Back on Divine Mercy Sunday of April 2014, John Paul II was canonized. But he wasn’t the only one. There were actually two past Popes canonized that day, and the other is a little easier to forget in the shadow of the tremendous figure of JPII. But Pope St. John XXIII is quite a powerhouse of a saint in his own right.
I remember I was first introduced to this saint when he was still a Blessed, by a priest who was talking about how so many people in our world are deprived of the love their hearts crave. John XXIII, this priest said, was a man who looked deeply at the hearts of the emotionally starved people of our world and met them with the love and kindness they needed.
A Pope of Humble Beginnings
When I think of Pope saints, I typically picture them as they looked later in life, in their splendid role as the leader of the Church. I don’t necessarily think of them as the little children they once were, and especially not as a child in an impoverished family, which was exactly how John XXIII began life.
Born as Angelo Roncalli in 1881, in a small Italian village called Sotto il Monte, he was number four in a huge family of thirteen children. He was the oldest son, and he felt drawn to the priesthood from his teen years.
His parents were poor sharecropping farmers. Later in life he would joke that there are three ways to ruination, women, gambling, and farming; and that his father had chosen the most boring.
Angelo was ordained a priest in 1904, and he expected a life much like the one he had known, serving the people in his poor area of birth as a parish priest for the rest of his life. Clearly, God had something else in mind.
Through Tumultuous World Events
By the time World War I began, Angelo had already been ordained a priest. So when he was drafted into the Italian army, he served as a chaplain and a stretcher-bearer, witnessing a great deal of anguish and suffering first-hand.
After the war, he was named to several high posts in the church, including as papal representative and eventually bishop in various areas of the world where there were few Catholics, like Bulgaria and Turkey.
By the time of World War II, he was serving as Papal Nuncio in France, which put him in a prime position to aid Jews in escaping from the horrors of the Holocaust. His work in saving many Jews helped him become conscious of the Church’s past shortcomings in her dealings with and language toward the Jewish people.
A Brief but Productive Papacy
Angelo was 76 years old when he was elected Pope. Most people probably assumed he would keep the peace for the next few years and die leaving the Church and the world in much the same shape as when his papacy began. But this was not the case at all.
In his first address as Pope, he spoke of his strong desire for world peace and for reunion with separated Christians, in addition to his desire to be a pastoral pope.
Then, he got to work doing what he could to accomplish these things, becoming the first Pope in recent times to make pastoral visits around Rome. The press was astonished to see him visiting children in hospitals and inmates in prison.
But he probably shocked people even more when he announced his decision to call the Second Vatican Council in 1959. The First Vatican Council had been in 1868, and the last council before that had been several centuries prior, so his calling Vatican II at this point was unprecedentedly soon.
In addition to calling this council that changed so much in the Church, John XXIII also established a commission to study the question of contraception, taught on human rights and divorce, and continued the liturgical reform that his predecessors began.
John was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1962, but despite suffering several hemorrhages, he continued working to do good and promote peace, offering to mediate between world powers during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1963, he died after less than five years as Pope.
Well-Loved for Good Reason
Though he’s not exactly a common household name in our current day and age, Pope John XXIII was well-loved and deeply missed at his passing. Around that time, many wrote of his holiness and of the love and warmth he showed in his dealings with others. In particular, one newspaper wrote of his death by showing a drawing of the earth in a mourning shroud, captioned, “A Death in the Family.”
Perhaps his own words best sum up his attitude toward kindness and toward loving others:
“See everything, overlook a great deal, and correct a little,” and “I have looked into your eyes with my eyes. I have put my heart near your heart.”
Pope St. John XXIII, pray for us as we strive for kindness and love like yours.