I am a member of the “John Paul II Generation,” but I winced when he and John XXIII were canonized together; people would say, “John Paul II and… uh… that other guy.”It would be a tragedy to overlook jolly John, a simple yet revolutionary figure in the history of Catholicism. From the time I began learning about him, he quickly became one of my heroes. This week, Pope Francis is launching the synodality process for the Church. For this reason, we should be even more aware of St. John XXIII, who led the Church into its most important period of renewal in recent history (the Second Vatican Council).
In John Paul II’s homily for the Mass during which he declared John XXIII ‘Blessed’, he said:
“Everyone remembers the image of Pope John’s smiling face and two outstretched arms embracing the whole world. 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.”
Angelo Roncalli was the son of an Italian family (tenant farmers). As a young seminarian, he became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. During World War I, then-Fr. Roncalli was assigned to carry wounded soldiers on stretchers from the field of battle to the field hospital. While a Bishop, he served Vatican City as a diplomat. He was a leader in the Vatican’s efforts that saved hundreds of thousands of European Jews from Nazi deportation. “In Budapest alone, Roncalli rescued at least 50,000 Jews by issuing baptismal certificates” (Catholic World Report). Read his biography; you will be inspired.
This ‘Good Pope John’ has taught me so many lessons. Here are a few:
1. God is calling you to holiness in an unrepeatable way.
Sometimes, I read saint biographies, and I think, “Wow, that is amazing, but that’s not me.” Further, Catholics can get caught up comparing ourselves, our prayer lives, and our talents to Saint So-and-So’s. We can end up more discouraged than inspired.
As a young man, John XXIII kept a spiritual journal, and reflected on this:
“I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances. If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way” (Journal of a Soul).
2. Maintain a healthy sense of humor.
Shortly after his election, John XXIII was walking in the streets of Rome. A woman passed by, noticed him, and said to her friend, “My God, he’s so fat!” Having overheard, he turned around and replied, “Madame, I trust you understand that the papal conclave is not exactly a beauty contest.”
Famously, a journalist once asked him, “How many people work in the Vatican?”
He responded, “About half of them.”
3. God is in control; it’s OK to relax.
You think your life is stressful? Imagine being the Pope…the man elected to lead 1 billion Catholics around the world, who are facing all types of challenges, living in all different cultures, and with so many needs. Imagine holding the title, ‘Vicar of Christ on Earth’!
John XXIII said, “It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope…” Talk about pressure! How did Good Pope John deal with it? At the end of a long day, he is said to have prayed, “Well, Lord, it’s your church. You take care of it. I’m going to bed.”
Simple as that.
4. “I am your brother.”
Having worked in evangelization for several years, I still find it hard to preach the Gospel. Loving others and speaking the truth to them requires us to get our hands dirty; to be present to people wherever they are; to be vulnerable. I fear ridicule, or failure. John XXIII maintained a very simple but profound attitude. He often greeted people saying, “I am your brother.”
Somehow, that phrase changes my perspective. I’m overwhelmed by the thought of approaching people with the Gospel, but when I remind myself, “I am their sister,” my eyes are opened to the simplicity of God’s call. Just be a brother.
5. Most of all — Do not worry. Do not be afraid.
Elected pope at 77, everyone expected John XXIII’s pontificate to be quick and forgettable. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, John’s turned out to be one of the most revolutionary pontificates in history. Most notably, he called for an ecumenical council: a meeting of the entire Church. In Christianity’s 2,000-year history, only twenty of these had been organized. So, why did he do it?
He said this in his opening address at the Second Vatican Council: “In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned.
We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.”
Rather than flee from the world and lock the church doors behind us, John XXIII envisioned a Church that was empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out into the world and bring God’s love. Because John XXIII was unafraid to start a revolution, unafraid of the doom-and-gloom, and unafraid of what people might think of him, today we have a more lively, educated, enthusiastic, culturally-rich Catholic Church.
What a debt we owe him.
Answering Christ’s call, Pilgrim Center of Hope guides people to encounter Him so as to live in hope, as pilgrims in daily life.
Angela Sealana is Media Coordinator for Pilgrim Center of Hope, having served at the apostolate since 2010. She also serves on the PCH Speaker Team.