On October 11, we marked the Feast of John XXlll, which is neither his birth nor his death in 1962. However, he officially opened the Second Vatican Council. In his opening remarks at the Council, he said that the Gospel of Jesus had not changed but we have grown to understand it better. The Council opened and the rest is history. We could focus totally on Vat ll but today we focus on the great legacy he left to the world, Pacem in Terris. The depth of wisdom, hope, and love in Pacem in Terris comes from the lived experiences of Angelo Roncalli. Thus, I am hoping to present this tribute to him not as an academic paper but in a way that we can meet the person who was called “Good Pope John,” the loving and tender pastoral pope.
Let us look at the world into which he was born in 1881. Starting globally- there were armed conflicts all over the world. The US is slowly coming out of its Civil War. Our own Dominican Sisters’ Congregation was in its infancy. Italy was engulfed in the consolidation of different states of the Italian Peninsula into a single kingdom in 1861, which directly impacted the Church as all temporal power was appropriated from the Pope.
In the midst of this turmoil, Angelo Roncalli, the fourth of thirteen children was born to peasant parents. Somehow, they were able to send Angelo-their first son, to school. He had the good fortune to study under well-educated, holy teachers. [As an aside…most of us have taught in elementary schools. How often we responded to a child who needed our patience and guidance? We will never know, will we?]
Angelo entered the seminary at an early age and was ordained a priest in 1904 and ten years later when World War I broke out, he was drafted into the Royal Italian Army, serving in the medical corps as a stretcher-bearer and as a chaplain. In his journals he describes the terrible suffering; he was often distraught and inconsolable over the death of so many young men. All this is reflected in Pacem in Terris where he writes, “It no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.” (PT #127)
In short, WAR IS NEVER THE SOLUTION.
In his early priesthood, Father Angelo was secretary to a holy bishop and along with his regular duties, he gave devoted care to survivors of the war. Many never recovered. When called to serve at the Vatican, he was vocal about his views and experience of war. He began to accumulate some adversaries in the hierarchy and was sent to be the Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey where a small Roman Catholic community lived. This was fine with him as he collaborated with Catholics and non-Catholics searching for POWs. He also provided and supported aid centers for many refugees, including an increasing number of Jews, coming into Turkey.
There is a story that you will want to hear that is too good to pass over:
Ira Herschmann was an American Jew from NJ and NY. He was brilliant, especially in networking. He was involved with people in America who were trying to help the European Jews. By now, Ira is high in NY politics and the right hand of Mayor LaGuardia. Somehow, Ira obtains an enormous number of paper documents that look legitimate and if he could get them to the Jewish refugees, they would be able to pass through Turkey to Palestine. He looks at his options and decides that a Catholic bishop (Angelo Roncalli) has direct contact with the refugees. And so, Angelo and Ira team up and help to rescue many refugees.
Word got back to Rome and Angelo was recalled to the Vatican by Pope Pius XII in 1953. To the surprise of many, instead of being reprimanded, he was elevated to serve as the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, where he imagined he would spend his final years in pastoral service. But God had other plans. Pope Pius Xll died, and a conclave was called in 1958. Although Angelo had some adversaries, he was elected pope at the age of 76 on the 11th ballot. Many assumed his papacy would be brief and uneventful until October 11, 1962, when he inaugurated the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. His overall goal was to modernize the Church by emphasizing its pastoral role in a global reality. He named the first cardinals from Africa, Japan, and the Philippines and promoted ecumenical movements in cooperation with other Christian faiths and interreligious dialogue with Jews and Muslims.
Where were you in October 1962? Do you remember the opening of the Vatican Council? I ask because, in October 1962, the world was on the brink of nuclear war as the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted. The world held its breath. The Kennedy Whitehouse reached out to Pope John to “do something.” He responded with a message to the world powers, including the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. And somehow, war was averted, the missiles were removed, and the US promised not to invade Cuba.
Pacem in Terris was promulgated by Pope John XXIII in 1963. After being diagnosed with cancer in September 1962, he drafted this final encyclical as a hope for the future. On Holy Thursday in 1963, calling the encyclical his Easter gift, he died shortly afterward. He addressed the world community and asked God to “illumine the minds of rulers, so that, besides caring for the proper material welfare of their peoples, they may also guarantee them the fairest gift of peace.” (PT #171) In clear, sincere language Pacem in Terris gives a guide to peace and justice for all. True and JUST peace. It encourages a structure of peace built on the recognition, respect, safeguarding, and promotion of human rights. Since its first publication, there have been people, such as Pax Christi and others who have heeded his call, but it is a constant uphill struggle. As we reflect on our world today; we are once again on the brink of nuclear war.
Pope Francis continues to plead with world powers, especially Russia. As we pray for Peace, let us implore Saint Pope John XXlll to pray with us…with Pope Francis, with all people of goodwill; SPARE, O GOD, SPARE YOUR PEOPLE. We repeat this prayer as we thank God for the goodness of our brother—God’s servant and shepherd…Angelo Roncalli…our Good Pope John XXlll.
– Sister Bridget Kiniry, OP
A resident of Dominican Convent, Sister Bridget is a preacher and
coordinator of the Days for Girls program there.