Obedience and Peace: St. John XXIII

Happy Feast of Pope St. John XXIII! Born in 1881, John was elected the 261st pope in 1958 and reigned until 1963. He is (probably) most famous for convening the Second Vatican Council, which opened on October 11, 1962.

Pope John XXIII is one of my patron saints and closest spiritual friends. As you might remember from my post about St. Claude la Colombiere back in February, there are some saints that we choose and then, somehow, there are the saints who choose us.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about St. John XXIII. I was in my second year at St. John Vianney Seminary and little by little stuff about him was showing up around the seminary, in class lectures, in homilies, and in conversation with brother seminarians. At the same time, my brave priest-formator and rector, Fr. Michael Becker, and I were beginning the long journey of “shutting me up” – that is, of working toward sanctifying my sense of humor and speech. Shocker alert: I’m pretty sarcastic. Sarcasm can be helpful and funny, but attached to negativity and a spirit of complaining pessimism, sarcasm becomes public enemy #1 to healthy ministry.

One day I was reading about John XXIII and about how funny he was. He was known for his joviality and for telling lots of jokes. He was once asked how many people work in the Vatican; his response? “About half.” One time he was visiting Holy Spirit Hospital near the Vatican in Rome; upon meeting the Mother Superior of the sisters who ran the hospital, Mother said, “Welcome Holy Father, I am the Superior of the Holy Spirit.” J23 replied, “My, my! I am merely the Vicar of Christ!”

John had found a way to achieve the “sacred balance” for which I yearned: he was holy, he was funny, and his words were effective in spreading the message of Christ and his Church. Who was this man, and how could I be like him?

In 2013, I began reading his diary, Journal of a Soul, which is a fascinating and utterly unique document; possibly the only of its kind in the history of the Church. It is the autobiographical account of a high school seminarian who became pope. The diary’s dates are 1895 to 1962; the entirety of his ecclesiastical life and spiritual growth. There’s a reason I’ve been reading this precious book for more than 3 years and still am only halfway through it.

The diary tells the story of a prideful, loudmouthed, sensitive 14 year old boy who was tired of getting yelled at by his seminary superiors and the old ladies in his native town of Bergamo; it tells the story of a young man who didn’t believe he had what it takes to be a priest or even a faithful man of God; it tells the story of a young seminarian in Rome overwhelmed with his studies and who felt far from God; it tells the story of the young priest who lamented the onslaught of World War I and its effects on the Church and the people of God; it tells so many stories, he tells so many stories, that help show the secret of his life and his sanctity: he was utterly a human being, radically in love with Jesus Christ, and completely disposed to doing the will of God no matter what.

His episcopal motto says it all: “Obedience and Peace.”

Through the intercession of John XXIII and Mary, my mother and queen, may I become a good and holy priest, in love with the transforming fire and presence of Jesus Christ in my heart. May his prayers assist me in my resolve to achieve Holy Humor and Efficacious Speech for the building up of the kingdom of God. May his example and prayers help me to know that I am loved by God, that these tribulations too shall pass, and that only by the grace of God do I live.

Here’s his prayer that I have made my own:

“O Lord, I offer you this precious chalice of my soul, hallowed by your anointing. Fill it with your strength which made the apostles, martyrs, and confessors. Make use of me in something good, noble, and great for you, for the Church, and for the souls of many. I live only, I wish to live only for this.” (Journal of a Soul, 185)

Now this:

“For the rest, let us proceed with confidence. A life of piety in the most profound theological sense of the word: a life of sacrifice. And all the time: joy, gentleness, and peace.

“May the Sacred Heart of Jesus, my beloved Mother Mary, and my good patron saints, who see what I cannot say but feel most deeply in my heart, help me to be strong, good, and faithful…’O God, receive me, thy servant, that I may live, and do not disappoint my hope.'” (Journal of a Soul, 180).

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Obedience and Peace. Amen.