Saint John XXIII
Known for its beauty, art and architecture, one of the grandest structures of Venice is the Basilica of Saint Mark, the saint we commemorate today. Traditionally believed to contain the relics of the Evangelist, the Basilica is the cathedral for the Patriarchate of Venice. It was from here that the Cardinal-Patriarch Angelo Roncalli departed to travel to the papal conclave of 1958 following the death of Pope Pius XII. Although he bought a round-trip ticket, he would not return.
Born of a working class family, Cardinal Roncalli had wanted to be a parish priest, but instead he worked as a papal ambassador for nearly 30 years before being named Patriarch of Venice. Prior to that, he mostly served in administrative and teaching positions. Overjoyed to be able to spend his last years doing pastoral work when he was appointed Patriarch – or so he thought – he was the shepherd of Venice for only five years before he was called to be Pope on October 28, taking the name John XXIII. In two days, on Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church will rejoice as this holy man, along with Pope John Paul II, is canonized and henceforth officially called Saint John.
In 2000, Pope John was declared “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II who remarked, “Everyone remembers the image of Pope John’s smiling face and two outstretched arms embracing the whole world. How many people were won over by his simplicity of heart, combined with a broad experience of people and things! The breath of newness he brought certainly did not concern doctrine, but rather the way to explain it; his style of speaking and acting was new, as was his friendly approach to ordinary people and to the powerful of the world.”
In addition to being remembered as “Good Pope John,” an almost preternaturally cheerful man whose warmth radiated from many photographs on magazine covers, he is mostly known today not so much for his work toward peace and fraternity with separated eastern Christians, his efforts to save Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution, or his magisterial works, but for his prophetic calling of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII died in June 1963, shortly before I was to begin my studies as a seminarian in Rome, but his legacy continued on in that springtime in the Church, which continues to bear abundant fruit.
Nevertheless, it is not for his great popularity or any particular action he took that John XXIII is a saint. What Blessed John Paul said at his beatification applies likewise to his canonization: “In beatifying one of her sons, the Church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made, but rather points to him as someone to be imitated and venerated because of his virtues, in praise of the divine grace which shines resplendently in him.” Both Angelo Roncalli (Pope John XXIII) and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) are saints because of their demonstrated holiness by the grace of God.
As but one example, Pope John did not airbrush his defects. Every day he faithfully conducted an examination of conscience concerning the best way to acquire virtues and rid himself of certain failings, followed by an act of contrition. The practice was high among the “Rules of Life” he outlined for those who want to make spiritual progress.
It may seem strange to speak of possible faults regarding a person’s holiness, but as this newest saint reminds us in his last testament, “My merit is the mercy of the Lord. Lord thou has known all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee.” It is not by our own personal efforts that we are sanctified and saved, but by the divine mercy and grace of the Lord if we will only turn to him in humility and allow him to embrace us with his saving love.