|Bronze statue of John XXIII, Italia (G,.Watt)
I am old enough to remember when Pope Pius XII died and Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope. He took the name John XXIII. Someone remarked to me on seeing him for the first time: “He looks like a butcher!” Unlike the formal demeanor of Pius XII who seemed to have been carved out of a narrow block of granite, the new holy father was chubby, had an easy smile and was spontaneous.
When John XXIII announced that he was convening a Vatican Council, most of the bishops of the world were stunned. But, Angelo Roncalli was a seasoned Church diplomat. He had been posted as the Vatican’s nuncio to Bulgaria and then to a similar position in Paris as nuncio to France. He knew what he was doing.
John XXIII said that he wanted to open the windows and doors of the Church to the modern world. It was a leap forward by the Church that few thought possible.
I remember just a few years before John XXIII’s election, a “monitum” had been issued by the Vatican concerning vernacular liturgies.”Monitum” means warning and we (I was a seminarian at the time) were warned not to even discuss employing vernacular in the Church’s liturgy. Every Latin word in all the rituals was considered sacrosanct. But the Holy Father knew that language is the essence of evangelization. That is why the document on the liturgy was the first to come out of Vatican II and it stressed the use of the vernacular in all church rituals.
I was present at the first Mass celebrated in English in the U.S. Msgr. Martin Hellriegel was the main celebrant and the occasion was the opening of the National Liturgical Conference in St. Louis. That day American Catholics caught a breath of fresh air which came through the open windows of the Church of John XXIII.
But it’s not solely because John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council that the Church is celebrating his life at this time. Angelo Roncalli was a warm, pastoral presence. He genuinely lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ, heroically.
A few years ago, I was standing near the tomb of John XXIII. Just in front of the tomb was a man and a boy of maybe 10 years old who I presumed was his son. They stood alone but I heard the man say to the boy as he gestured toward the tomb: “Il Buono Papa,” the good pope.