the history of the world that fully encompassed what Jesus taught. That should be kind of obvious, though. Jesus didn’t found a nation, a political party, or an economic system. He did found a Church, though! And He sure as heck endorsed a morality and a way of living. So we would be fools to follow everything that the Democrats or Republicans or any other party says for no other reason than that’s the party that we are registered with. Instead, we must balance all decisions in the light of the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Church can help us to do this without telling us who to vote for, too. They don’t endorse politicians, but you can get a solid take on the issues from the bishops, especially the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

So before you jump on board on a side of an issue, weigh it in the light of what Jesus said. Go straight to the source, without all the bias. Because you know what? I bet the devil LOVES that there’s so much spin on every topic nowadays and how there are two imperfect groups fighting for the “soul” of our country, making people forget where real truth and wisdom can be found.


As Catholics we have a very special gift from God: the opportunity to go to confession and have our sins forgiven! This is what Jesus came to do, to forgive our sins, and He gave us this opportunity to have them forgiven at any time. Because of this, it is very important that we take advantage of this sacrament.

Why should I go to confession if I can just ask God for His forgiveness?
I have no doubt in God’s ability to forgive us when we are contrite, but Jesus instituted this sacrament Himself, so we should follow His instructions. Read John 20:19-23. The passage ends with Jesus telling His disciples “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them , and whose sins you retain are retained.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that, folks. In addition, St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:18 says “..and all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Here St. Paul is specifically referencing reconciliation!

Who does the forgiving of sins?
Only a priest or bishop can minister the sacrament of reconciliation. Notice how the disciples had to receive the Holy Spirit in John 20 before Jesus told them to forgive sins. So in confession it is Jesus forgiving your sins, through the priest. The priest is only the instrument of God.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops blog has a top ten reasons why you should go to confession list, should check it out!

Personally, there might not be a better feeling than leaving that confessional after having your sins forgiven. The sacrament gives me hope when I feel like all that I do is mess up and sin. Give God’s mercy a try, it’s infinite… 😉

Come to think of it, asking God for forgiveness is kind of like asking your grandma for food. They both are dying to give it and they’re really good at it 😀

Have a regular schedule for going. Pope John Paul II suggested going once a month.
Keep track of your sins if you have a bad memory (like me) by writing them down or something. But make sure to do some sort of celebratory destruction of your paper or whatever you use afterwards , because they are truly forgiven and you don’t have to worry about them anymore!
Do your penance right away before you forget.
Having the same priest for confession is a good idea so he can help guide you. Ask him questions and for advice.

Also see: