October 10, 2017

St. John XXIII, Convened the Second Vatican Council

Saint John XXIII

Optional Memorial - October 11th

One of the least likely popes, not only of the twentieth century, but perhaps in the history of the papacy itself, was Pope Saint John XXIII. Born of peasant stock in 1881, this humble and unassuming priest would, in the last months of his life, be the architect of one of the most sweeping ecumenical councils of the modern world, whose reverberations are still being felt throughout the Church to this day.

It was his humility and “ordinariness” that endeared Angelo Roncalli (the pope’s name before he ascended to the papacy) not only to Catholics, but to the world at large. The oldest son of a farming family from northern Italy, the future pope was ordained to the priesthood in 1904. His duties at the time included working as secretary to the bishop, teaching Church history in seminary, and publishing the diocesan paper. These experiences were integral preparation for the papacy.

Drafted into the military in 1914, he served as both stretcher bearer and chaplain to the Italian army during World War I, where the horrific realities of battle made a deep impression on him. When the war was over, he was appointed national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Italy and also continued to teach in the seminary in Rome. Four years later, he was named Apostolic Visitator in Bulgaria, raising him to the episcopate with the titular Diocese of Areopolis. For his episcopal motto he chose Oboedientia et Pax, (Obedience and Peace) which would become his guiding credo for the remainder of his ministry.

With the advent of the World War II, Roncalli, who was by now an archbishop and a papal diplomat, found himself in Bulgaria, Turkey and finally France. With the help of Germany’s ambassador to Turkey, he was able to save an estimated 24,000 Jews from the hands of the Nazis regime, resulting in him being named a “Righteous Gentile” after the war. In 1953 a new responsibility awaited him when he was named a cardinal and appointed patriarch of the diocese of Venice.

In 1958, just a month shy of his 78th birthday, Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected to be the head of the Roman Catholic Church. It was a move which surprised many, but before long the warmth and good humor of the new pontiff endeared him to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He enlarged the College of Cardinals and made it more international; his most famous encyclicals, Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), promulgated in 1961, and Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), promulgated in 1963, revealed a Holy Father who was truly pastoral.

But by far, the greatest surprise of his papacy was the convening of the Second Vatican Council, the theme of which was to be “aggiornamento,” or literally “making up to date.” Rather than condemn the modern world, Pope John XXIII sought to include it in the embrace of Christ. The Church was not to be a closed fortress, but a “light to the nations,” reaching out to Christians, non-Christians and those of no faith whatever. Two of the best-known documents from the Council, Lumen Gentium (Light to the Nations) and Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) underscore the pope’s intentions for the Church and the world. Though he would not live to see the end of the Council — Pope John XXIII died on June 3, 1963, at the age of 81 — those in attendance continued to carry out his vision of renewal. At his death, he was mourned by the Catholic Church and the world.

Pope John XXIII was beatified in 2000 by Saint John Paul II, with whom he would later be canonized by Pope Francis on April 27, 2014. His feast day, rather than being the day of his death, is celebrated on Oct. 11, as a commemoration of the opening of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962. He was sustained by a profound spirit of prayer and radiated the peace of one who always trusted in the Lord. St. John XXIII, "Il Papa Buono", intercede for us, and Holy Mother Church.

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