A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Pope St John XXIII Mystic Pope

By Victor M Parachin

Believing that the position as Cardinal of Venice would be his final service to the church, no one was more surprised than Roncalli when he was elected Pope five years later in October, 1958. In fact, he even arrived at the Vatican for the consistory having purchased a return train ticket to Venice.


Upon becoming Pope, John continued in his determination to be truly a spiritual leader. A month after his election, he wrote, “Nothing has value for history and human life, nothing has any value for the Church and for souls, unless the pontiff is holy in deed as well as in title.”

Though prison officials received little advance warning, they managed to map out a course for the Pope's visit by putting down a red carpet. Almost immediately, John veered off the runway, walking down gloomy and musty corridors. He arrived at one cell block where the most violent were confined and, upon noticing that prisoners were still locked behind bars, said in his loudest voice, “Open the gates. Do not bar them from me. They are all children of our Lord.”

Visiting the prisoners, December 1958

While at the prison, an old man with a lengthy prison record approached John, confessing, “I have made many mistakes, Holy Father.” Bending down to the kneeling man, John wiped his tears away, raised him and embraced him with a warm bear hug, consoling the man with these words, “I looked into your eyes with my eyes. I have put my heart near your heart.” As some 1,000 prisoners were assembled to meet and greet John, he addressed them as “Dear sons and brothers” telling them his own brother had once been arrested and jailed for hunting without a licence; that he understood why a man might break the law to steal for his hungry family.

His visit was a sensation, not only among the inmates and prison officials, but by the media who were fascinated by a Pope who visited a jail. Later, he wrote in his journal, “... great astonishment in the Roman, Italian and international press. I was hemmed in on all sides: authorities, photographers, prisoners, wardens...”

Because of his age at election – seventy-six – it was assumed he would merely be a transitional or 'caretaker' pope. Though his reign was brief, only five years, it is regarded by some historians as the most important pontificate since the Middle Ages. This is due to his decision to call an ecumenical council of the Universal Church, the first since 1870, and only the twenty-first in the Church's history. 

Unfortunately, John would not live to see his Vatican Council vision realised. From the start of the first session, his health began to fail. Only those closest to him knew he was suffering from stomach cancer. Because of his age, surgery was deemed too risky. As a result, his health continued to decline. He appeared at his window overlooking St. Peter's Square for the last time on 23 May 1963. Shortly after he reassured those around him, “My bags are packed and I am ready, very ready, to go.” Earlier, he spoke of the same readiness in a letter written to his older brother Savero: “My eighty years of life complete tell me, as they tell you, dear Savero, that what is more important is always to keep ourselves well prepared for a sudden departure, because this is what matters most: to make sure of eternal life, trusting in the goodness of the Lord who sees all and makes provision for all.”

Greeting athletes from the Rome Olympics, 1960, above, and the first day of Vatican II, 1962

Pope John XIII died quietly on 3 June 1963. It was the Vatican press office which issued this final bulletin: “He suffers no more.” Outside the papal window thousands in St. Peter's Square began to grieve along with millions around the world. Many times, John XXIII came before groups saying, “I am your brother.”

The world believed him!

Being like Pope St John XXIII

1 Live with a sacred optimism

John practiced a “cheerfulness at all times” and rejected voices of “those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”

Time’s Man of the Year, January 1963

2 Ask others to pray for you

When it became known that John was to be made a cardinal he wrote to his family to share the news requesting: “Ask (God) to make me a good cardinal, a peace-loving and gentle cardinal.” Whenever you face a difficult decision or a major life challenge ask those close to you for their prayers.

3 Curtail criticism

“See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little,” was John's philosophy. Curtail criticism. You'll be happier and so will your family and friends.

4 Practice self-restraint

Follow John's lead - “It is my nature to talk too much. A ready tongue is one of God's good gifts but it must be handled with care and respect, with moderation, so that I may be welcome and not found to be a bore.”

5 Read biographies of spiritual lives

One of the best ways to deepen your own spiritual life is to read about others who are models of spirituality. Pope John loved St. Francis de Sales, calling him the “gentlest of saints” and a “magnificent figure.” He wrote, “I have read his life so many times!”

6 Practice what you preach

In all your relationships, be a model of integrity by practicing what you preach. “I really must make sure that I never tell others to do what I do not try to practice myself,” John noted in his journal.

7 Be kind

This was a lifelong goal of John. “My dealing with others must always be marked with dignity, simplicity and kindness, a radiant and serene kindness.”

8 Observe yourself

John called this an examination of conscience and it was something he did all his life. From time to time, take a deep and honest look at yourself so that any issues may be addressed before they enlarge. After one period of self-study John wrote: “Having made a general examination of my behaviour during these recent days, I have found good reason to blush and feel humble.”

9 Remember you are a role model

We are visible to family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, acquaintances. Be a positive influence. That's the sentiment John expressed: “One learns Christian behaviour in social and economic matters by actual Christian action in those fields.”

10 Don't take yourself so seriously

A few days after he was elected Pope, John's family were granted a special audience. The Roncallis entered the papal apartments timidly and nervously, dropping their gifts. Peasant bread, ham and wine, packed in brightly covered cloths tumbled to the floor. Their embarrassment was eased by John who smiled and said reassuringly: “Don't be afraid. It's only me.” The lesson from John for us: Lighten up. Don't take yourself so seriously.

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