Remembering a Real Patriarch

John XXIII and His Gift of the Council

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By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB

VATICAN CITY, OCT. 10, 2008 (Zenit.org).- This has been the week of Popes at the world Synod of Bishops at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI is present each day in the synod hall listening attentively to hours of interventions and open discussions. [He only missed two morning sessions and one afternoon session this past week due to previous commitments in St. Peter's Square and also in the Apostolic Palace.]

Italians and especially Vatican Italians love anniversaries and commemorations of all kinds. Thursday, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of the now Servant of God Pope Pius XII. And on Saturday morning, Oct. 11, Cardinal Angelo Scola, patriarch of Venice, will preside at a special mass in St. Peter's Basilica with synod fathers and delegates to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the election to the papacy of Pius' successor and one of Scola's Venetian predecessors, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli. Pope John XXIII died 45 years ago this year.

"Il buon Papa," as he is still known here in Italy, was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Sept. 3, 2000, in a Jubilee Year ceremony -- along with Pope Pius IX, Archbishop Tommaso Reggio of Genoa, Father William Joseph Chaminade and the Benedictine monk Columba Marmion (known as Abbot Marmion to his devotees throughout the world.)

An interesting point not known to many people is that John Paul II assigned Oct. 11 as the feast day of Blessed Pope John XXIII, and not his death day of June 3, 1963. Oct. 11, 1962, marked the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII and the Council are forever linked together.

Each time I visit the basilica, I try to pray before the Popes of my own lifetime -- Papa Roncalli, Montini, Luciani, and now Wojtyla. This morning I snuck over to St. Peter's Basilica before our synod session and before the arrival of the multitudes of pilgrims and tourists, to pray before the body of Blessed John XXIII now reposing under a side altar of the main basilica. He left his crypt burial place shortly before his beatification in 2000. His new resting place still draws huge crowds every day.

Several years ago I had signed up to celebrate Mass at the resting place and altar of Blessed John XXIII. A few of our young staff from Salt and Light Television were with me. When we arrived for the celebration, the young Italian priest who preceded me at the altar had already gone "overtime." The priest had a group of young adults with him and they were peering into the glass casket holding the remains of Papa Giovanni. It was annoying to watch them take their blessed time, meaning we would have less time at the altar! We waited patiently, knowing that our group would only have 25 minutes to celebrate this Mass.

As the Italian priest left the altar, he walked over to me and apologized for being late. He then said something that sounded odd. "Sorry Padre, but we don't get to come here often and my cousins and I wanted to just be close to 'zio' for a while!" I remember thinking how strange that sounded -- this guy tried to make up for his tardiness by claiming to be family of Blessed Papa Giovanni!

We went on with our own celebration and it had to be the fastest Mass I ever celebrated. Guards reminded us that we had to be out of there in 23 minutes. When we returned to the papal sacristy and unvested, I signed the register and noticed that just above my name was the signature of a priest named "Giovanni Roncalli." I asked the guardian if this was true. "Certo," he said. Padre Giovanni is the great-nephew of "il buon Papa" and he is in charge of youth ministry in Bergamo!

Il Papa Buono

As time moves forward, today's younger generations really don't know this good and great Pope. I also realized during this synod that for many of the younger bishops present, John XXIII is a name in a history book. Oct. 11, his feast day, is a good opportunity to evoke his memory and legend that still brings smiles to so many people. One of the older "uscieri" in St. Peter's Basilica summed it up very well: "It is as though we never said good bye. Papa Giovanni will always be with us."

Angelo Roncalli, the third of 13 children, was born to a family of sharecroppers on Nov. 25, 1881, at Sotto il Monte in northern Italy. At the age of 12, he entered the diocesan seminary at Bergamo and came under the influence of progressive leaders of the Italian social movement. He was ordained on Aug. 10, 1904, and soon appointed the secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo, learning from him forms of social action and gaining an understanding of the problems of the working classes. He also taught at the diocesan seminary.

In 1915 he was called to the army in World War I and served on the front lines in the medical and chaplaincy corps. In 1921 he was called to Rome by the Pope and made director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Italy. He was consecrated archbishop in 1925 and sent to Bulgaria. In 1934 he was sent to Turkey and Greece.

When he was sixty-four years old (1944), an age when most people are thinking of retirement, Roncalli was chosen by Pius XII for the difficult post of nuncio to Paris, where he worked to heal the divisions caused by the war. At age 72, he was made cardinal and patriarch of Venice and he had charge of a large diocese for the first time in his life. He quickly won the affection of his people, visiting parishes, caring for the working classes, establishing new parishes, and developing forms of social action.

In 1958, at nearly 77 years old, he was elected Pope upon the death of Pius XII. He was expected by many to be a caretaker and transitional Pope, but he astonished the Church and the world with his energy and reforming spirit. He expanded and internationalized the college of cardinals, called the first diocesan synod of Rome in history, revised the Code of Canon Law, and called the Second Vatican Council with the specific purpose of renewing the life of the Church and its teachings and reuniting Christians throughout the world.

In his opening address on Oct. 11, 1962, at the beginning of the Vatican Council, Pope John said, "In the every day exercise of our pastoral ministry, greatly to our sorrow we sometimes have to listen to those who, although consumed with zeal, do not have very much judgment or balance. To them the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruination. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages and they go on as though they had learned nothing from history -- and yet history is the great teacher of life.

"They behave as though the first five centuries saw a complete vindication of the Christian idea and the Christian cause, and as though religious liberty was never put in jeopardy in the past. We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of misfortune who are forever forecasting calamity -- as though the end of the world is imminent. Our task is not merely to hoard this precious treasure of doctrine, as though obsessed with the past, but to give ourselves eagerly and without fear to the task that this present age demands of us -- and in doing so we will be faithful to what the Church has done in the past 20 centuries."

Pope John thought the Council would conclude within months, but instead he was to die before its second session. When he died on June 3, 1963, he had won the widespread affection of Christian and non-Christian alike. "Papa Giovanni," as he was called, endeared himself to millions of people throughout the world.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was a human being, more concerned with his faithfulness than his image, more concerned with those around him than with his own desires. With an infectious warmth and vision, he stressed the relevance of the Church in a rapidly changing society and made the Church's deepest truths stand out in the modern world.

On the night of Oct. 11, 1962, the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Papa Giovanni appeared at his window in answer to the chanting and singing below from a crowd estimated at half a million people assembled in St. Peter's square. Many were young people who came in procession with candles and singing.

His impromptu window speech that night is now part of Rome's legends. In a high pitched voice: "Carissimi giovani, carissimi giovani, Dear children, I hear your voice." In the simplest language, he told them about his hopes for the Council. He pointed out that the moon, up there, was observing the spectacle. "My voice is an isolated one," he said, "but it echoes the voice of the whole world. Here, in effect, the whole world is represented." He concluded: "Tornando a casa ... As you return to your homes, give your little children a kiss -- tell them it is from Pope John." The emotion was palpable. The "patriarch" who was bearing the burden of age and sickness, gave and generated love with all his being.

On that first night of the Second Vatican Council, a new era began for the Church ... an era that continues to bear fruit this month during the 12th Synod of Bishops. The years of work and compromise, countless words and conversations, endless wrangling over documents would both produce and accompany a sea of change in the church. However, for all of the lofty words, words, words and texts that went into the Council, the historic gathering on Oct. 11, 1962 -- the opening night of Vatican II, was infused with the deep and stirring humanity of its author.

On his deathbed in early June 1963, Papa Giovanni said: "It is not that the Gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have ... were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead."

That is why remembering this great patriarch and leader during the synod of bishops on the Word of God is not only a pleasant thing to do, it is a necessity. The philosopher Santayana wrote: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

As we remember John XXIII on his feast day, and behold his bold, daring vision for the Church and for humanity, let us beg his intercession for this synod of bishops that struggles to make God's Word known and loved in the Church and in the world.

For all of the lofty words, documents and texts that will flow from this worldwide gathering, let us pray that they be first infused with the deep and stirring humanity of John XXIII who revived the Church from her historical and ecclesial slumber at a moment when no one really expected it.

Beato Giovanni XXIII, "Zio Angelo," pray for us. Help us to keep the Second Vatican Council alive in the Church today.

Stay tuned for more words from the synod on the Word.

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Basilian Father Thomas Rosica is the Vatican's English-language press attache for the 2008 world Synod of Bishops. A Scripture scholar and university lecturer, he is the chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, and a member of the General Council of the Congregation of St. Basil.