Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
This past summer I received a gift copy of a recent book entitled Meet John the XXIII, Joyful Pope and Father to All, by Patricia Treece. During my seminary days in Rome Blessed John XXIII was serving as the successor of St. Peter and he had a great influence on many of us who were preparing for the priesthood in those days. We called him “Good Pope John.” Because of all the fond memories from back then, I eagerly began to read this new work about this very holy man.
After his beatification by Pope John Paul II on Sept. 23, 2000, Pope John’s feast day was designated as Oct. 11, the opening date of the Second Vatican Council. I can still remember that January day in 1959 when Pope John went to St. Paul’s Basilica outside the walls of Rome and announced that he was convening an ecumenical council. He certainly surprised many people. After all, it was commonly thought that he would be only a transitional pope since he was elected at age 77. His successor, Pope Paul VI, who was then Cardinal Giovanni Montini of Milan, is reported to have said, “this holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.” I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this statement but I know that as a result of the Council our Catholic world is focused more clearly on her evangelizing mission with the new strategic plan put in place by the council fathers. Most of us see the difference when we gather for liturgy or when we pray with other Christians and people of other faiths.
Those of us who were privileged to meet Blessed John XXIII in his lifetime certainly know how joyfully he went about his good work. He visited our seminary in Rome back in 1959. It was the first time he spoke English in public. He had a twinkle in his eye as he surprised us with his new bold venture. He is also the pope who, when asked how many people work at the Vatican, responded “Around half of them!” But he was also a father to everyone, not just his friends and Catholic people. The much better relations that the church now has with people of other faiths can be largely attributed to his fraternal gestures of love and care for all in his acquaintance.
During this Year for Priests Blessed John XXIII is a wonderful model for all of us priests. He was the firstborn son of his parents and the fourth child in a family of fourteen. He was baptized Angelo Roncalli and his family worked as sharecroppers in northern Italy. He was ordained a priest of Bergamo, Italy, a city I visited with pilgrims of the archdiocese in 2003. One of my special treasures is the pectoral cross purchased in Bergamo for me by the pilgrims.
Before I ordain men to the priesthood, I remind them that the gift of their lives to the church is a marvelous thing. But I caution them not to be upset when the church takes their lives and uses them to serve her own good purposes, not theirs! That is precisely what happened to Blessed John XXIII. He was trained as a historian and worked closely with his bishop, Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, whom he admired greatly. He also taught in the diocesan seminary. He was drafted into the royal Italian army and served in the medical corps as a stretcher-bearer and chaplain. In 1921 he became the Italian president of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and was ordained a bishop in 1925.
He spent many years of his life as bishop in the service of the Holy See. In 1925 he was appointed Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria, where there were few Roman Catholics and many others who were even hostile to the church. In 1935 he became apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece, nations where Orthodox Christians and Muslims prevailed. But he befriended them all and eventually won their respect and admiration. Then near the end of World War II, Pope Pius XII named him Apostolic Nuncio to France. There he was challenged to deal discreetly with the consequences of war and a nation divided between loyalists and those who had collaborated with the occupying Nazi power. His congeniality and goodness once again won the day. Finally, in 1953, he himself became a diocesan bishop as he was named the Patriarch of Venice and eventually was raised to the rank of Cardinal-Priest. At that point in his life I’m sure he was prepared to spend his remaining days of priestly service as a Venetian, but the Cardinals who participated in the papal conclave of 1958 decided that it would be much more appropriate for him to end his life’s journey as a Roman.
Most of us seminarians in Rome hurried over to St. Peter’s Square the evening of Oct. 28, 1958, and we were delighted when it was announced “habemus papam,” “we have a pope!” The announcement that Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice, was to be the new Supreme Pontiff of our Catholic world, was quite a surprise. I was understandably delighted when I learned that he had taken the name John, the first time in 500 years this name was chosen. Pope John had this to say about his choice: “I choose John… a name sweet to us because it is the name of our father, dear to me because it is the name of the humble parish church where I was baptized, the solemn name of numberless cathedrals scattered throughout the world, including our own basilica (St. John Lateran). Twenty-two Johns of indisputable legitimacy have (been pope) and almost all had a brief pontificate. We have preferred to hide the smallness of our name behind this magnificent succession of Roman Popes.”
Bishops nowadays spend much of their time traveling around their dioceses and visiting parishes and institutions. It was Blessed John XXIII who initiated this practice after decades during which the Pope had lived as a “prisoner of the Vatican.” This resulted from much upheaval that took place during the time of the creation of the Italian state and the suppression of the papal states. But good Pope John changed all of that. On Christmas Day the new Pope went to visit children afflicted with polio at the Bambino Gesu Hospital and patients at Santo Spirito Hospital. Then we learned that the following day he visited Rome’s Regina Coeli Prison, where he reportedly told the inmates, “You could not come to me, so I came to you.”
During most of my years as a seminarian in Rome, 1958 - 1962, there was much activity as a result of preparations that were underway for the Second Vatican Council. I recall the visits of my own archbishop, Albert Cardinal Meyer. We Chicagoans were always glad to see him because when he came, he took us along to meet the Pope. Those personal visits with that saintly man touched me deeply. I gratefully recall the audience he granted us newly ordained priests and our guests in December, 1961. My pastor, Msgr. James Hishen, had the thrill of his life when the Pope reached out and greeted him with a broad smile and gracious handshake.
So much more can be written about good Pope John. I recommend Patricia Treece’s book for your own personal reading and inspiration. Another book worthy of your attention is the diary of Pope John’s spiritual reflections entitled Journal of the Soul. It helps us understand how this man of God took seriously the Lord’s invitation we all receive at Baptism to “grow in holiness.” Pope Benedict XVI called this Year for Priests so that we who are your pastors will grow in holiness. I offer Blessed John XXIII as a marvelous model for all of us, priests and people.