This past Sunday, April 27, the Catholic Church finally gave a great leader a long overdue honor. Pope John XXIII, architect of the Second Vatican Council, was canonized in a Mass presided over by current Pope Francis. I’ve believed for a long time that John was the greatest Pope of the twentieth century, and that the Church needs another leader like him.
What made John XXIII so great? Let’s start at the beginning. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born on November 25, 1881 in Italy into a working-class family of sharecroppers. Roncalli showed his intellect early, earning a doctorate in theology and receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders in 1904, becoming a priest. He rose up through the Church ranks, becoming the Apostolic Nuncio to France in 1944. During his time as Nuncio, he made many efforts to save refugees from the terrors of Nazi Germany. He played a key role in the liberation of the Jasenovac concentration camp, and helped many other refugees escape German-occupied lands to safe havens.
In 1953, Roncalli became a Cardinal, the highest rank a Catholic priest can attain short of becoming Pope. Just three years later, the nineteen-year reign of Pope Pius XII came to an end, and the College of Cardinals met to elect a new Pope. The Cardinals sought to elect someone who would have a short reign, and thus would be easy to control and would not make many revolutionary moves. Believing Roncalli fit this mold, the Cardinals elected him, and he took the name John XXIII.
John XXIII stands out among Popes because of his personality. Many Popes (especially modern ones) seem overly wrapped up in the pageantry and fame that comes with the pontificate. They dress themselves in elaborate clothing while presiding in churches that are so flooded with gold and historical treasures that they are likely worth more money than the GDP of some small countries. John, with his humble beginnings, did not fit this role in the least. Many Vatican observers were struck by his warm and approachable nature. He also had a tongue-in-cheek, wisecracking sense of humor which endeared him to many as well. For instance, he was walking down the street in Italy after being elected when he passed a woman who muttered to her friend walking with her, “He’s so fat!” John turned to them and said, “Madam, I trust you understand that the papal conclave is not exactly a beauty contest.”
Four years after becoming Pontiff, John XXIII didn’t so much break the notion that he would be a passive Pope as shatter it with a sledgehammer, calling the Second Vatican Council in 1962 (funny note: A Vatican official told him that it was impossible to open Vatican II by 1963. John responded, “Fine. We’ll open it in 1962.”). Vatican II sought to examine every aspect of church policy in a way not done in almost 100 years. The Council was notable for moving the Church into the modern era, with many reforms that democratized it, making it more accessible to the common man. For instance, altars at Mass were turned around to face the congregation so that the priest would face them, rather than turning his back to them. Masses were no longer said only in Latin, but rather in the vernacular language of the region in which they were held. Communion could now be taken under both species (bread and wine), as Jesus had intended. The laity’s role in Church activities was expanded as well.
Sadly, St. John did not live to see its completion, as he died of complications from stomach cancer in June 1963, at the age of 81. John’s successor, Paul VI, was not as strong a leader as his predecessor, and caved on several of the Council’s most radical changes over the next two years. However, the Second Vatican Council still stands as a shining tribute to its architect. In many ways, the Council’s main accomplishments reflected John’s personality, giving the Church back to the people and piercing the “high and mighty” veil that many priests operated under. Unfortunately, this attitude resurfaced with successor Popes, most notably Benedict XVI. I’ve often said that a Vatican III is needed today, as the Church leadership remains hopelessly backward on several issues, including the role of women in the Church, as well its treatment of LGBT individuals and other issues regarding sexuality.
Regardless, St. John XXIII’s accomplishments exceed most people’s requirements for sainthood, which is why Pope Francis decided to bypass the traditionally required second documented miracle in John’s canonization. While I still do not believe he has even come close to the transformative effect John had, I can see shades of his greatness in Francis. I hope that during his reign, he will continue to inch the Church forward into the modern era.