VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said peace was the outward hallmark of Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose death 50 years ago this month provoked an outpouring of tributes from leading Catholic figures.
Others remembered him as a man of prayer, a great historian and a pope with the common touch who liked to be with people.
The Holy Father commemorated the golden anniversary with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica June 3, during which he called on the faithful to imitate Blessed Pope John by growing in obedience to God and self-mastery to achieve peace.
“If peace was the outward hallmark [of Pope John], obedience constituted his inner disposition,” he told pilgrims from the Diocese of Bergamo in northern Italy, where Pope John XXIII was born and given the name Angelo Roncalli.
“Obedience, in fact, was the instrument with which to achieve peace,” he added, explaining how he accomplished it through “long and challenging work on himself” as he pursued a path of “gradual purification of the heart.”
“We see him, day by day, careful to recognize and mortify the desires that come from his own selfishness, careful to discern the inspirations of the Lord,” he said.
Francis stressed that John XXIII’s obedience led him to live “a more profound faithfulness, which could be called, as he would say, abandonment to divine Providence.”
Peace was his most “obvious aspect,” he said, adding that John XXIII was “a man who was able to communicate peace, a natural, serene, friendly peace.”
It was a peace, he noted, that, with his election to the pontificate at the age of 76, was manifested to all the world and came to be called “his goodness.” Such a characteristic was “undoubtedly a hallmark of his personality, which enabled him to build strong friendships everywhere.”
Francis also remembered him as “an effective weaver of relationships and a good promoter of unity, inside and outside the Church community, open to dialogue with Christians of other churches, with members of the Jewish and Muslim traditions.”
Pope Francis also observed how John XXIII’s writings show “a soul taking shape, under the action of the Holy Spirit working in his Church,” that became a “prophetic intuition” when he convoked the Second Vatican Council.
Others also recalled his close relationship with the Holy Spirit and deep prayer life.
Jesuit Father Norman Tanner, professor of Church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University, said he was a “man of prayer,” and his “sensitivity to the movements of the Holy Spirit” led him to call Vatican II.
Father Tanner also noted two other outstanding personality traits of Pope John: “He was a great historian; he had a historical sense,” he told the Register. “He was also good with people — he liked people.”
Some observers, meanwhile, have compared Pope Francis to John XXIII. Msgr. Loris Capovilla, who served as John XXIII’s private secretary for 10 years, said the two popes possess a goodness and mercy towards ordinary people.
The 96-year-old priest remembered the “unforgettable serenity” of John XXIII and the simplicity with which he related to others.
“It happens, too, with Pope Francis,” he said in a June 4 interview with La Stampa. “When he enters St. Peter’s Square, he gives the impression he would like to shake the hands of everyone. [This] is the humanity of God.”
Remembering that, when he was elected, someone described John XXIII as a “pope of flesh,” Msgr. Capovilla said, “This is not a trivial thing, because God became flesh, and now Pope Francis is eloquently showing the same.”
Others have also made similar comparisons.
Soon after Francis was elected, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, said he recognized the same “style, simplicity and goodness” that others saw in “Good Pope John.”
Father Tanner said there are “certainly similarities,” especially in terms of the warmth of his personality. “John was an extremely shrewd and learned man,” he said. “One should never portray him as a simple person, in terms of being naive; he was a genuinely learned person who at the same time combined it with a personal touch.”
Father Tanner, author of Vatican II: The Essential Texts, said he believed John XXIII would have been “very pleased” with the Year of Faith initiatives and the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization — both timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Council.
“It’s interesting that a lot of these conferences [held this year] are being organized by people who weren’t alive at the time, and yet it [the Council] has had a lasting interest,” he said.
In his homily June 3, Pope Francis called on the faithful to “keep [John XXIII’s] spirit, continue to deepen the study of his life and his writings, but above all imitate his holiness.”
Meanwhile, in another interview with La Stampa June 3, Don Battista Roncalli, John XXIII’s nephew, recounted the last moments of his uncle. Among those present at his bedside were his nieces, Sisters Angela and Anna, as well as Msgr. Capovilla, Don Battista and his brother Zaverio.
The Pope no longer recognized them; he was running a high fever. But although he was already fading, he showed signs of life as Mass began in St. Peter’s Square.
“He asked painfully for something, a favor, help,” Don Battista recalled. Eloquently, he said, he asked Zaverio to move aside because he was blocking the view of an ivory crucifix. John XXIII had placed it there since his election, in a special location, so he could see it at every moment of the day.
Zaverio understood the Pope’s last wish right away and perceived on the face of his uncle a last smile as his eyes remained fixed on the crucifix.
John XXIII died at 7:49pm on June 3, 1963, as the sun was setting. The bells of the basilica began to peal, Don Battista remembered, and those gathered around his bedside began to mourn.
The Pope of peace had returned to his Father.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.