Pope John XXIII’s Powerful Spiritual Lesson on the Eve of Vatican II

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father’s pilgrimage to Loreto and Assisi offers an important insight into the significance of the Council he initiated.

Pope John XXIII prays in Loreto, Italy, on Oct. 4, 1962, ahead of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
Pope John XXIII prays in Loreto, Italy, on Oct. 4, 1962, ahead of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. (photo: Courtesy of the Press Office of the Sanctuary of Loreto)

Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, marks the anniversary of one of the most significant pilgrimages in modern Church history. It was on this day in 1962 that Pope John XXIII traveled to the Italian cities of Loreto and Assisi to pray for the Second Vatican Council, whose solemn opening took place one week later.

In comparison to the worldwide journeys of later popes, a trip across a stretch of Italy might not seem like much. But at the time, mainly due to the tense relationship between the Vatican and the Italian government, the Pope had not officially left Rome in nearly 100 years. From this perspective, this journey outside the walls of the Vatican, to the other side of Italy, was a manifestation of the Church that “goes forth” more recently described by Pope Francis.

This going forth was not just the approximately 372 miles that the Pope would travel on that October day. Above all, as in every Christian pilgrimage, the physical movement reflected a deeper itinerary of prayer. From the very moment of announcing the Council, in January of 1959, Pope John never ceased to ask the prayers of the entire Church. The Christian people responded enthusiastically.

In dioceses around the world, countless initiatives of prayer and sacrifice, both individual and collective, were undertaken for the fruits of the coming ecumenical assembly. With his pilgrimage, Pope John — as he commented at the basilica at Loreto — desired to place a “seal” on all of this intense and worldwide petition to God.

At 6:30 a.m. on the morning of that Oct. 4, at the small train station located at the Vatican, the Pope boarded the presidential train that had been placed at his disposition by the Italian government. Throughout the journey, hundreds of thousands of persons enthusiastically greeted the Pope and sought his blessing.

Shortly before noon, under a clear blue sky, the train arrived in Loreto, and the Pope traveled by automobile to the basilica. The papal car took 20 minutes to reach the church, three times the usual duration, because of the great crowd that pressed upon the papal car. One boy — part of a group of orphan children — climbed into the papal car, sat on the Pope’s lap, and offered him flowers.

When he finally reached the basilica, Pope John spent a brief time in prayer in the grotto, where, according to tradition, the Word became flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He then proceeded to the main sanctuary, where he delivered an impassioned speech and prayer to the Mother of God.

In his words, the 80-year-old Pope displayed the piety of a youth. He recalled his first trip to the basilica, at 18 years of age, on the way back from Rome in the Jubilee Year 1900. His soul, as he confessed in prayer before the Blessed Virgin, had not changed with the passing of the years, but rather maintained the same attitude of heartfelt supplication.

At the same time, this intense filial devotion to Mary was more than just a pious sentiment. The Pope’s speech on the occasion evoked some of the key themes of the Second Vatican Council. The basilica, he noted, leads us to reflect on that “connection of heaven and earth, which is the scope of the Incarnation and of the Redemption; and therefore, concretely in the scope of the Ecumenical Council.” The Pope went on to comment on the 30 years of “hidden life” that Our Lord spent in Nazareth with Mary and Joseph.

These years, Pope John noted, evoke the Christian meaning of the family, which the coming Council desired to recall. Finally, the Holy Father noted that Nazareth is also a reminder of the meaning of work in God’s plan. Our Lord’s years of work in Nazareth, the saintly Pope recalled, manifested the supernatural meaning of human work and the truth that all human work, “also the most humble,” has been exalted by the work of Jesus himself.

Hence, for the Holy Father, the Holy House of Loreto encapsulated the mission of the coming Council. Vatican II, like that venerable dwelling, manifested to the world the transcendent meaning of earthly realities, created by God and brought to their definitive meaning in Christ.

After his comments on the significance of the place, Pope John XXIII proceeded to open his heart in fervent petition to Mary, “the first star of the Council,” in the name of the bishops and the entire Church. He asked her to obtain for the bishops the grace to enter into the Council Hall, in the Basilica of St. Peter, just as the apostles and first disciples of Jesus had entered into the Upper Room before Pentecost. He expressed his confidence that, with her maternal intercession, the Council might infuse into the children of the Church a new fervor, generosity and firmness of purpose.

At the end of this solemn petition, the Pope exited the basilica into the main square just outside. In the presence of an estimated 50,000 faithful, he placed two golden crowns — a smaller one for the depiction of Baby Jesus and a larger one for Our Lady — on the “Black Madonna,” the dark wooden statue that presides over the Holy House of Loreto.

Even after these intense moments, the 80-year-old Pontiff’s activity was far from over. After lunch in the pontifical apartment and a parting blessing to the faithful, the Pope boarded the train once more en route to Assisi, where he arrived shortly before six in the evening.

Pope John once again arrived at the Basilica of St. Francis by car, amid the ovation of the immense crowd, the glitter of thousands of torches that illuminated the city, and the ringing of the bells at the church. The procession of Swiss guards, numerous civil and ecclesiastical authorities, followed by the Pope himself, arrived at the lower church as the choir chanted the hymn Tu es Petrus (“You Are Peter”).

There, close to the tomb of “poor and humble” St. Francis, the Pope drew another lesson that would foreshadow Vatican II. He noted the significance of the name of the hill where Francis’ “glorious” tomb was kept: “Paradise.”

St. Francis, as Pope John noted, had taught the path to living well on earth, and thus experience a foretaste of paradise, is to be found in holiness of life.

The Pope asserted that a life of closeness to God, in obedience to God’s commands, was the only foundation for the edifice of civilization; only upon such holiness could justice be realized and peace be built.

Such sanctity, John continued — here once again foreshadowing a key teaching of the Council — was an attractive ideal within all the various vocations of the Church’s life: “in the priesthood, in religious and missionary life, in the multiple forms of the apostolate of the laity.”

Recalling St. Francis’ deep desire to be identified with Christ, and with particular vibration in his voice, the Pope expressed his desire for peace — “in the name and by the power of Christ, Our Lord” — “to peoples, to nations, to families.”

Upon finishing his words, Pope John descended into the crypt to pray before the great saint of Assisi. He then embarked on the return trip to the Vatican, where he arrived shortly after 10 p.m. On the return ride, the Holy Father was once again accompanied by the fervent acclaim of the faithful. Millions more throughout Western Europe had followed the Pope’s historic pilgrimage by television.

Still greater pomp and ceremony lay ahead, a week later, during the Solemn Opening of the Council. But beyond all of the fanfare, the Pope had offered a powerful spiritual lesson for understanding Vatican II, which remains timely. His monumental pilgrimage teaches us that only a prayerful attitude of contemplation, rooted in the Church’s age-old Tradition, can allow us to truly receive the Council’s message of renewal and allow this renewal to be a reality today.