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Prayers & Devotions

Saint Pope John XXIII

Optional Memorial
October 11



Pope John XXIII was beatified in 2000 by Pope John Paul II; and canonized, on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014, along with John Paul II, by Pope Francis, with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI present. On July 5, 2013, Pope Francis had approved the simultaneous canonizations of Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Pope John XXIII.

Collect: Almighty ever-living God, who in the abundance of your kindness surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you, pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. +Amen


When on October 20, 1958 the cardinals, assembled in conclave, elected Angelo Roncalli as pope many regarded him, because of his age and ambiguous reputation, as a transitional pope, little realizing that the pontificate of this man of 76 years would mark a turning point in history and initiate a new age for the Church. He took the name of John in honor of the precursor and the beloved disciple—but also because it was the name of a long line of popes whose pontificates had been short.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the third of thirteen children, was born on November 25, 1881 at Sotto il Monte (Bergamo) of a family of sharecroppers. He attended elementary school in the town, was tutored by a priest of Carvico, and at the age of twelve entered the seminary at Bergamo. A scholarship from the Cerasoli Foundation (1901) enabled him to go on to the Apollinaris in Rome where he studied under (among others) Umberto Benigni, the Church historian. He interrupted his studies for service in the Italian Army but returned to the seminary, completed his work for a doctorate in theology, and was ordained in 1904. Continuing his studies in canon law he was appointed secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi. Angelo served this social-minded prelate for nine years, acquiring first-hand experience and a broad understanding of the problems of the working class. He also taught apologetics, church history, and patrology.

With the entry of Italy into World War I in 1915 he was recalled to military service as a chaplain. On leaving the service in 1918 he was appointed spiritual director of the seminary, but found time to open a hostel for students in Bergamo. It was at this time also that he began the research for a multi-volume work on the episcopal visitation of Bergamo by St. Charles Borromeo, the last volume of which was published after his elevation as pope.

In 1921 he was called to Rome to reorganize the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Nominated titular archbishop of Areopolis and apostolic visitator to Bulgaria (1925), he immediately concerned himself with the problems of the Eastern Churches. Transferred in 1934 to Turkey and Greece as apostolic delegate, he set up an office in Istanbul for locating prisoners of war. In 1944 he was appointed nuncio to Paris to assist in the Church's post-war efforts in France, and became the first permanent observer of the Holy See at UNESCO, addressing its sixth and seventh general assemblies in 1951 and 1952. In 1953 he became cardinal-patriarch of Venice, and expected to spend his last years there in pastoral work. He was correcting proofs of the synodal Acts of his first diocesan Synod (1958) when he was called to Rome to participate in the conclave that elected him pope.

In his first public address Pope John expressed his concern for reunion with separated Christians and for world peace. In his coronation address he asserted "vigorously and sincerely" that it was his intention to be a pastoral pope since "all other human gifts and accomplishments—learning, practical experience, diplomatic finesse—can broaden and enrich pastoral work but they cannot replace it." One of his first acts was to annul the regulation of Sixtus IV limiting the membership of the College of Cardinals to 70; within the next four years he enlarged it to 87 with the largest international representation in history. Less than three months after his election he announced that he would hold a diocesan synod for Rome, convoke an ecumenical council for the universal Church, and revise the Code of Canon Law. The synod, the first in the history of Rome, was held in 1960; Vatican Council II was convoked in 1962; and the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code was appointed in 1963.

His progressive encyclical, Mater et Magistra, was issued in 1961 to commemorate the anniversary of Leo XIII's Rerum novarum. Pacem in terris, advocating human freedom and dignity as the basis for world order and peace, came out in 1963. He elevated the Pontifical Commission for Cinema, Radio, and Television to curial status, approved a new code of rubrics for the Breviary and Missal, made notable advances in ecumenical relations by creating a new Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and by appointing the first representative to the Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in New Delhi (1961). In 1960 he consecrated fourteen bishops for Asia, Africa, and Oceania. The International Balzan Foundation awarded him its Peace Prize in 1962.

Since his death on June 3, 1963, much has been written and spoken about the warmth and holiness of the beloved Pope John. Perhaps the testimony of the world was best expressed by a newspaper drawing of the earth shrouded in mourning with the simple caption, "A Death in the Family."

John XXIII: A History
by James Hitchcock

published in the National Catholic Register, April 20-May 3, 2014 Issue
reprinted with author's permission

Angelo Giussepe Roncalli was born at Sotto il Monte, in northern Italy, on Nov. 25, 1881, the son of a relatively prosperous peasant family. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Bergamo in 1904 and served as secretary to Bishop Giacomo Maria Radini-Tedeschi, whom he revered.

After Bishop Radini-Tedeschi’s death, Father Roncalli was drafted into the Italian army, serving in the medical corps during the First World War, in which Italy was an ally of the United States. After the war, Father Roncalli served in Rome as head of the Italian office that raised funds for the foreign missions.

In 1925, he was consecrated archbishop of Areopolis and began a decade-long assignment as papal nuncio to Turkey and Greece, followed by nine years as nuncio to Bulgaria. It was here, in countries populated primarily by non-Catholics, that he developed the ecumenical sensitivities that would be so important during his pontificate.

In a surprise move, Archbishop Roncalli was named papal nuncio to France at the end of 1944, just after that country had been liberated from the Germans.

Archbishop Roncalli was perhaps chosen because of his amiability and his talent for defusing conflicts.

In 1953, he was made patriarch of Venice and a cardinal — presumably an uneventful climax to a long life spent in faithful, but largely uneventful, service to the Church.

When Pius XII died in 1958, the Church, having survived 170 years of revolutions, wars and hostile governments, appeared to be stronger than it had been for a long time, and there was no reason to anticipate that the next papacy would be particularly notable.

In many countries, the rate of church attendance was remarkably high, religious vocations were abundant, Catholics seemed very serious about their faith, and clerical scandals were rare.

In the papal conclave of 1958, John XXIII was elected after 11 ballots, which was unusually long for modern times and which indicated a divided College of Cardinals and the selection of a "compromise candidate." John was old for the office (76, the same age of Pope Francis at his election), and conventional wisdom assumed that he had been chosen to be a brief, transitional pontiff.

In a sense, the "style" of the new pope was more important than his specific policies. He immediately effected a revolution in the public image of the papal office, from the pope as ruler to the pope as pastor. Whereas Pius XII was tall, aloof, austere and aristocratic, John was short, stout and informal, given to making jokes at his own expense, and he deliberately departed from papal protocol by the kinds of guests he received — the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and the atheist son-in-law of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

John signaled that he would no longer be the "prisoner of the Vatican," as popes had considered themselves to be ever since the state of Italy seized the city of Rome in 1870. His first trips outside the Vatican were to a prison and a hospital, acts meant to exemplify the ancient papal title of "Servant of the Servants of God."

Before the age of papal world journeys, John broke further precedent when he left Rome to visit Assisi and the Marian shrine of Loreto in Italy.

Because of John’s style, many myths were woven about him, such as that he secretly left the Vatican at night to walk through the city. He was dubbed "pastoral," although he had spent most of his career in administration and diplomacy, and, although in some ways he was a simple man, he was politically sophisticated.

Although he had spent little time as an actual pastor, he had a pastoral spirit, in that he had wide sympathies and saw the mission of the Church as that of providing help to struggling human beings.

He was not theologically sophisticated. His spiritual diary, Journal of a Soul, revealed a man of deep traditional piety. He mandated the teaching of Latin in all seminaries, at a time when it was being phased out in many places, and mandated the inclusion of St. Joseph in the Canon of the Mass after the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had shown no interest in the matter.

He suppressed the "worker-priest" experiment in France and at various times forcefully reiterated the Church’s teachings about abortion, divorce, contraception and homosexuality. He established a special commission to study birth control because he did not want the issue discussed on the floor of the Second Vatican Council.

John began the Catholic ecumenical initiative even before the Council, largely by his personal openness to non-Catholics, whom he addressed as brothers. He established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and Protestants sent observers to the Second Vatican Council. As a papal nuncio prior to and during World War II, John had made efforts to help persecuted Jews, and as pope, he warmly greeted Jewish visitors and ordered the expunging of the term "perfidious Jews" from the Good Friday liturgy.

John’s pontificate was one of the most momentous in the history of the Church, primarily because of the Council, which, to the surprise of everyone, he announced less than a year after his election, at a time when most Catholics had probably never even heard of such a thing. Although Pius XII had considered the possibility, there had been no such gathering since the Vatican Council of 1870 (Vatican I), which had never been officially dissolved. Some of John’s advisers urged caution, but he brushed aside all misgivings.

John announced its goals as "the renewal of the spirit of the Gospel in the hearts of people everywhere and the adjustment of Christian discipline to modern-day living." He spoke of a "new Pentecost" and stated serenely that, since the teachings of the Church were firm and not in doubt, the Council would not concern itself with doctrine, but would be primarily a "pastoral" council.

It is likely that John thought that the "new Pentecost" would build on that firm foundation to bring Christ to the nations, to prepare for nothing less than the conversion of the world, something that required Catholics to put aside the defensiveness that had characterized the Church since the Protestant Reformation.

In his opening address to the Council in 1962, John called on it to take account of the "errors, requirements and opportunities" of the age and regretted that some people ("prophets of gloom") seemed unable to see any good in the modern world. At the same time, he affirmed the infallibility of the Church and said that its dogmas were settled and "known to all."

As Council Fathers gathered, many of them objected to the work of the various preparatory commissions — mainly, members of the papal Curia — that had been set up to formulate the agenda.

John acquiesced in the demands for a new agenda, which was formulated mainly by the Council Fathers themselves. This procedural squabble was in many ways the decisive event of the Council, representing a crucial victory for those fathers who desired changes.

Independent of the Council, John, through his encyclicals, continued the tradition of papal social teaching, expounding Catholic principles as the basis of a good society. His encyclicals were a bid for the Church to play a formative role in the world, and they attracted a great deal of favorable response.

His 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra (Christianity and Social Progress), moved beyond the obligations of charity and insisted that the sufferings of the poor were the result of systematic injustices. Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), in 1963, called on the world to achieve lasting peace by transcending national and ideological differences and affirmed the obligation richer nations have to poorer ones.

John specified that the renewal of the Church should be achieved primarily by the recovery of its roots in the Gospel. But at the same time, he himself used the word aggiornamento ("updating"), which became the favored term of those who measured renewal in terms of accommodation to modern culture and who often tried to claim the pope as their own.

Although it was written after his death (he died on June 3, 1963), Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) in a sense embodied John’s spirit, in that it did not primarily warn or condemn, but expressed sympathy and understanding for a world that possessed an unfulfilled longing for truth and justice.

John also attempted to mediate between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Just as the Council ended, the worldwide cultural revolution called "the ’60s" began — nothing less than a frontal assault on all forms of authority, which deeply affected the Church. John XXIII in no way foresaw the steep decline in religious vocations and Mass attendance, the sexual revolution and the open rebellion against Catholic doctrine that followed his death.

He died after the first session of the Council, when most of its major work still lay ahead. No pontiff had ever been more popular and more loved, recognized as a saint not for his ideas or his policies, but for his charity, humility and piety — one of the modern world’s greatest exemplars of heroic virtue.

James Hitchcock is a Church historian and professor emeritus of history at Saint Louis University.



Sunday, 3 September 2000

1. In the context of the Jubilee Year, it is with deep joy that I have declared blessed two Popes, Pius IX and John XXIII, and three other servants of the Gospel in the ministry and the consecrated life: Archbishop Tommaso Reggio of Genoa, the diocesan priest William Joseph Chaminade and the Benedictine monk Columba Marmion.

Five different personalities, each with his own features and his own mission, all linked by a longing for holiness. It is precisely their holiness that we recognize today: holiness that is a profound and transforming relationship with God, built up and lived in the daily effort to fulfil his will. Holiness lives in history and no saint has escaped the limits and conditioning which are part of our human nature. 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.

I extend my respectful greetings to the official delegations of Italy, France, Ireland, Belgium, Turkey and Bulgaria which have come here for this solemn occasion. I also greet the relatives of the new blesseds, together with the Cardinals, Bishops, civil and religious dignitaries who have wished to take part in our celebration. Lastly, I greet you all, dear brothers and sisters who have come in large numbers to pay homage to the servants of God whom the Church today is enrolling among the blessed.

2. Listening to the words of the Gospel acclamation: "Lord, lead me on a straight road", our thoughts naturally turn to the human and religious life of Pope Pius IX, Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti. Amid the turbulent events of his time, he was an example of unconditional fidelity to the immutable deposit of revealed truths. Faithful to the duties of his ministry in every circumstance, he always knew how to give absolute primacy to God and to spiritual values. His lengthy pontificate was not at all easy and he had much to suffer in fulfilling his mission of service to the Gospel. He was much loved, but also hated and slandered.

However, it was precisely in these conflicts that the light of his virtues shone most brightly: these prolonged sufferings tempered his trust in divine Providence, whose sovereign lordship over human events he never doubted. This was the source of Pius IX's deep serenity, even amid the misunderstandings and attacks of so many hostile people. He liked to say to those close to him: "In human affairs we must be content to do the best we can and then abandon ourselves to Providence, which will heal our human faults and shortcomings".

Sustained by this deep conviction, he called the First Vatican Ecumenical Council, which clarified with magisterial authority certain questions disputed at the time, and confirmed the harmony of faith and reason. During his moments of trial Pius IX found support in Mary, to whom he was very devoted. In proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he reminded everyone that in the storms of human life the light of Christ shines brightly in the Blessed Virgin and is more powerful than sin and death.

3. "You are good and forgiving" (Entrance Antiphon). Today we contemplate in the glory of the Lord another Pontiff, John XXIII, the Pope who impressed the world with the friendliness of his manner which radiated the remarkable goodness of his soul. By divine design their beatification links these two Popes who lived in very different historical contexts but, beyond appearances, share many human and spiritual similarities. Pope John's deep veneration for Pius IX, to whose beatification he looked forward, is well known. During a spiritual retreat in 1959, he wrote in his diary: "I always think of Pius IX of holy and glorious memory, and by imitating him in his sacrifices, I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization" (Journal of a Soul, Ed. San Paolo, 2000, p. 560).

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. It was in this spirit that he called the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, thereby turning a new page in the Church's history: Christians heard themselves called to proclaim the Gospel with renewed courage and greater attentiveness to the "signs" of the times. The Council was a truly prophetic insight of this elderly Pontiff who, even amid many difficulties, opened a season of hope for Christians and for humanity.

In the last moments of his earthly life, he entrusted his testament to the Church: "What counts the most in life is blessed Jesus Christ, his holy Church, his Gospel, truth and goodness". We too wish to receive this testament, as we glorify God for having given him to us as a Pastor.

4. "Be doers of the word, and not hearers only" (Jas 1: 22). These words of the Apostle James make us think of the life and apostolate of Tommaso Reggio, a priest and journalist who later became Bishop of Ventimiglia and finally Archbishop of Genoa. He was a man of faith and culture, and as a Pastor he knew how to be an attentive guide to the faithful in every circumstance. Sensitive to the many sufferings and the poverty of his people, he took responsibility for providing prompt help in all situations of need. Precisely with this in mind, he founded the religious family of the Sisters of St Martha, entrusting to them the task of assisting the Pastors of the Church especially in the areas of charity and education.

His message can be summed up in two words: truth and charity. Truth, first of all, which means attentive listening to God's word and courageous zeal in defending and spreading the teachings of the Gospel. Then charity, which spurs people to love God and, for love of him, to embrace everyone since they are brothers and sisters in Christ. If there was a preference in Tommaso Reggio's choices, it was for those who found themselves in hardship and suffering. This is why he is presented today as a model for Bishops, priest and lay people, as well as for those who belong to his spiritual family.

5. The beatification during the Jubilee Year of William Joseph Chaminade, founder of the Marianists, reminds the faithful that it is their task to find ever new ways of bearing witness to the faith, especially in order to reach those who are far from the Church and who do not have the usual means of knowing Christ. William Joseph Chaminade invites each Christian to be rooted in his Baptism, which conforms him to the Lord Jesus and communicates the Holy Spirit to him.

Fr Chaminade's love for Christ, in keeping with the French school of spirituality, spurred him to pursue his tireless work by founding spiritual families in a troubled period of France's religious history. His filial attachment to Mary maintained his inner peace on all occasions, helping him to do Christ's will. His concern for human, moral and religious education calls the entire Church to renew her attention to young people, who need both teachers and witnesses in order to turn to the Lord and take their part in the Church's mission.

6. Today the Benedictine Order rejoices at the beatification of one of its most distinguished sons, Dom Columba Marmion, a monk and Abbot of Maredsous. Dom Marmion left us an authentic treasure of spiritual teaching for the Church of our time. In his writings he teaches a simple yet demanding way of holiness for all the faithful, whom God has destined in love to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 1: 5). Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and the source of all grace, is the centre of our spiritual life, our model of holiness.

Before entering the Benedictine Order, Columba Marmion spent some years in the pastoral care of souls as a priest of his native Archdiocese of Dublin. Throughout his life Bl. Columba was an outstanding spiritual director, having particular care for the interior life of priests and religious. To a young man preparing for ordination he once wrote: "The best of all preparations for the priesthood is to live each day with love, wherever obedience and Providence place us" (Letter, 27 December 1915). May a widespread rediscovery of the spiritual writings of Bl. Columba Marmion help priests, religious and laity to grow in union with Christ and bear faithful witness to him through ardent love of God and generous service of their brothers and sisters.

7. Let us confidently ask the new blesseds, Pius IX, John XXIII, Tommaso Reggio, William Joseph Chaminade and Columba Marmion, to help us live in ever greater conformity to the Spirit of Christ. May their love of God and neighbour illumine our steps at this dawn of the third millennium!

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