Pope John Paul II paid tribute to one of his predecessors, Blessed John XXIII, during his general audience June 4, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII. John Paul beatified Pope John XXIII on Sept. 3, 2000.
Speaking to more than 20,000 pilgrims who gathered in St. Peter's Square, the Holy Father recalled the evening of June 3, 1963, when a similar crowd of thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square to attend a Mass celebrated for the ailing pope. Pope John XXIII died as the Mass ended.
Pope John XXIII, the Holy Father noted, offered his entire life as a priest for Christ and for his Church. He recalled Pope John XXIII's words: “This bed is an altar; the altar needs a victim. Here I am; I am ready. I offer my life for the Church, for the continuation of the ecumenical council, for peace in the world and for Christian unity.”
John Paul said Pope John XXIII was truly a witness and prophet to the world of God's peace. He pointed out that John XXIII's most famous document was undoubtedly his encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).
“My venerated predecessor, who left his mark on history, also reminds men and women of the third millennium that the secret of peace and joy is in profound and constant communion with God. The heart of the Redeemer is the source of love and peace, of hope and joy,” the Holy Father noted. “May he intercede in paradise so that we, too, like him, might confess at the end of our lives that we have sought only Christ and his Gospel.”
It has now been 40 years since our beloved and venerated Pope John XXIII died, whom I had the joy of beatifying — together with Pope Pius IX — on Sept. 3, 2000.
Instinctively, I think back to Monday, June 3, 1963 — to that afternoon when the pilgrims and faithful of Rome gathered by the thousands in St. Peter's Square so that they could be as close as possible to their beloved father and pastor, who was departing from this world after a long and painful illness.
At 7 p.m., the pro-vicar of Rome, Cardinal Luigi Traglia, began the celebration of the holy Mass in the square of the Vatican basilica while the Pope consummated his spiritual sacrifice — the sacrifice of his whole life — from his bed, which had become an altar.
From St. Peter's Square, where a huge crowd had gathered, the Church's prayer rose up to heaven in one accord. We seem to be reliving those moments of intense emotion when the gaze of all mankind was fixed on the window of the third floor of the Apostolic Palace. The end of that Mass coincided with the death of the “Good Pope.”
His Union with Christ
“This bed is an altar; the altar needs a victim. Here I am; I am ready. I offer my life for the Church, for the continuation of the ecumenical council, for peace in the world and for Christian unity” (Discorsi, Messaggi, Colloqui del Santo Padre Giovanni XXIII, V, p. 618).
“Ecce adsum!” “Here I am; I am ready!” This peaceful thought of death had accompanied Pope John XXIII throughout his life, and, at the hour of his departure from this life, he looked upon the hopes and the future of the people of God and of the world. With heartfelt emotion, he stressed that the crucifix, which he scrupulously kept at every moment in front of his bed, was the secret of his priesthood. “In long and frequent conversations during the night,” he observed, “the thought of the world's redemption seemed to me more urgent than ever.” He added: “Those open arms say that he died for all, for all; no one is denied his love and his forgiveness” (Ibid., p. 618).
It is not difficult to perceive in these brief words the meaning of his priestly ministry, which was entirely dedicated to making known and loved “that which is worth most in life: our blessed Jesus Christ, his holy Church and his Gospel” (Ibid., p. 612). This longing was vibrant in him until the end. “My earthly sojourn is ending,” Blessed John XXIII concluded, “but Christ lives and his Church continues her task; souls, souls: ut unum sint, ut unum sint …” (Ibid., p. 619).
Commitment to Peace
Less than two months before, on April 11, Pope John XXIII had published the most famous document of his magisterium, the encyclical Pacem in Terris, which I have had the occasion to recall several times this year. The entire life of this unforgettable pope was a testimony of peace. His pontificate proved to be a prophecy of peace from on high, which was expressed most fully in Pacem in Terris, which is almost like his public and universal testament.
“All believers in this our world,” he wrote, “must be sparks of light, centers of love, and life-giving yeast for the dough. To the degree that they are, all the more will it be possible for them to live in communion with God in their innermost being. In fact, there will be no peace among men if there is no peace in each one of them” (Part V: Acta Apostolicae Sedis, LV , p. 302).
To be sparks of light, we must live in permanent contact with God. My venerated predecessor, who left his mark on history, also reminds men and women of the third millennium that the secret of peace and joy is in profound and constant communion with God. The heart of the Redeemer is the source of love and peace, of hope and joy.
In this way, our memory of the beloved Pope John XXIII is transformed into a prayer: May he intercede in paradise so that we, too, like him, might confess at the end of our lives that we have sought only Christ and his Gospel.
May Mary, whom he loved to invoke with the beautiful aspiration, Mater mea, fiducia mea!, help us to persevere by word and example in our commitment to be witnesses to peace, so that we might contribute to building a civilization of love.