On the evening of June 3, 1963, as Mass was being celebrated in the plaza below his window, Pope John XXIII quietly passed away. He had been suffering from stomach cancer for some time, although his illness had only been revealed to the public in March of that same year. Still, he faced that final year of his pontificate, his illness, and the transition to eternal life with the same simplicity and humour with which he faced his whole life.
Born November 25, 1881 in Sotto il Monte (Bergamo) Angelo Roncalli was the fourth of 13 children. His parents were sharecroppers - not even landowning farmers. The local school only went up to the third grade, after which the local children would begin working on the land with their parents - which is what happened to most of the Roncalli children. If a family had the resources, some of their children would get further schooling in a neighbouring town or by private tutor. Some might call it providence, some might call it God’s plan, but at age ten when his friends and classmates were trading their school books for farm tools, Angelo was sent to the priest in a neighbouring town to be taught privately. Eventually he attended the Collegio Celana - an academy founded by St. Charles Borromeo - and entered the seminary at age 12. He completed his seminary studies years - and a year of military service- before the canonical minimum age for ordination, so he was invited to do further studies in Rome.
Despite the years of studies, he never considered himself anything more than a farmer’s son. In 1904, he was finally ordained. While preparing to celebrate his first Mass in his hometown he pulled the sacristan aside and gave him some very specific instructions: the sacristan was to stand behind the pulpit (think pre-Vatican II raised pulpits) out of sight of the congregation. If his homily became too complicated, too academic, the sacristan was to tug at the hem of Fr. Angelo’s alb. The sacristan never had to tug on the new priest’s alb.
Fr. Roncalli was named secretary to the bishop of Bergamo and was asked to teach at the local seminary. All proceeded quietly until 1915. He ended up serving as a military chaplain until the end of the war. After the war he turned his attention to students and continued serving as a chaplain to students and seminarians.
Eventually it became clear this humble, country priest had much more to offer. In the 1920s he was called to Rome to serve with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and in 1925 was made Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria and eventually Nuncio. Ten years later, he was named Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece. It was not an easy period, by any means, but it brought him into contact with the Orthodox Church and the Muslim community. He visited Orthodox Churches and stood in awe before the icons they housed. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was in Greece, witnessing the devastation caused by fighting. From there he was made Nuncio in Paris, and eventually Cardinal Patriarch of Venice. He received his red biretta from French president Vincent Auriol who, as president of that country, had the right to bestow the cardinalatial hat on the departing Nuncio.
Cardinal Roncalli believed he would spend the final years of his doing exactly what he had always wanted to do: pastoral work with parishioners. Granted, the “parish” was all of Venice. There, in “La Serenissima” Cardinal Roncalli quickly became known for his long walks around the city during which he would stop to talk to the locals and his modest lifestyle. He made it known that his door was always open for anyone in need of a confessor. He also opened 30 parishes, helped the Catholic Action Movement grow, renovated the diocesan Basilica and re-organized the archives that contained the history of the see.
Cardinal Roncalli was convinced Venice would be his final earthly home. But when Pope Pius XII died and the cardinals were summoned to Rome, the faithful of Venice didn’t expect their patriarch to return.
Elected Pope, he did exactly what he had been doing in Venice: he listened to his parishioners. Now his parish was the whole world and his flock included the cardinals and bishops around the world. He soon noticed a recurring theme in his conversations with visiting cardinals and bishops: pastoral issues that needed answers, urgently. His faithful secretary, now Cardinal Loris Capovilla, recalls that not five days after being elected pope, during a meeting with one of the many cardinals who came to pay the respects to the new pontiff, Pope John XXIII scribbled the word “council” in Italian.
The idea had bubbled up naturally in the pope’s mind in response to what he was hearing. He mentioned it to his secretary who said nothing. If it was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit it would have to come to fruition on its own, and Cardinal Capovilla feared anything he said might get in the way of that inspiration and God’s will. Pope John XXIII, however, wanted to know what his secretary thought and so he mentioned it repeatedly - to no avail. Finally the pope couldn’t stand his trusted confidant’s silence and asked “aAe you staying silent because you think I’m too old and it’s too big a project?” The pope went on to explain why it was not too big a project for a man of his age and eventually said if died in the process of the council another pope would be chosen who would carry on the work of the guiding the council. He foretold exactly what would happen over the next five years or so.
Pope John XXIII opened the first session of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. It ran until December of that same year. The pope was part of the preparations for the second session but died just months before the second session was to convene. As he had told his secretary, his successor dedicated himself to the work of continuing the council and seeing it through to the end.
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