On the 51st anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the feast day of John XXIII, let us recall with affection and gratitude the beloved figure of Angelo Roncalli, the third of 13 children, who was born to a family of sharecroppers on Nov. 25, 1881, at Sotto il Monte in northern Italy. At the age of 12, he entered the diocesan seminary at Bergamo and came under the influence of progressive leaders of the Italian social movement. He was ordained on Aug. 10, 1904, and soon appointed the secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo, learning from him forms of social action and gaining an understanding of the problems of the working classes. He also taught at the diocesan seminary. In 1915 he was called to the army in World War I and served on the front lines in the medical and chaplaincy corps. In 1921 he was called to Rome by the Pope and made director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Italy. He was consecrated archbishop in 1925 and sent to Bulgaria. In 1934 he was sent to Turkey and Greece.
At the age of sixty-four (1944), Roncalli was chosen by Pius XII for the difficult post of nuncio to Paris, where he worked to heal the divisions caused by the war. At age 72, he was made cardinal and patriarch of Venice and he had charge of a large diocese for the first time in his life. Known for his conservatism and deep humanity, he quickly won the affection of his people, visiting parishes, caring for the working classes, establishing new parishes, and developing forms of social action. In 1958, at nearly 77 years old, he was elected Pope upon the death of Pius XII. He was expected by many to be a caretaker and transitional Pope, but he astonished the Church and the world with his energy and reforming spirit. He expanded and internationalized the college of cardinals, called the first diocesan synod of Rome in history and revised the Code of Canon Law.
On the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul in 1959, Pope John XXIII delivered an address to assembled Cardinals in which, trembling with emotion, but “with humble resolve” he called for an Ecumenical Council for the Universal Church and a Synod for the Diocese of Rome. The specific purpose of the council and diocesan Synod were to renew the life of the Church and its teachings and reunite Christians throughout the world.
The Second Vatican Council opened on October 11, 1962. In his opening address to the Council Fathers, Pope John XXIII said,
“In the every day exercise of our pastoral ministry, greatly to our sorrow we sometimes have to listen to those who, although consumed with zeal, do not have very much judgment or balance. To them the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruination. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages and they go on as though they had learned nothing from history; and yet history is the great teacher of life.
They behave as though the first five centuries saw a complete vindication of the Christian idea and the Christian cause, and as though religious liberty was never put in jeopardy in the past. We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of misfortune who are forever forecasting calamity — as though the end of the world is imminent. Our task is not merely to hoard this precious treasure of doctrine, as though obsessed with the past, but to give ourselves eagerly and without fear to the task that this present age demands of us — and in doing so we will be faithful to what the Church has done in the past 20 centuries.”
On that same evening of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Papa Giovanni appeared at his window in answer to the chanting and singing below from a crowd estimated at half a million people assembled in St. Peter’s square. Many were young people who came in procession with candles and singing. His body was already filled with cancer; he was aging and tired, but in his characteristic high-pitched voice, he endeared himself to humanity in what has come to be known as the “Discorso della luna,” the moonlight speech.
“My dear children,
I hear your voices. Mine is only a single voice. But what resounds here is the voice of the whole world; here all the world is represented. One might even say that the moon rushed here this evening. Look at her high up there, to behold this spectacle. This is how we close a great day of peace of peace! “Glory to God and peace to men of good will.” We repeat often this greeting. And when we can say that the ray, the sweetness of the peace of the Lord truly unites us and carries us, we say: here is a taste of what should be the life of all the centuries and of the life that awaits us in eternity.
How about a little more. If I asked, if I could ask, each of you, “You, where do you come from?” The children of Rome who are especially represented here would respond, “Ah, we are your nearest children and you are the Bishop of Rome.” But you , Roman children, do you feel like you really represent ROMA CAPUT MUNDI (“Rome the head of the world”), for this is what in God’s Providence you have been called to be, for the spread of truth and of Christian peace? In these words is the response to your homage. My own person counts for nothing, it is a brother who speaks to you, who has become a father by the will of the Lord ? but everyone together, in paternity and fraternity, and the grace of God, everything, everything ? Let us continue, therefore, to love each other, to love each other so, by looking at each other in our encounters with one another: taking up what unites us and setting aside anything that might keep us in a bit of difficulty.
This morning there was a spectacle that not even the Basilica of Saint Peter’s, which has four centuries of history, could ever have contemplated. We belong, therefore, a time in which we are sensitive to the voices that come from above: and we want to be faithful and to stand according to the directions which our Blessed Christ has given us.
I end by giving you the Blessing. I love to invite to be near me the Madonna, holy and blessed, whose great mystery we remember today; I have heard that one of you has remembered [the 431 AD Council of] Ephesus and the lamps lit around the basilica, that I saw with my own eyes (not in those ancient times, mind you, but recently), and that recalls the proclamation of the dogma of the Divine Maternity of Mary. This evening the spectacle offered to me is one that will remain in my memory as it will in yours. Let us honour the images of this evening! That our feelings might always be just as they are now as we express them before heaven and before the earth. Faith, Hope, Charity, the love of God, the love of our brothers and sisters; and then everyone together helped by the holy peace of the Lord, in doing good works.
When you go back home, you will find your children: and give them a hug and say, “This is a hug from the Pope. You will find some tears that need to be dried: speak a good word: ‘The Pope is with us, especially in times of sadness and bitterness.’ And then all together let us encourage one another: singing, breathing, weeping, but always full of faith in Christ who helps us and who listens to us, let us continue on our journey.”
Blessed John XXIII’s impromptu window speech that night is now part of Rome’s legends. On that first night of the Second Vatican Council, a new era began for the Church. The Holy Father thought that the Council would conclude within months, but instead he was to die before its second session. When he returned to the Father on June 3, 1963, he had won the widespread affection of Christians and non-Christians alike. “Papa Giovanni,” as he was called, endeared himself to millions of people throughout the world. With an infectious warmth and vision, he stressed the relevance of the Church in a rapidly changing society and made the Church’s deepest truths stand out in the modern world.
Beatified in June 2000 by his successor, John Paul II, Pope John XXIII’s feast day has been established not on the date of his death, June 3, but rather on October 11, the opening day of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXII will be canonized on April 27, 2014. His canonization was approved by Pope Francis, without the customary second miracle normally required for sainthood.
For all your words, writings and efforts in this Post-Conciliar Church, let us pray that they be first infused with the deep and stirring humanity of Blessed John XXIII who revived the Church from her historical and ecclesial slumber at a moment when no one really expected it.
You can watch the legendary "Moonlight Speech" here, in its' original Italian.