John XXIII, John Paul II and Their Love Affair With Rome

NEWS ANALYSIS: Despite being shepherds of the universal Church, both John XXIII and John Paul II clearly acted as the bishop of the Diocese of Rome. They loved Rome, and Rome loved them back.

John XXIII visits children in a hospital.
John XXIII visits children in a hospital. (photo: ANSA/oldpix)

The churches of Rome are staying open all night Saturday to welcome pilgrims on the eve of the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. The Vicariate of Rome prepared liturgical services in 11 churches and in several languages, ranging from Italian to Arabic and including Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and Polish.

The liturgical office of the Vicariate of Rome prepared three liturgical events of prayer: the Office of the Readings of the Second Sunday of Easter; the Lucernario (skylight), a traditional rite that is celebrated Saturday evening after the sunset, waiting for the light of Sunday to come; and a Eucharistic celebration followed by a time of Eucharistic adoration.

“Every community can decide to follow the vicariate’s liturgical plans or to prepare their own prayerful vigil” said Father Walter Insero, the director of the Office of Social Communications for the Vicariate of Rome.

Beyond the celebrations planned by the vicariate, every parish church will stay open and will welcome pilgrims who want to pray before moving on to St. Peter’s Square to attend the canonizations.

Despite being shepherds of the universal Church, both John XXIII and John Paul II clearly acted as the bishop of the Diocese of Rome. They loved Rome, and Rome loved them back.


John XXIII, Good Shepherd of the Roman Peripheries

John XXIII’s love affair with Rome began on Oct. 28, 1958, the first day of his pontificate. He had already decided that Msgr. Domenico Tardini would be his secretary of state and, in conversation with him at one point, John said: “My aim will be to foster the first service to which I was called by the Lord. I am pope ‘quatenus episcopus Romae’ (as bishop of Rome).”

So the pope decided to celebrate (for the first time in several years) his installation Mass in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral church for the Diocese of Rome, where resides the official episcopal seat of the bishop of Rome. The installation Mass took place on Nov. 23 1958. That day, Pope John’s journey from the Vatican to St. John Lateran was accompanied by a huge crowd showing support for the new pope and seeking personal contact with him. Crowds likewise fill the cathedral-basilica. During his homily, Pope John assured them: “I have come mostly as a shepherd.”

The same words were repeated a few days later, again in St. John Lateran, when the pope gave the inaugural lecture to seminarians at the Pontifical Lateran University.

For John XXIII, being bishop of Rome was about going to the people. At the end of his pontificate, his trips out of the Vatican numbered 152. These pastoral visits were a departure from his predecessors, who didn’t leave the Vatican, yet the journeys outside its walls only increased with his successors.

On Christmas Day 1958, he paid a visit to the children staying at Bambino Gesù Hospital in Rome, which is owned by the Vatican. His visit was such a surprise that some of the children thought he was Santa Claus coming to bring them gifts.

The day after, Dec. 26, 1958, John XXIII went to visit the inmates of the Rome’s Regina Coeli Prison, situated not far from the Vatican.

The Pope told the inmates: “You cannot come to me, so I come to you. … I set my gaze in your eyes; I put my heart close to yours. … The first letter you will write home must report that the pope has come to visit you and took the commitment to pray for your families.”

The offices of pastor of the universal Church and the bishop of Rome merged in a special way on Jan. 25, 1959, the day John XXIII announced the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, the Council was the second point of a three-point program he announced in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls: The last point was the reform of the Code of Canon Law, while the first point was the convocation of a diocesan synod in Rome.

Both as a priest in Bergamo, Italy, and as patriarch of Venice, John made use of diocesan synods, and they were preceded by pastoral visits to parishes. In 1959, he initiated visits to Roman parishes.

That year, during Lent, John XXIII participated in liturgical celebrations in three “Station” churches in the historic center of Rome. (It has been an ancient tradition in Rome to visit a church particularly designated as the “Station” church during each day of Lent).  The following Lent, Pope John attended “Station” churches outside of Rome’s center. He visited nine churches in the suburbs of Rome.

The last of John’s parish visits took place on March 31, 1963, only two months before his death. That day, it took him more than an hour and a half to travel to San Basilio, which is about 18 miles from the Vatican, because he stopped the car so often to bless the people who lined the streets to greet him along the way.

Aside from wooing the people of Rome through visits, John XXIII also exercised his role as Rome’s bishop by moving the offices of the Vicariate of Rome to the Lateran Palace, thus making a “little Lateran town” composed of the vicariate, the basilica and the Lateran University.


John Paul II, a Missionary in the Diocese of Rome

Pope John Paul II’s love of Rome was similar to John XXIII’s in the way he spent time with the Romans in their parishes.

During his long pontificate, he visited 317 out of 333 parishes. The first visit took place on Dec. 3, 1978; the last one was on Feb. 17, 2002. After this last meeting, John Paul II was not strong enough to visit more parishes. But he wanted the parishioners of Rome to go and visit him, in order to stay informed about their activities and to show his interest in their work.

He asked the remaining 16 parish communities to meet him at the Vatican.

According to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who had been John Paul II’s vicar for the Diocese of Rome from 1991 to the pope’s death, “It is possible to outline a true magisterium” based on the speeches and the meetings John Paul II had in the Roman parishes.

This magisterium, Cardinal Ruini stressed, composed “a sort of pastoral program, full of suggestions in the fields of evangelization, catechesis, family, defense of human life.”

John Paul II carefully prepared every parish visit. Some days before the visit, he invited the parish priests and vicars, together with the auxiliary bishop in charge of the area in which the parish was situated and the cardinal vicar, to lunch or dinner. During the meal, John Paul II used to listen to their accounts of the life and problems of the parish he was going to visit, and he used that information to include in his homily.

Many of the visits to the parishes took place during two big pastoral events that marked the life of the Diocese of Rome from the 1980s onward: the 1992 Pastoral Diocesan Synod and the 1985 City of Rome Mission, through which John Paul II wanted to confront the increasing secularization of the Eternal City.

In the parishes, in the most familial way, John Paul II focused all his attention on the Eucharistic celebration, even if the joyful crowds who welcomed him tended to downplay the prayer dimension.


Two Roman Popes

As bishops of Rome, both John XXIII and John Paul II got as close as they could to the people of Rome. This is the reason why Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the vicar general of the Rome Diocese, will be at Pope Francis’ side as one of the first concelebrants of the Mass that will take place after the rite of canonization.

Cardinal Vallini highlighted “the great attention and joy experienced all over the world for these two bishops of Rome who will be proclaimed saints together.”

Now, these saints continue from heaven the work they did as bishops of Rome, calling Rome and the world to holiness.