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Saint John XXIII and the Sublime Grace of Apostleship


“Men are like wine; some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.” ~ Saint John XXIII

The quote I chose to kick off this Reflection, spoken by the man whose Memorial we celebrate today, isn’t particularly relevant to today’s Readings (Romans 1:1-7 & Luke 11:29-32) yet it does in fact shed light on the wit, wisdom, and humor of Saint John XXIII. These qualities would serve him well given the task he would embark upon on a fall day in October of 1958. This task was to call the ecumenical council that would go on to be known as Vatican II.

A man of humble origins, John XXIII was by his own admission “Born poor, but of honored and humble people,” going on to conclude that “I am particularly proud to die poor.” Throughout his storied life he spearheaded countless church programs, perhaps most notably The Society for the Propagation of the Faith. He saved thousands of Jews during WWII, was dubbed The Righteous Gentile, Nuncio in France, and Apostolic delegate to Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Despite these and the many other noteworthy achievements he accomplished as a young priest, he would often say “The feelings of my smallness and my nothingness always kept me good company.”

It was in 1958 that he was rather unexpectedly elected Pope. “Anybody can be Pope,” he once quipped, “the proof of this,” he’d go on to say, “is that I have become one.” Never one to take himself too seriously, he once told a reporter “It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.”

As previously mentioned, Vatican II was called in 1962, October 11th to be precise, thus the reason today was chosen for John XXIII’s Feast Day. “The council now beginning rises in the Church like the daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light,” he would say in the address that would usher in this seminal event.

But “The Good Pope,” as he was affectionately called, would not live to see his vision come to fruition, succumbing to stomach cancer in 1963. “Here I am at the end of the road and at the top of the heap,” he would say in the waning moments of his life, lamentation and irony dripping from his words as he passed the baton to the recently canonized Pope Paul VI, who would bring the council to its conclusion on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th, 1965.

Today we begin what will be a four week journey through Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Romans 1:1-7). Sixteen chapters long and by far his most theologically rich letter, Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome that he hopes to visit soon. The letter opens with these words: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus called to be an Apostle…” Paul did not choose his vocation. Much like Saint John XXIII, God chose him for the task. He stepped up to it.

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We are all called to be holy, of this we can be sure. As Saint John XXIII put it, “Every Christian must be convinced of his fundamental and vital duty of bearing witness to the truth in which he believes and the grace that has transformed him.” Whereas the virtues of zeal, passion and fortitude were etched upon Saint Paul’s calling card, John XXIII played to his own unique strengths in tending to his flock, those of humility, humor, compassion and vision among others. In order for Christ’s Mystical Body to thrive, it needs each sublimely unique part working in concert with the others. “Christ's flock is made up of sheep that not only listen to their shepherd, but are also able to recognize his voice,” then-Pope John XXIII once proclaimed during his Papal Address, “to follow him, faithfully and with full awareness, on the pastures of eternal life.”

“Through him (Jesus) we have received the grace of apostleship,” Paul goes on to say in the beginning of his Letter to the Romans, “to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles,among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.

I leave you with a final quote from our 261st Pope, one which underscores his firm belief in each person’s call to cultivate the grace of apostleship. He said “In this world of ours, every believer must be a spark of light, a center of love, a vivifying ferment for the mass; and it will be that all the more as, in the depths of his being, he lives in communion with God.”

Saint John XXIII, pray for us.

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