Fifty-five years ago today, on June 3, 1963, Pope John XXIII died. This rotund pope seemed more like an Italian peasant than the Pope of Rome. In fact, he saw himself as a shepherd.
Faced by many “prophets of gloom,” he called for a new ecumenical council, to open up the church to respond to the needs of the world. The Second Vatican Council convened in 1962 and continued after his death until 1965, bringing a renewed Church in contact with a world filled with pain and suffering.
Responding to the needs of all the world, Pope John wrote two important encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, facing the challenges of poverty and war. These were not mere social treatises, though some tried to dismiss them as such. They were reflections of his faith. As he wrote in Pacem in Terris, 164-165,
“Every believer in this world of ours must be a spark of light, a center of love, a vivifying leaven amidst [their] fellow human beings; and [they] will be this all the more perfectly [they] live in communion with God and in the intimacy of [their] soul[s].
“In fact, there can be no peace between human beings, unless there is peace within each of them, unless, that is, each one builds up within [themselves] the order wished by God.”
For him the church was called to be the leaven of God’s love in the world, not condemning but showing God’s loving mercy to all. As he said, “the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”
In this the poor were to have a central role. “The church is and desires to be the church of all, but principally the church of the poor.”
In many ways, I see Pope Francis as trying to live out the heritage of Saint John XXIII, opening the doors of mercy to all, especially the poor.
Saint John, pray for us.