Winds of Change

Pope JohnXXIII

On the 28th of October, 1958, the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals was gathered in secret session to elect a new pope to succeed Pope Pius XII who had died October 9th. Among those present was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a cardinal from Venice who had purchased a round-trip railway ticket to return to Venice after the conclave. Roncalli was a month away from his 77th birthday. He himself was surprised at his selection. Roncalli chose “John” as his papal name, the first time in over 500 years that this name had been chosen. Other popes had avoided its use since the time of the “Anti-pope John XXIII” during the schism in the late fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries which resulted in a line of popes in France and another line in Italy.

On his choice of name, Roncalli said, “I choose John . . . a name sweet to us because it is the name of our father, dear to me because it is the name of the humble parish church where I was baptized, the solemn name of numberless cathedrals scattered throughout the world, including our own basilica. Twenty-two Johns of indisputable legitimacy have [been Pope], and almost all had a brief pontificate. We have preferred to hide the smallness of our name behind this magnificent succession of Roman Popes.”

Indeed, the short, pudgy, aging man had been chosen, after the relatively long rule [nineteen and a half years] of Pius XII, as a short-term or interim pope. But most people  under-estimated what the man would do. A small hint came from his compassionate comment to the Swiss guards who carried his papal chair in procession. This was before the use of the “pope-mobile” now in common use by his successors. He expressed sympathy to the tall, strong young men “because we are so much heavier” than his thin predecessor. A larger hint could be found in his work as Nuncio and Vatican Representative between 1935 and 1945 to Greece and Turkey. According to recognition extended by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) on September 7, 2000, during those terrible years of the Second World War, he helped:

> Jewish refugees who arrived in Istanbul and were assisted in going onto Palestine or other destinations by Nuncio Roncalli.

> Slovakian children who managed to leave the country as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s interventions.

> Jewish refugees whose names were included on a list submitted by Rabbi Markus of Istanbul to Nuncio Roncalli.

> Jews held at Jenovats concentration camp, near Staragradiskas, liberated thanks to Nuncio Roncalli’s intervention.

> Bulgarian Jews who left Bulgaria thanks to Nuncio Roncalli’s request to King Boris of Bulgaria.

> Romanian Jews from Transnistria who left Romania as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s intervention.

> Italian Jews helped as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s interventions.

> orphaned children of Transnistria on board a refugee ship that weighed anchor from Constanza to Istanbul, and later arriving in Palestine as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s interventions.

> Jews held at the Sered concentration camp who were spared from being deported to Nazi death camps in Poland as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s intervention.

> Hungarian Jews who managed to save themselves thanks to the “conversions” into Christianity through the baptismal certificates sent by Nuncio Roncalli to Hungarian Nuncio, Monsignor Angelo Rota.

When a group of Jews visited him after he became Pope, John walked up to them and simply repeated the Biblical greeting, “I am Joseph, your brother.” (Genesis 45:4)

Unwilling to be a quiet stop gap pope, with great excitement Pope John called an ecumenical council, fewer than ninety years after the First Vatican Council. Before that, the Council of Trent had finished work in 1563. Cardinal Montini, who followed John as Pope Paul VI, remarked quietly to a friend that “this holy old boy does not realize what a hornet’s nest he is stirring up.” The Second Vatican Council wrought major changes in Roman Catholicism, including a revised liturgy, a stronger emphasis on ecumenical relations, and a radical shake-up of Catholic religious communities.

John received thirty-two heads of state at the Vatican, more than any of his predecessors. He wrote and preached often on the need of peace in the modern world. His magum opus, Pacem in Terris, was published just two months before John himself died in June of 1963.Yet he could grant a papal audience to a traveling circus, and gently pat a lion cub named Dolly, saying “You must behave here. We are used only to the calm lion of St. Mark.”

As a Lutheran, I believe, as my church prepares for Reformation Sunday this weekend, that some of Dr Luther’s criticism of the church of Rome remains valid. All of Christianity must return to the ancient principle of “ecclessia semper reformanda”–”the church always stands in need of reform.”

And I am happy that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to which I belong, commemorates John XXIII on June 3rd each liturgical year. He was wise, holy and loving. Among many other things, he wrote:

“God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances.”


“A peaceful man does more good than a learned one.”

He showed us how.

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