June 3 – Pope John XXIII

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Pope John XXIII, reformer of the Church

Pope St John XXIII (born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, 1881-1963) came from humble beginnings, through a diplomatic ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, to become Pope at the age of 77, from 1958-1963. He was canonized in 2014. Far from being the caretaker in that role which others imagined, less than three months from his election, he called the Second Vatican Council together and presided over its first sessions (1962), Pope Paul VI bringing it to a conclusion after three more sessions, in 1965. Unusually, his saint’s day is not the date of his death, but the day the Council began (September 11). The Uniting Church remembers on his ‘heavenly birthday, June 3, and we grant him the title ‘Reformer of the Church’. His own favourite papal title was ‘Servant of the servants of God’. Many called him ‘Good Pope John’. He charmed people with his gentle sense of humour.

The Vatican Council was indeed a reforming council, well beyond expectation. It benefitted from a century of serious scholarship and pastoral thought across Europe and the Catholic world. He invited representatives of other churches as non-voting observers. There was lively debate on the floor of St Peter’s, and in the coffee shops around Rome. His stated intention was to ‘open the windows [of the Church] and let in some fresh air.’ The unimagined result was change in the whole of the western church. Key documents were composed and promulgated, the first being on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), which propelled the Roman church into relationship with others, defining non-Catholics as ‘separated brethren’.  From dialogue, we have all learned to state more clearly what we believe, what unites and what still divides us as Christians. The Church’s primary purposes and its structures were redefined in Lumen Gentium, including its evangelical mission in the world. The liturgy was radically challenged, vernacular forms of language replacing Latin, word and sacrament given a new balance, and new rites composed. The centrality of Scripture was emphasized and a new three-year lectionary created. On all of this scholarship and wisdom, other churches have drawn on in their own ongoing reforms.

Pope John was a Christian visionary. His passionate sense of humanity was summed up in his remark, We were all made in God’s image, and thus, we are all Godly alike.’ Many of the gains of the Council must be attributed to the gifts of Pope Paul VI, but it was Good Pope John who summoned his Church, and all of us, to reform and renewal in the humble spirit of Christ.

Robert Gribben