It’s an interesting time in the world of official sainthood. The Roman Catholic Church just announced the canonization of two new saints. Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were recently canonized on April 27th. Both of their canonizations were considered a bit “fast” in terms of conferring sainthood. I think it is worth taking a bit of time to look at their lives and ministry for these two well loved pope’s. So, this week and next will feature quick profiles of these newly canonized saints.
This week’s saint is Pope John XXIII.
Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in 1881 in the northern Italian region of Lombardy. He was fourth out of fourteen children in his family who were sharecroppers. Pope John XIII entered seminary in 1892 and was ordained a priest in 1904 after receiving his doctorate in theology. He then began to study church law in Rome along with working as a bishop’s secretary, and teaching church history. World War I broke out and Pope John XXIII was called to serve in the Italian military. He served as a stretcher-bearer and chaplain. After the war he returned to Rome where he was appointed to various posts and served as representative and ambassador of the Church to Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. Once World War II broke out he began working with ambassadors to get travel visas and ending up saving an estimated 24,000 Jews. About the holocaust and his work to save Jewish people, Pope John XXIII was quoted in the Catholic Herald as saying:
“We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognise in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we know not what we did.”
After the war he became a church representative in France and was eventually named the Patriarch of Venice along with being appointed as a cardinal in 1953.
Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958 and Pope John XIII traveled to Rome to participate in the conclave since he was a cardinal. After eleven rounds of voting, Pope John XIII was elected to succeed Pope Pius XII. His papacy was initially thought to be short-term and uneventful since he was 77 years old. This however was not to be the case.
Pope John XIII became one of the first popes in nearly a century to make regular visitation within Rome. He visited children’s hospitals, prisons, schools, and apparently he would sneak out of the Vatican at night to walk the streets of Rome. John would also reform much of the churches teaching about Jews and how they were referenced in prayers and the liturgy of the Catholic Church. He event went so far as to actually stop a Good Friday mass when someone used the term “perfidious Jews” which he had changed. His most famous encyclicals were called, “Mother and Teacher” and Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). In these writings he would emphasize the obligation of nations and individuals to bring about social justice. In Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) he writes,
“Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.”
The most monumental change Pope John XXIII was known for was his calling of the Second Vatican Council on January 29, 1959. This was to be one of most influential councils and would be responsible for bringing much of the Catholic church’s teaching and practices into the modern era. The calling of this council put to rest and belief that Pope John XXIII was going to be a quiet and uneventful papacy. The council would not be completed until 1965, well after Pope John XXIII’s death in 1963.
Pope John XXIII papacy only lasted for four years and seven months, but in that short time he managed to reform the Catholic Church’s position of the Jews, reform the liturgy, call call arguably the most influential councils of the modern era.
I pray that like Pope John XIII we would not be limited by our upbringing, age or the expectations of others in our service to the Church and God’s Kingdom. I pray that we would be willing to confront issues we see and not be afraid to move forward and possibly away from tradition. I pray that we would always have on our hearts the desire for justice towards the poor and marginalized which will ultimately lead to greater peace on Earth.