Remember that old, short, fat guy with big ears? His name was Angelo.
Who wouldn’t feel affection for a man who was so comfortable with himself that he constantly made jokes about his physical appearance? When he once met a little boy named Angelo, he exclaimed, “That was my name, too!” And then, conspiratorially, “But then they made me change it!”
Journalists once expressed concern about the many burdens of his office on such an old man — he was seventy-seven when elected! They asked, “Do worries, stress or anxiety given all you have to face ever keep you awake at night?” He answered, “Not at all! At the end of the day I say, ‘God, this is your church. I’m going to sleep.’”
An experienced diplomat, a veteran of ecumenical dialogue, and a gifted pastor and bishop, John XXIII brought a wealth of experience to the office of pope. Blessed with a sense of humor and innate humility, he managed to escape the Achilles heel of all Catholics – conflating the hierarchy with the church.
When making a pastoral visit to a Roman medical center named the Hospital of the Holy Spirit he was introduced to the nun who was the administrator of the hospital. “Holy Father,” she said, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.” “You’re very lucky,” said the pope, delighted. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”
Three months after assuming his office, Pope John caught Vatican bureaucrats off guard by casually announcing his intention to convene an ecumenical council. Curial officers, long accustomed to running things, prepared documents simply reiterating tired old “truths” in the moribund language of ecclesial texts. Entrenched bishops were poised to condemn a whole new syllabus of modern errors.
John gave voice to a different agenda. “The church has always opposed … errors. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” He also hoped the church might reclaim its true identity and vocation as a “church of the poor.”
The pope hardly spoke during the opening sessions of the Council. He made one crucial intervention. After the first previously prepared document was rejected by a narrow majority, but not enough to table it definitively, John directed that it be returned for complete revision. That empowered the assembled bishops to set aside the entire set of draft documents and start from scratch.
His role was simply to “open the widows” for the spirit of Vatican II. Terminal cancer would cut short his participation but not his humor: “My bags are packed and I am ready to go.”
Four and a half years after becoming pope, John dictated a final message from his deathbed:
Now, more than ever, certainly more than in the past centuries, our intention is to serve people as such and not only Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person and not only those of the Catholic Church; it is not the Gospel that changes; it is we who begin to understand it better…. The moment has arrived when we must recognize the signs of the times, seize the opportunity, and look far beyond.
Sound vaguely familiar? As we approach Pentecost this Sunday we do well to remember that this isn’t the pope’s church, it is God’s! For all who would conflate hierarchy with church, the best we could do would be to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit. We should all be starting more fires!
Saint John XXIII died on this day in 1963.
I am indebted once again to Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Times. Crossroads, 1999. p 243-4.
Humor is from James Martin, SJ and more may be enjoyed [here].