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June 2016


We look at the life of a humble loving priest who rose from poverty to become Pope. This popular and well loved pontiff, acting on the promptings of the holy spirit, changed the way that we worship today.


In October 1962 Pope John XXIII (23rd) opened the Second Vatican Council. He invited 2,450 Cardinals, Bishops, advisors, and consultants from around the world to the Vatican for a series of meetings that took place over three years. This gathering produced sixteen documents that have been described as the greatest expressions of Catholic teaching the world has ever known. These documents had a major impact on the Catholic Church and were the legacy that this humble Pope, the son of poor peasants, left for the world. One observer said, “It was he who enabled the Church to transform from a static, authoritarian Church that spoke in monologues, to a dynamic Church that promoted dialogue, both with the world and within the Church itself.” Let us look at the life of Pope St John XXIII.


Angelo Roncalli was born on November 25 1881 at Sotto Il Monte in Italy, the third of thirteen children, where his parents were tenant farmers. Growing up in a hard-working poor family he knew the struggle of making ends meet. He went to the local school, where he did quite well and at the age of twelve he entered the Seminary at Bergamo. He said, "I was a good, innocent boy, a little timid. I wanted to love God at all costs and I thought of nothing other than becoming a priest at the service of simple souls in need of patient and diligent care."


He studied theology in Rome and was ordained in 1904. As a young priest he was appointed to be secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo and was a military chaplain during the war. He was a good administrator and a well loved priest and in 1921 he went to Rome to work in one of the Vatican departments. In 1925, he became an Archbishop and was sent to Bulgaria. Later, he worked in Turkey and Greece. In 1953 he became the Cardinal of Venice, and was expected to spend his final years there. Fr Roncalli was a caring and devoted pastor who was known for his openness to everyone, rich or poor of whatever faith or none.


Following the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, the Cardinals assembled and to many people’s surprise, (including his own) they elected Cardinal Roncalli as the new Pope. In his memoirs he wrote, “To have accepted with simplicity the honour and the burden of the pontifcate, with the joy of being able to say that I did nothing to obtain it, absolutely nothing; indeed I was most careful and conscientious to avoid anything that might direct attention to myself. As the voting in Conclave wavered to and fro, I rejoiced when I saw the chances of my being elected diminishing and the likelihood of others, in my opinion truly most worthy and venerable persons, being chosen.” (Pope John XXIII. P 325, Journal of a Soul)


At 76 years old, it was felt that he would be a transitional Pope, living out his last few years as a figure head for the Church making few significant changes. He took the name John in honor of the beloved disciple. He had a lively sense of humor. One day when journalists asked him how many people worked at the Vatican, he answered, “About half.” He often made jokes about himself. After a photo shoot he said, “From all eternity, God knew that I was going to be pope. He had eighty years to work on me, so why did he make me so ugly?” Pope John XXIII was also a man of great mercy and kindness, very much like Pope Francis today, and he continued to reach out to the poor and marginalised.


Although he was Pope for less than five years, God used him to bring sweeping changes to the Catholic Church. From the start Pope John began to restructure things. Inspired by the Holy Spirit he appointed more Cardinals from different parts of the world. He announced that he would hold the first diocesan synod for Rome, revise the Code of Canon Law and the Holy Spirit inspired him to call an ecumenical council for the whole Church (Vatican II). It is said that while passing an open window he felt a draught and it came to him that it was time to throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through it.


Before the Second Vatican Council could end Pope John XXIII died in his bed at the age of 81 on June 3, 1963. The whole world mourned his death. One newspaper published a drawing of the earth shrouded in mourning with the caption, "A Death in the Family." He had once said that “to be a Saint we need to practice that self-giving love that flows from dying to self, from laughing at one's own foibles and humbly enduring the foibles of others. Saints aren't so much superstars of holiness as humble sinners, ready to allow God to love them just as they are.” This is exactly how Angelo Roncalli lived his life. His feast day is on October 11, the anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but what it is possible for you to do.
Pope St John XXIII