The Ecumenical Journey of St. John XXIII


The new pope is…like the son of Jacob who, meeting with his brothers, showed them the tenderness of his heart and, bursting into tears, said, “I am Joseph, your brother.”

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, seventy-seven years old and newly installed as Pope John XXIII, surprised the crowds gathered for his coronation Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica when he spoke these words directly to them. Rarely had a pope used such personal language before.

Throughout his papacy, John XXIII was full of surprises. And one of his most dramatic surprises was his decision to call a council. And not a council that would condemn heresies, as previous ones had, but one that would instead “prepare, as it were and consolidate the path toward the unity of mankind.” Pope John’s dream for this council was to gather all people – not just Catholics – as one family under the banner of Christ.

Like Joseph in the Old Testament, John XXIII continually reached out to people beyond the borders of the Church he led. His warmth, wit, and loving manner broke down age-old barriers between nations and churches, and his inspiration for a new council launched the Church on a dramatic journey toward greater unity. “Whenever I see a wall between Christians,” he once said, “I try to pull out a brick.”

Formal and Informal Training

Born in 1881, Angelo Roncalli never wanted to be more than a humble parish priest like the pastor who mentored him in his small village in northern Italy. “I do not remember a time when l did not want to be a priest,” he once said. But as his life unfolded, it became clear that God had a different vision for his priesthood. Step by step, he led Roncalli into ever widening fields of work, where he was exposed to increasingly diverse groups of people. And as he took each step, Roncalli saw more clearly how everyone had the same longing for the Lord in their hearts – a longing that could be fulfilled most perfectly in the context of a living, united community of faith.

As was the custom of the time, Roncalli was only eleven years old when he began his seminary training in his rural home province of Bergamo in 1892. In 1901, he was selected to continue his studies in Rome. This move to the capital exposed him to an urban, cosmopolitan population. Most of the people he interacted with were still Catholic, but from far more diverse backgrounds than the quiet village where he grew up.

A year later, the Italian government called him into military service, a move that took him out of the sheltered life of the seminary and set him in the coarse, rough-and-tumble life of a military barracks. That experience gave him a deeper insight into people from all around Italy: people of different faiths and people of no faith. But he also saw how people from so many different backgrounds could live and work together toward a common goal.

A Love that Binds

Roncalli was ordained in 1904, and after another stint in the military during World War I— this time as a chaplain – he opened a student hostel and taught at his home town seminary. He was also named personal secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Radini Tedeschi. For the next twenty years, Fr. Roncalli worked alongside his bishop, who had a pastor’s heart and a deep concern for those trapped in poverty. Roncalli loved the work and thought he had found the perfect vocation. But then came a series of appointments that took him farther afield than he had ever gone before.

In 1925, after being consecrated a bishop, he was named as the pope’s envoy to Bulgaria, an Orthodox country where Catholics were in the minority. Roncalli was awed by Eastern religious art and often turned up unexpectedly at Orthodox monasteries to pray and to view their treasures.

Then in 1935, he was named apostolic delegate to Greece. This was another Orthodox nation, so Roncalli probably knew what to expect. But he was also named head of the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Turkey, a Muslim nation. Now he had to reach out to people who weren’t even Christian. His 1944 Pentecost sermon, delivered in Istanbul, revealed how much Roncalli continued to dwell on the scandal not only of a divided church, but of a divided humanity. “The central point” of Jesus’ teaching, he said “is the love which binds all men to him as the elder brother, and binds us all with him to the Father.” This was the heart of Bishop Roncalli’s teaching, that Jesus wants “to gather into one, the dispersed children of God.” (John 11:52)

In 1944, Roncalli was appointed nuncio to France and was named the first permanent observer of the Holy See at UNESCO. Then, in 1953, he was made a cardinal and appointed Patriarch of Venice. Roncalli rejoiced in being a pastor again. He was often spotted walking in the streets of the city – and not only in the wealthy neighbourhoods. His visits around Venice made him acutly aware of the poverty that forced many young people to leave the city in search of jobs.

A Council for Unity

Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, and after several days of balloting, Cardinal Roncalli emerged as a compromise candidate between those who wanted no change and those who saw the need for the Church to keep up with the times. If the cardinals thought this elderly man, who took the name of John XXIII, would be a caretaker pope, they quickly realised that they had misjudged him.

Only three months after his election, Pope John XXIII announced his intention to call a council of all the bishops of the Church. Although he imposed no agenda, he made it clear that the purpose of the council was not to change fundamental doctrines, but to present the truth in a way that would speak to the people of his time and advance the cause of Christian unity.

Rather than issue condemnations, which were often aimed at Protestants, Orthodox, and other non-Catholics, John wanted to highlight how much Christians of all denominations had in common with each other. He wanted to encourage Christians from all traditions to listen to one another with respect, to work together for the good of the world, and to celebrate their common faith in Jesus Christ.

It was for this reason that John XXIII took the extraordinary step of inviting to the council representatives from every major Christian denomination. These observers were treated with great respect and were given the opportunity to comment on the Council Fathers’ discussions throughout Vatican II’s four sessions.

Even though the pope never lived to see it, one of the most significant documents that came out of the Council was the 1964 Decree on Ecumenism. In it, the Council Fathers expressed deep regard for Christians of all denominations. They also confessed that in the long history of divisions in the church, “men of both sides were to blame,” not just those who separated from Rome. And since all believers bear some measure of the blame, all believers must undergo a conversion, a “change of heart and holiness of life” that will bring an end to division (3,8).

Clearing away the Obstacles

Throughout his pontificate, John XXIII instituted a number of innovations to help foster unity and reconciliation among churches and cultures. For one, he broadened the College of Cardinals, naming the first Indian and African cardinals. He created a new Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and appointed the first ever Catholic representative to the Assembly of the World Council of Churches. He also welcomed the heads of many churches to the Vatican. For instance, not since the fourteenth century had an archbishop of Canterbury set foot inside the Vatican – until Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher’s visit in 1960.

When once asked about the possibility of Christian unity, Pope John replied, “I realize that it will take a long time. Neither you nor I will be there to celebrate the great feast of reconciliation. Neither will my immediate successors. But someone must begin to clear away the obstacles that stand in the way.” And that’s just what he did.

As he lay dying in June of 1963, Pope John whispered over and over Jesus’ prayer, “May they be one” (John 17:11). He died on June 3, the day after Pentecost, and was hailed as one of the most beloved leaders of the twentieth century. He was canonized, along with Pope John Paul II—another champion of ecumenism – on April 27, 2014.

As “Good Pope John” had predicted, a new Pentecost did descend on the Church, renewing it in ways no one could have imagined. The spirit of unity born of the Second Vatican Council, born in the heart of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, did not die with him. It has animated the Church ever since. May we continue to pray and work for the day when the followers of Jesus finally become one!

Patricia Mitchell and Jeanne Kun, worked for The Word Among Us

Credit: ‘Word Among Us’ – Indian edition.

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