Feast Day: October 11th
Good Pope John – as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli would be called after his election to the papacy at the venerable, and supposedly leisurely, old age of 76 – did not die on October 11th (contrary to the typical feast-day given to any saint, the day they were “born” into heavenly life). But in the Church’s wisdom, she has chosen a different day on which to recall his saintly life: the day that he opened the Second Vatican Council.
Why another council? After all, it hadn’t even been a century since Vatican I, and besides, 1962 didn’t seem an age filled with heresies, and couldn’t the Pope just invoke his infallibility and declare what needed declaring? The gentle pope explained himself on that memorable October 11th to a packed St. Peter’s Basilica:
What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.– “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia”, Opening Address to the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII, October 11, 1962.
His point was clear: this was a council, not to define something that needed defining, but to engage the Catholic world in declaring anew the perennial truth of Jesus Christ. Several hours later, the exceptional day seemed complete, yet as he began to wind down in the papal apartments, he heard the continued murmur of the excited crowd assembled below in St. Peter’s Square. They were cheering and praying, carrying torches and lights, and celebrating this tremendous moment in the life of the Church. They were so happy to be Catholic, so delighted by their faith, and so wanted to see their papa before they went back home. “I do not want to speak! I’ve already said everything this morning” he wearily disclosed.
But then, unlike any Pope before him, Good Pope John placed upon his neck the sacred stole, opened the window, and waved down at the delighted crowd. He held no text, there were no courtiers flanking him, or Swiss guards protecting him. He dispensed with all formality and just embraced the Catholic world standing below his window. His most famous speech would come in the simple sentences that followed as he looked upon the souls below.
Dear sons and daughters, I feel your voices! Mine is just one lone voice, but it sums up the voice of the whole world. And here, in fact, all the world is represented here tonight. It could even be said that even the moon hastens close tonight, that from above, it might watch this spectacle that not even St Peter’s Basilica, over its four centuries of history, has ever been able to witness. We ask for a great day of peace. Yes, of peace! ‘Glory to God, and peace to men of goodwill.” If I asked you, if I could ask of each one of you: where are you from? The children of Rome, especially represented here, would respond: ah, we are the closest of children, and you’re our bishop. Well, then, sons and daughters of Rome, always remember that you represent ‘Roma, caput mundi‘ [‘Rome, the capital of the world’] which through the design of Providence it has been called to be across the centuries. My own person counts for nothing — it’s a brother who speaks to you, become a father by the will of our Lord, but all together, fatherhood and brotherhood and God’s grace, give honor to the impressions of this night, which are always our feelings, which now we express before heaven and earth: faith, hope, love, love of God, love of brother, all aided along the way in the Lord’s holy peace for the work of the good. And so, let us continue to love each other, to look out for each other along the way: to welcome whoever comes close to us, and set aside whatever difficulty it might bring. When you head home, find your children. Hug and kiss your children and tell them: ‘This is the hug and kiss of the Pope.’ And when you find them with tears to dry, give them a good word. Give anyone who suffers a word of comfort. Tell them ‘The Pope is with us especially in our times of sadness and bitterness.’ And then, all together, may we always come alive — whether to sing, to breathe, or to cry, but always full of trust in Christ, who helps us and hears us, let us continue along our path.– Pope John XXIII, “Moonlight Speech”, October 11, 1962
As he stepped back inside, he took off the stole, and laughed with his secretary, “I did not know what to say. I turned to my Teresina [my ‘little Therese’]”. It was the little flower of Lisieux – her understanding of the kindness of God, and the little chances we have every day to choose love – that inspired the Holy Father on that lovely, moonlit, night of 1962, and on that anniversary every year, we are filled with joy as well as he looks down on us from heaven.
– Fr. Rankin, stepping into his historical shoes this week, notes that just 5 days after these words, another Catholic leader also named John, the 35th president of the United States, announced to a frightened world the presence of USSR nuclear missiles on Cuba. Thankfully, a final John tells us that “perfect love drives out fear” [1 John 4:18], and that is exactly what happened: the crisis ended; Christ remains.