In his homily during yesterday’s morning Mass in the chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis referred to Pope John XXIII as a “model of sanctity.” On the 50th anniversary of Blessed Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli’s death, Pope Francis will pray before his tomb, asking for his intercession before the Lord for peace and unity for the Church and for the whole human family. This afternoon the Holy Father will hold a meeting in the Vatican Basilica with some 3,000 pilgrims from the Italian diocese of Bergamo, the birthplace of the late Pontiff.
John XXIII, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, was born in Sotto il Monte, in the Italian province of Bergamo, on November 25, 1881. From a tender age he manifested an inclination to the ecclesiastical life. After completing his elementary studies, he prepared to enter the diocesan seminary. He was outstanding from the beginning both in his studies as well as in his spiritual formation. He was ordained priest on August 10, 1904. The young Roncalli continued his studies at Rome in Canon Law, which were interrupted in 1905 when he was elected secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo, Bishop Giacomo Radini Tedeschi, with whom he worked for 10 years.
In addition to being the bishop’s secretary, he had other responsibilities during those years. He served as a professor at the seminary, studied local history, was director of the diocesan newspaper and assistant of the Catholic Women’s Union. With the outbreak of the War, in 1915 and for more than three years he was chaplain to the wounded in the military hospitals of Bergamo.
Unexpectedly, in December of 1920 he was invited by the Pope to preside over the work of the Propagation of the Faith in Italy. In 1925, the year of his episcopal ordination, he was appointed Apostolic Visitor in Bulgaria, and thus began his diplomatic period which lasted until 1952. In 1934 he was appointed Apostolic Delegate in Turkey and Greece. He was then personally selected by Pius XII as Apostolic Nuncio in Paris in 1944. His next assignment was to Venice, where he arrived on March 5, 1953 and was created a cardinal the following year. His episcopate was characterized by the scrupulous commitment with which he carried out the duties of bishop, the pastoral visits and the holding of the diocesan Synod.
On October 28, 1958, at 76, Cardinal Roncalli was elected successor of Pius XII. This election made many believe that his pontificate would be one of transition. However, from the beginning John XXIII revealed a style that reflected his human and priestly personality, matured through a significant series of experiences. In addition to restoring the good functioning of the Curia’s organisms, he was keen on conferring a pastoral seal to his ministry, stressing its episcopal nature as bishop of Rome, while multiplying his contacts with faithful through visits to parishes, hospitals and prisons.
However, undoubtedly the most important contribution of this Pope was the Second Vatican Council, which he proclaimed from Saint Paul’s Basilica on April 25, 1959.
In his opening address on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII said that “three years the arduous work of preparation continued. It consisted in making a detailed and accurate analysis of the prevailing condition of the faith, the religious practice, and the vitality of the Christian, and particularly the Catholic, body. We are convinced that the time spent in preparing for this Ecumenical Council was in itself an initial token of grace, a gift from heaven.” He also added that “major interest of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred heritage of Christian truth be safeguarded and expounded with greater efficacy. That doctrine embraces the whole man, body and soul. It bids us live as pilgrims here on earth, as we journey onwards towards our heavenly homeland. It demonstrates how we must conduct this mortal life of ours. If we are to achieve God’s purpose in our regard we have a twofold obligation: as citizens of earth, and as citizens of heaven.”
“This twenty-first Ecumenical Council can draw upon the most effective and valued assistance of experts in every branch of sacred science, in the practical sphere of the apostolate, and in administration. Its intention is to give to the world the whole of that doctrine which, notwithstanding every difficulty and contradiction, has become the common heritage of mankind—to transmit it in all its purity, undiluted, undistorted. It is a treasure of incalculable worth, not indeed coveted by all, but available to all men of good will,” he said.
In the perspective of an updating of the whole life of the Church, John XXIII invited to privilege mercy and dialogue with the world instead of condemnation and opposition, in a renewed awareness of the ecclesial mission that embraced all men. In this universal opening, the different Christian confessions could not be excluded, which were invited also to participate in the Council to begin a path of friendship. During the first phase it was evident that John XXIII wanted a truly deliberating Council, that would respect all decisions after all voices had been heard and confronted. However, Pope John XXIII did not live to see the end of the Council, as he died on June 3, 1963.
In the year of his death he was awarded the “Balzan” prize for peace and the testimony of his commitment to peace with the publication of the encyclicals Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963), as well as his decisive intervention in the grave Cuban crisis in the autumn of 1962.
Pope John Paul II proclaimed him Blessed on September 3, 2000. In the homily for the celebration he said that of Pope John, “everyone remembers the image of Pope John’s smiling face and two outstretched arms embracing the whole world.”