In a months time two giants of the Catholic Church, spiritual heroes of the 20th century, will be made saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Both served as successors to Peter and both were from working class families who knew struggle and hardship as well as the simple joy of being raised in a poor family. They were of course, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Both of these popes will be canonized on Sunday April 27 of this year by Pope Francis. John Paul II, who served as Roman Pontiff for over a quarter of a century is so well known all around the world – the most photographed man in human history. But John XXIII, having died in June of 1963, only died after he had called the historic Second Vatican Council which summoned the bishops of the world to Rome, yet remains a man who perhaps few today would know for the man and the pope he was.
He was born November 25, 1881 and was named Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli. He was pope from October 28, 1958 to June 3, 1963, having only been pope just over 4 ½ years, though his impact as Supreme Pontiff has surely left its marked and sunk into the consciousness of the Church that formed him.
Pope John was a rotund man and possessed a rather large nose. Appearing as a papal grandfather to the world, he had a tremendous sense of humour. Once while having his picture taken at the Vatican, (and mindful of his place in the prophecies of St. Malachy), Pope John remarked, “The good God has known for seventy-seven years that I would become Pope. Couldn’t he have made me a little bit more photogenic!”
There is a story that often gets credited as coming from other lives, but the truth is it came from Pope John. He had invited a Canadian businessman to have lunch with him at the Vatican and afterwards invited the man alone to accompany him in a stroll in the beautiful Vatican gardens. The guest felt somewhat uncomfortable as they walked for the pope, quite talkative during lunch, was silent as he walked with his hands behind his back. Finally, the Holy Father sat down on a bench and the Canadian tried to make some conversation. He asked the pope, “Your Holiness, how many people work at the Vatican?”, to which the pope replied, “About half of them.”
The current Bishop of Peterborough, Ontario, Bishop Nicola DeAngelis, a former Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Toronto, once shared with me the story of when he was living in Rome in one of their Religious Houses as he was a Religious Order priest of the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception. There was a house rule that anyone from the street who came to the kitchen door was to be given food and something to drink if they asked, but that no one should be allowed into the residence for security and safety reasons.
One day a rather large man dressed in a simple black cassock and carrying a brief case knocked at the door and Fr. DeAngelis answered. The priest asked for a drink of water and when Fr. DeAngelis extended an invitation for the stranger to come inside, the priest replied, “If the street is good enough for strangers it’s good enough for me”. He was given a glass of water, which he drank, and then cheerfully handed the glass back to Fr. DeAngelis and, thanking him for his kindness, went on his way. Fr. DeAngelis never thought any more of it until sometime later when he was visiting Venice and went to Mass at the famous St. Mark’s Cathedral in the square of the same name. As the Mass began and the procession made its way past the worshippers and to the altar, much to his surprise, was the priest he had given the glass of water in the street of Rome, who was evidently, the Cardinal Archbishop of Venice and who later became Pope John XXIII.
In preparation for the eventual outcome of a conclave of Cardinals who elect a new pope, the Vatican tailors always made 5 different sizes of white cassock to be put on by the newly elected pope before he was introduced to the world. However, in the conclave that elected Pope John XXIII they hadn’t counted on one of his size to be named pope. The new pope, with great difficulty, was fitted into the white soutane which was the largest they had. While all those around him were murmuring a thousand apologies for the tight clothes, John said merrily, “Everyone wanted me to become Pope except the tailors!”
Pope Francis is a most warm and kind Pope as we have so clearly seen in this past year. Yet John XXIII had already set the stage for this same kind of gentle and caring affection for all people. Shortly after being made Pope, John XXIII was not accustomed to sleeping throughout the night and would often arise and go to his study to work or write letters. The guards with sabers and clanking spurs would routinely have to change positions as they stood guard outside his door which disturbed his nocturnal paperwork. Finally, one night when John XXIII was disturbed during his office work by the sound of the guards and by one of them who evidently had a cough, he decided he would intervene, and opened the door just as two guards greeted each other at a halt. The two men nervously called out their reports, as they had been trained to do, to which the Pope replied, “Gently, gently. You don’t need to get so excited. It would be better for you both to be home in bed. Better to go to sleep. You don’t need to watch over me; I’m protected by the Holy Spirit.” The guards obeyed and turned around to leave. But the Pope called them back and pressed a little box into the hand of the man nearer to him: “And here are a few pills for your cough. Good night!”
Good Pope John, soon to be Saint, with your large build and bigger smile and the loving care of souls you have always shown, Pray for us. (Fr. Charles)