When Angelo Roncalli entered the Sistine Chapel with the other Cardinals in 1958 the last thing he ever expected was to leave that place as the new pope. He was 77 years old. He was not well known, avoided the llimelight as much as possible and, even though a cardinal, was more famous for being "ordinary" than anything else. When he was elected on the eleventh ballot he knew that his brother Cardinals were basically looking for a Papal 'caretaker' for several years. Taking the name John, after his dad, Pope John XXIII surprised not only them but the entire world.
The new Pope had a quick sense of humor, an affable smile and his chubby presence was a beautiful thing. The world came to love him quickly and he was so respected by world leaders that he was deeply involved in the efforts to resolve the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. No one on the planet considered Pope John XXIII 'ordinary' any more.
Pope John is best known of course for calling the historic, Second Vatican Council together. On October 11, 1962, all the bishops from around the world convened and Vatican II was underway. The Pope set the tone for the council when, in his opening speech, he said, "The Church has always opposed...errors. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity."
The "old man" recognized that mercy had to be an intricate part of the reformed Catholic equation. The world was shrinking with advanced communications, commercial jet travel and televisions in millions of homes. Naturally, there were members of the council who thought that the Church was abdicating its sanctity by allowing certain changes. Foremost was replacing the Tridentine Mass of Pope St. Pius V with the Novus Ordo Mass where the language went from Latin to the vernacular. Suddenly allowing lay persons to distribute Holy Communion horrified many but was also welcomed by many. The early church allowed receiving Communion in the hand and this was now once again allowed. Others thought the church needed to be more progressive and ordain women as priests and allow priests to marry. The simple man from Lombardy held their feet to the fire. None of the changes implemented were "uncatholic". They simply allowed the people, especially women, to be able to participate more fully in the life of the Church.
Pope John XXIII was a stretcher bearer in the Italian Army during World War I. During World war II, when he was still Archbishop Roncalli, he helped save over 24,000 Jewish people. He wrote the great encyclical, 'Pacem in Terris', which means, 'Peace on Earth'. In this encyclical he wrote, "That every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life..."
Today is Blessed John XXIII's feast day. He will be canonized along with Blessed John Paul II in April of 2014. I was blessed to have lived during the papacy of each of these great men.
Pope John XXIII