Fifty years ago today, Pope John XXIII died in the Vatican,of stomach cancer. His dying days were followed by people all the whole world.
This “roly-poly” Pope once wrote, “Every day is a good day to be born. Every day is a good day to die.”
He was beloved by many, not only for his efforts to open up the church and his outreach to non-Catholics, but also for being a true shepherd. He visited hospitals and prisons, telling inmates not to worry since he had two cousins who had spent time in prison and survived.
He beamed joy and seems to have had a sense of humor.
Once asked how many people work in the Vatican, he replied, “About half.”
On his deathbed he was asked how he was feeling. “Like St. Lawrence on the grill,” he noted.
Despite the hesitancy of the Roman Curia, he convoked an ecumenical council, Vatican II, to bring the Church up to date. He never saw his work finished, dying after the first session has ended.
He released two important encyclicals on social issues and peace, Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, that challenged many Catholics in the call for human rights, for disarmament, and for respect for working people and women.
He called for the Church to be “the Church of the poor” – similar to Pope Francis’s call for the church to be “a poor Church, a Church for the poor.”
His final message to the church, from his deathbed, reveals his spirit and is challenge to all people of faith:
Now more than ever, certainly more than in past centuries, our intention is to serve people as such and not only Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person and not only those of the Catholic Church it is not the Gospel that changes; it is we who begin to understand it better…. The moment has arrived when we must recognize the signs of the times, seize the opportunity, and look far abroad.
May his life inspire us today to look beyond ourselves, to be people open to God’s Spirit, blowing where it will.