Monday, June 17, 2013

June 17 - John XXIII, Pope, Reformer, Friend of the Sick and Prisoners

On the ninth day of October, in the year 1958, pope Pius XII died from complete heart failure brought about by overworking and taxing himself in service to the Church. The death of Pius XII was entirely unexpected among the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church but soon they were meeting in conclave to select the next pope. Any Roman Catholic man was eligible for selection but there was one man in particular who was considered the likely successor to Pius XII: Giovanni Montini, the archbishop of Milan. The diocese of Milan was the largest Italian diocese and Pius XII had appointed Montini to serve as its archbishop because of a great trust he held for him. But, Montini was not a cardinal and was not present for the conclave. This made the potential selection of Montini uncomfortable for some of the cardinals.Though any Roman Catholic man was eligible-- regardless of vocation, calling, or appointment--it was the usual practice of the conclave at the time to select a cardinal to become the next pope. Wanting to select Montini but unable to do so easily, they selected an older cardinal--Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli--to serve as pope. They expected that he would be a nice buffer between the nearly twenty year papacy of Pius XII and the very likely eventual papacy of Montini. Though Roncalli was selected as something of a stop-gap pope (Montini was selected to succeed Roncalli and took the name Paul VI) he understood it to be a powerful calling with important duties nevertheless.

Roncalli selected the regnal name of John even though it hadn't been used in over 500 years. The last pope to use the name John had divorced himself from the other cardinals and from the pope to select their own pope and establish a different route of apostolic succession. This meant that the previous pope John was better known as antipope John XXII. By choosing the name John, and the number XXIII, Roncalli affirmed the antipapal status of the previous John while redeeming the name for use among future popes. John reasoned that the history and tradition of the name John was greater than that of one antipope who had strayed from the path. In doing so, John insisted that the Church's work was comprised of both confession of sins and redemption. One of his first acts was a surprising one for any pope--let alone a pope who was 77 years old. He made visits to the local prison and children's hospital to provide pastoral care for both the sick and the incarcerated. He laid his hands upon children with polio and lifted them up in his prayers and visited prisoners, insisting, "You could not come to me, so I came to you." From the outset, John established his papacy as one concerned with others and the great commandment of loving others.

In his short tenure as pope--a little less than five years--he also began the process of renewal and reformation within the Church he loved and served. It was at John's insistence that the Second Vatican Council was convened and conversations were begun about how best to reach out ecumenically and how best to approach and address a rapidly changing world. John was unwilling to see his beloved Church fall behind in its calling to love the world and so he sought to renew and reform it. Under John's leadership, the Church began to accept that some things might have been done wrong in the past and that stoic refusal of change was neither Christian nor acceptable. John himself would not live to see the end of the Second Vatican Council but it would be finished under the guidance of his successor pope Paul VI (Montini--made a cardinal by John's efforts). John died on the third of June in the year 1963 having served the Church he loved with devotion and great pride even though he was thought of as little more than a "place holder" at first. Even now he is remembered for his ecumenical efforts and his insistence of the primacy of love and compassion when interacting with the world and those in need.

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