The twentieth century was an amazing century. Life changed dramatically during those years, mostly for the good. Diseases like polio and smallpox were conquered. People could travel across the world in a day on airplanes and communicate with each other in seconds on the Internet and the telephone.
But not everything was great in the twentieth century. It was a century filled with horrible wars that killed millions and with evil leaders—like Stalin in Russia, Mao in China, and Hitler in Germany—who slaughtered tens of millions of people, too. Technology brought us wonderful inventions that made life easier and more fun, but it also brought us weapons that could wipe out half the earth, if they were ever used.
With so much possibility for good and evil, the twentieth century was a time that needed good leaders who could look at the past, present, and future and make good, prudent decisions. Even the church needed leaders like that. Just when we needed it most, God gave us a gift: Pope John XXIII, who was pope for only a short time (1959 to 1963) but who had an amazing impact on the church and the entire world.
Of course, John XXIII was not the name he was born with. His parents named him Angelo—Angelo Roncalli, born in 1881 in the northern part of Italy. His family farmed for a living, and Angelo was the oldest boy of twelve brothers and sisters.
When he was a teenager, Angelo decided he wanted to be a priest. He studied in the seminary, where he was most interested in the history of the church. After he was ordained a priest, Angelo expected nothing more out of the rest of his life than that of a normal parish priest back in the part of Italy where he’d grown up. It was what he knew and what he thought God was calling him to. But very soon, it became clear that God had other plans for Angelo.
Over the course of his career, Fr. Angelo held many jobs, some exciting, some difficult. He was a secretary to a bishop for 10 years. He served as a medical worker in battlefields during World War I, and he never forgot the suffering he witnessed there. He represented the church in countries like Bulgaria and Turkey, countries where there were hardly any Catholics, and it was really important to understand and get along with people of different religions.
Finally, when he was 71 years old, Fr. Angelo Roncalli came home. He was appointed to be the leader of the church in the city of Venice, Italy. Fr. Angelo—now archbishop—had come home and, for all he knew, would spend the rest of his life simply tending to the needs of the people of Venice.
But once again, God had something else in mind. In 1958, Pope Pius XII died, and, as always happens when a pope dies, all the cardinals of the church gathered to elect a replacement. Much to everyone’s surprise, they elected Angelo Roncalli of Venice. He was seventy-six years old.
Now, you would think that a seventy-six-year-old man would know his place. You’d think he would settle into the Vatican, sit comfortably in his chair, and just hold the fort until God called him home and a younger, more energetic man could get things going.
Not quite. Angelo—who was now Pope John XXIII—had plenty of energy and plenty of ideas. The time for action was now. The Spirit was calling, and Pope John XXIII, thinking of the past, present, and future, was going to answer
First of all, John XXIII knew that times had changed, and it was time for popes to stop acting like royalty, which they had been doing for too many years. John was supposed to wear a big, jeweled tiara on his head. He wore it twice. When he went from place to place, he was supposed to sit in a special chair that would be hoisted up onto the shoulders of men who would then carry him. Even though John was a large man and being carried would have been easier than walking, he usually preferred to walk.
Reporters had to interview the previous pope while on their knees in front of him. John stopped that right away. He was the bishop of Rome, so he acted like it, going into the city of Rome and mingling with people. The very first Christmas he was pope, John visited two children’s hospitals in Rome, spending time with sick children, something that people could remember no other pope doing before.
John knew that the Spirit had called him to serve the people of God, not to act like a prince among them. But that wasn’t the only thing he knew had to change.
When John XXIII was elected pope, the world was a very different place than it had been even 200 years before. In the past, the church had a lot of power in the world. That wasn’t the case anymore. Nations had much more power than the church and were sometimes using that power to hurt people. John believed that the church needed to speak with a stronger voice so that it could protect all people from war, violence, and poverty.
Other things had changed, too. There were new ways of thinking about the world, ways that had nothing to do with religion or the Bible. Many people had come to believe that the advances of science made faith in God unnecessary. John saw much good in new scientific discoveries, but he also knew that without God we are lost. He wanted to help people who had faith learn how to talk to people who did not have faith in ways they could understand and in ways that would help everyone see the truth of God’s love.
In other words, what John XXIII wanted was to open the church up to the world so that the church could spread the good news of Jesus’ love in a way that made sense to people of the new century. It wasn’t the Middle Ages anymore. It was the twentieth century. John wanted the whole world to be able to hear the Good News in twentieth-century words.
John XXIII had a vision and hope. He made a decision based on that hope and based on the virtue of prudence, a virtue that he spoke of a great deal. John—whom today we call Saint John XXIII—believed that Jesus’ love was for everybody in the world.
He wanted the church to be a strong voice proclaiming that love in modern times to modern people. He looked to the past, present, and future in making his decision to lead the church in that direction.
When we make prudent decisions, that’s exactly what we have to do, too: We should think about the past, understand how our choice will affect us in the future, and listen to God’s voice in our hearts in the present.
Popes and kids—we’re all called to be prudent. We’re all called to be wise!
Image credit: Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, Pope John XXIII by unknown artist, 1959. Public Domain via Wikimedia.