Journalists in Rome covering Sunday’s canonizations received a briefing yesterday afternoon on the life and papacy of Blessed John XXIII – the Pope who convened the Second Vatican Council.
Offering their perspectives were John XXIII scholar Bishop Battista Angelo Pansa, and the Pope’s personal valet, Guido Gusso. Leading the briefing was Director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi.
Some have described John XXIII as a man of “blessed and happy poverty” and having the “l’arte del incontro,” or “the art of encounter”
“He was a man who was a pastor, a pastor of peace, a shepherd of peace,” said Bishop Pansa. “He was able to work with both the East and the West. A man of great dialogue.”
In a 2009 letter commemorating the 50th anniversary of John XXIII’s election, Benedict XVI wrote that “in his life we had a prelude to the experience of paternity, we saw a great docility and openness to the Holy Spirit.
“His life was marked by faith in Jesus Christ and the desire to belong to the Church, summed up beautifully in his important encyclical, Mater et Magistra.”
Why be a priest?
When he was 20 years old, Angelo Rocalli wrote a letter to his parents in which he explained his reasons for becoming a priest. “I am not becoming a priest for honors, compliments,” he wrote. “I’m not doing it to make money. I’m doing it because I want to do good in any way possible for poor people.”
In 1902, just two years after writing that letter, he would begin his work known as a “Journal of a Soul”. Inside the cover of the notebook he wrote the prayer to the Sacred Heart: “Enflame my heart.”
In 1958 Angelo Rocalli was elected to the papacy, taking the name John XXIII. A Vaticanista who was present in Rome during the election described hearing his voice from the balcony for the first time: “It was a voice that was deeply human. It was warm. It was paternal. And a voice that covered all of us with warmth.”
Later that year, on Christmas Day, he would visit the local children’s hospital where the children mistook him for Santa Clause because of the bright red hat he wore. The next day, he broke protocol to visit Rome’s Regina Caeli Prison, where he told the inmates: “Since you can’t come to me, I decided to come to you.” He then directed them to write a letter to their families, saying: “I want you to tell them that the pope came to see you and blessed you.”
Second Vatican Council
John XXIII announced his desire to convene the Second Vatican Council on January 25th, 1959, in the sacristy of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls following the celebration of St. Paul’s feast day.
Formally commencing in 1962, it was the first council since the 1st century council of Jerusalem that did not have a particular theme. Other councils have been called to address various heresies of the day. This council, the speakers at the briefing said, was meant to inaugurate a new Pentecost, to read the signs of the times and to bring the Church up to date with the modern era.
In his famous “discourse of the moon,” delivered at the opening night of Vatican II, John XXIII addressed the crowds of young people gathered together from Catholic Action. “It’s not my person that’s most important,” he said. “I’m the voice of one of you. I’m in the midst of all of you. My presence here speaks of faith, hope, and charity.”
“On your way home tonight,” he said, “give a hug or a kiss to those who are at home, to the children, to the elderly, to those who are sick. Let them know the pope is with them, and he accompanies us on this journey.”
The Election of John XXIII
Guido Gusso, who had worked for Cardinal Rocalli for many years, shared a couple personal anectdotes with the press about his election to the papacy.
On the day John XXIII was elected as pope, it was decided that the Conclave would not end with the election but would continue until the next morning. Following dinner that evening, the newly-elected Pope asked Guido to go his room at the Domus Mariae residence to collect some papers to bring back. Since the whole Vatican area was sealed off, however, the only way to leave was through an elevator in the Borgia tower.
Gusso recounts that he was approached by Cardinal Eugène Tisserant who told him he would be excommunicated if he tried to leave the conclave. “I was very disturbed by that,” he recalled, “so later in the evening I went back and told the Pope I’d been threatened with excommunication.”
The Pope then said: ‘You go tell Cardinal Tisserant that if he excommunicates you, I will remove the excommunication.’ Needless to say, I went back to Cardinal Tisserant. He was extremely upset, and I was finally absolved on the threats of communication.”
In the afternoon following his election, the crowds had been kneeling down before him out of respect. Gusso recounts being approached by the Pope, who told him: “You can kiss my ring in the morning and say good morning, and you kiss it in the evening,” but that he was not comfortable being kneeled to.
Instead, when they would pass by the chapel, the Pope would open the door and say to Gusso: “Go to the Blessed Sacrament. Kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. I don’t want you kneeling before me.”