Yesterday, especially in Rome and his home diocese, Angelo Roncalli was celebrated as a humble man, a quiet man: a man of peace and obedience. Because our readings today (www.usccb.org/bible/readings/060413.cfm) call us to carefully consider how we speak to one another, I am borrowing the following words of Pope Francis as he spoke to pilgrims from Pope John XXIII’s home town on the 50th anniversary of the gentle pope’s death. (Translation provided by Vatican Radio and Whispers in the Loggia).
Dear friends of the Diocese of Bergamo,
I am pleased to welcome you here, at the tomb of the Apostle Peter, in this place that is home to every Catholic. I affectionately greet your Pastor, Bishop Francesco Beschi, and thank him for the kind words he addressed to me on behalf of all.
Exactly fifty years ago, just at this moment, Blessed John XXIII left this world. Those who, like me, [are of] a certain age, retain a vivid memory of the commotion that spread everywhere in those days: St. Peter’s Square had become a sanctuary in the open, day and night welcoming the faithful of all ages and social conditions, in trepidation and prayer for the Pope's health. The whole world had recognized in Pope John a pastor and a father: a shepherd because [he was] father. What made him such? How could he reach the hearts of so many different people, even many non-Christians? To answer this question, we can refer to his episcopal motto, oboedientia et pax: obedience and peace. “These words,” noted the then-Archbishop Roncalli on the eve of his episcopal ordination, “are [in a way] my story and my life.” (Journal of a Soul, retreat in preparation for consecration as bishop, 13-17 March 1925).
I would like to begin from peace, because this is the most obvious aspect – that, which people perceived in Pope John: Angelo Roncalli was a man who was able to communicate peace; a natural, serene, friendly, peace; a peace that, with his election to the Pontificate, was manifested to all the world and [came to be called his] ‘goodness’. This was undoubtedly a hallmark of his personality, which enabled him to build strong friendships everywhere and in particular that stood out in his ministry as Representative of the Pope, which he carried out for nearly three decades, often in contact with environments and worlds far removed from that Catholic universe in which he was born and formed. It was in those environments that he proved an effective weaver of relationships and a good promoter of unity, inside and outside the Church community, open to dialogue with Christians of other Churches, with members of the Jewish and Muslim [traditions] and with many other men of good will. In fact, Pope John conveyed peace because he had a mind deeply at peace, the fruit of a long and challenging work on himself, an effort that has left abundant traces in [his autobiography], Journal of a Soul. There we can see the seminarian, the priest, the bishop Roncalli struggling with the path to the gradual purification of the heart. We see him, day by day, careful to recognize and mortify the desires that come from his own selfishness, careful to discern the inspirations of the Lord, allowing himself to be guided by wise spiritual directors and inspired by masters such as Saint Francis de Sales and St. Charles Borromeo. Reading those writings, we truly see a soul taking shape, under the action of the Holy Spirit working in His Church.
Here, then, we come to the second and decisive word: “obedience.” If peace was the outward hallmark, obedience constituted for [Pope John] the inner disposition: obedience, in fact, was the instrument with which to achieve peace. Firstly, [obedience] meant to [Pope John] something very simple and concrete: performing that service in the Church, which his superiors asked of him, without seeking anything for himself, with no escape from anything that was required of him, even when it meant leaving his homeland, dealing with worlds unknown to him, remaining for many years in places where the presence of Catholics was very scarce. This willingness to be led, like a child, built his priestly path, of which you are well aware: from secretary of Bishop Radini Tedeschi and at the same time teacher and spiritual father in the diocesan seminary; to [his service as] Papal Representative in Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, France; [his election as] Shepherd of the Venetian Church, and finally as Bishop of Rome. Through this obedience, the priest and bishop Roncalli, however, also lived a more profound faithfulness, which could be called, as he would say, abandonment to Divine Providence. He always recognized, in faith, that through that path of life apparently driven by others, led by their tastes or on the basis of their own spiritual sensitivity, God was designing a project of His own.
Even more profoundly, through this daily abandonment to the will of God, the future Pope John lived a purification, which allowed him to detach himself completely from himself, and to adhere to Christ, thus allowing the holiness to emerge, which the Church has [now] officially recognized. Jesus tells us, “Whoever loses his life for me will save it. (Lk 9:24)” Here is the true wellspring of Pope John’s, of the peace that he sowed throughout the world. Here is the root of his holiness: in this, his evangelical obedience.
This, then, is a lesson for all of us, and also for the Church of our time. If we let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit, if we mortify our selfishness to make room for the love of the Lord and to His will, then we will find peace, then we will be builders of peace and peace will spread around us. Fifty years after his death, the wise and fatherly guidance of Pope John, his love for the Church’s tradition and awareness of the constant need of renovation, the prophetic intuition of the convocation of the II Vatican Council and the offering of his life for its success, remain as milestones in the history of the Church of the twentieth century and as a beacon of light for the journey that lies ahead.
Dear people of Bergamo, you are rightly proud of the “Good Pope”, a shining example of faith and virtues for whole generations of Christians from your land. Keep his spirit, continue to deepen the study of his life and his writings, but above all, imitate his holiness. From heaven, may he continue to accompany with love your Church, which he so loved in life, and may he obtain for her from the Lord the gift of many holy priests, vocations to religious and missionary life, as well as to family life and for lay commitment [to service] in the Church and in the world. Thank you for your visit! I cordially bless you.