Blessed Pope John XXIII
By Jeanne Swiszcz
As a child we learn about those indiviuals who reach perfection and are called saints. They seem so holy, so far removed from our everyday lives. It is good to realize that a person who lived in our own time attained the first step to sainthood. His Holiness Pope John XXIII was beatified September 3, 2000.
Angelo Giuseppe was the fourth child but first son born to tenant famers Marianna and Giovanni Roncalli in Sotto il Monte, Diocese of Bergamo, Italy. As was the custom he was baptized the same day, November 25, 1881in the village church. Angelino as he was called was a bright and eager student. His godfather, great uncle Zaverio and the pastor, Don Francesco Rebuzzini took special interest in his education and served as models of holiness and dedication.
He left his large family in 1892 and was enrolled in the Minor Seminary in Bergamo. Later as a novice seminarian he wrote a set of rules for himself which he tried to follow each day. He also recorded daily events as well as details of his spiritual life. His diary was published shortly after his death. It is through reading Journey of a Soul that one becomes familiar with this humble priest.
One might think it quite easy to become perfect if, as the Pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, you have at your command all the resources of the Vatican Library. However, he struggled as we all do.
He was ordained August 10, 1904 and the following day celebrated his first Mass at the tomb of St. Peter. His first assignment was as secretary to the bishop of Bergamo. He served a short time in the Italian army in 1901 and again during WWI as a Chaplain and Lieutenant in the Medical Corps.
He was blessed with good health and was portly in appearance, with a peasant-like air, not particularly handsome. Although a serious and learned scholar, he did not fit the description of a plaster saint, wan and ascetic. To dignitaries and common folk alike he was easy going, approachable, considerate and generous. These qualities as well as his delightful sense of humor served him well when he carried out his duties. Recognized for his good sense and judgment, he was sent to Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and, during a difficult political time, as nuncio to France.
While living in those countries he sought to recognize similarities rather than differences in beliefs and cultures. In addition to his mother tongue and Latin, he could speak French, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Spanish. He studied Russian and Turkish and understood German and English, and also knew Greek. Always the diplomat, he admonished his secretary to "Simplify what's complicated and don't complicate what's simple." These words can be good advice to us in our busy lives, putting first things first.
He became a Cardinal January 12, 1953 and was three days later appointed Patriarch of Venice. The motto chosen for his coat of arms was "Obedience and Peace." He was in Venice when Pope Pius XII died and he joined the conclave in Rome to elect a new pope.
Elected pope October 28, 1958, he took the name Giovanni (John) and became known as John XXIII. His short reign is remembered today as a period of great change. One has only to say Vatican II and mention the encyclicals Pacem in Terris and Mater et Magistram to realize how much he accomplished.
Although he bore the worries of the world, he remembered birthdays and the special occasions of those dear to him. His private rooms at the Vatican had on display religious statues, books, paintings, and photographs of family and celebrities he had met in his lifetime.
His inner life was not left wanting. He continued his devotion to the Sacred Heart, the study of the lives of the saints, and practiced the corporal works of mercy; a lesson for all of us.
His unannounced visits and impromptu sermons endeared him to his flock.
In his 84th year he suffered greatly, ever mindful of the Angel of Death hovering over him. He recalled that he had always wanted to be a priest and as a young man often contemplated an untimely death. He said, "My bags are always packed." He died June 3, 1963.
He had been honored with many titles: Don, Monsignor, Bishop, Apostolic Visitor, Nuncio, Archbishop, Cardinal, and Pope. Yet he never was a pastor of a small church. He embraced all mankind and considered himself "il parocco del mondo (parish priest to the world)." May we as children of his parish try to live a life in Christ as he did.