Pope John XXIII signs the bull convoking the Second Vatican Council on Dec. 25, 1961. The document said modern society was advancing with technological and scientific progress for which there was no corresponding advance in morality. He wrote that he would convene the council so that the church would contribute positively to the solution of modern problems. CNS file photo
The saint whose story inspires me the most is Blessed Pope John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli 1881-1963). He was born into a peasant family, one of 13 children, and wore hand-me-down clothes until he was in gradate school. He was unabashedly human. He smoked cigarettes, drank wine and enjoyed eating. He was elected pope at the age of 77 in 1958 and convened the Second Vatican Council. It is the ecumenical council that is still changing the church today.
In his opening speech at the Second Vatican Council, Pope John said that he “preferred the medicine of mercy to that of severity.” He practiced that throughout his life as a Christian, a priest, a bishop and as pope. The Italians called him “good Pope John.” Protestants and Jews alike loved him. During the Second World War he saved many Jews from being killed by the Nazis in the concentration camps. The Jewish community considers him a righteous gentile for this work.
From the age of 14 on, John kept a diary. It is called “The Journal of a Soul.” It is still in print and makes for inspiring spiritual reading even today. He had a great sense of humor. Once, when he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, he murmured with a chuckle, “Lord this man is going to be a disaster on television.” When he was the cardinal archbishop and patriarch of Venice he opined, “We are not on earth as museum keepers but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare a glorious future.”
Blessed Pope John’s sayings provide a model by which to live one’s faith life. Just listen to them: “See everything, overlook much, correct little.” “There would be no pagans if we all lived like real Christians.” “Christian faith is this: serenity and inner calm while offering oneself to God.” One of the entries in his diary reads, “A day without prayer is like a sky without the sun, a garden without flowers.” On the occasion of his installation as pope, he said: “The secret of everything is to let yourself be carried by the Lord and to carry the Lord.”
Good Pope John died of stomach cancer on June 3, 1963. On his death bed while pointing to the crucifix hanging on the wall at the foot of his bed, he said, “The secret of my life is in the crucifix. . . . Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate: they mean that Christ died for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness.” Blessed John XXIII lived his whole life that way, loving and forgiving people as Jesus did.
Blessed John XXIII’s feast day is Oct. 11, the same date that the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962. On the feast of All Saints, I will remember and celebrate this marvelous Christian who was peasant, priest, pope, people lover and saint.
Arthur E. Zannoni
St. Cecilia, St. Paul