By Caitlin Bootsma
Consultant to the VIRTUS® Programs
Listening to the Holy Spirit is a constantly challenging part of the Christian life. The work or ministry that God may be calling us to do is not always easy or what we would have originally planned for our life. The recently canonized Saint John XXIII is, however, a testament to the fact that the Holy Spirit's guidance always produces great fruit. He came from very humble beginnings—no different from the rest of us, but by relying on the Holy Spirit throughout his life, he gave the Church the great gift of the Second Vatican Council.
The teachings of the Second Vatican Council provide us, as educators and volunteers, with inspiration as we strive to care for and teach the children in our care. And yet, this Council would not have taken place if not for the personal holiness of Saint John XXIII. Just as we strive to be a role model for youth, he is a role model for us of how nurturing a relationship with the Lord can change the world.
Indeed, it is not the action of calling and leading a Council alone that got Saint John XXIII into heaven. Rather, it was his relationship with the Lord and his personal sanctity. At the Canonization Mass of both Saints Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis said that they "were not afraid to look upon the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced side. They were not ashamed of the flesh of Christ, they were not scandalized by him, by his cross…" Above any office he was given, or any role he performed, Saint John XXIII was first and foremost a man in love with Jesus Christ.
Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in Northern Italy, he was the fourth of thirteen children, the son of sharecroppers. His humble beginnings no doubt contributed to his later reputation as a Pope of the people, one who often traveled outside of the Vatican walls. During his time in the seminary, he joined the Secular Franciscan Order, just one demonstration of his devotion. As a priest, he held a number of posts, from a nuncio in France to a delegate to Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. He was not elected Pope until 1958 at the age of 77! Many expected that he would do little extraordinary in his papacy. Of course, they could not have been more wrong.
Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. He defined the primary of purpose of the Council saying, "The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously." He did not call the Council to debate a specific doctrine or illuminate one truth. Rather, Vatican II was meant to safeguard Church teaching in the particular context of the modern world.
In his opening address, the Pope reminds us that Church doctrine will never change, regardless of the morals of the wider culture. Yet, the avenues through which the Church will share her teachings should always be up to date with modern society. It is clear that he believed in the Church's mission in every age and the promise that the Holy Spirit would guide His Church until the end of the world.
Pope Francis tells us that it was his openness to the Holy Spirit in calling the Council that made him holy. Pope Francis said, "In convening the Council, Saint John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader, guided by the Holy Spirit. This was his great service to the Church; for this reason I like to think of him as the pope of openness to the Holy Spirit."
Saint John XXIII died in 1962, before the end of the Council, which he himself called. His openness to the Spirit and his wisdom, however, has lasted far beyond his lifetime. The rich teachings of Vatican II are relied upon still 50 years later and will be, undoubtedly, for centuries to come. From the role of Christians in the world to Sacred Scripture to the vocation of laity, the documents of Second Vatican II are an irreplaceable resource for priests and lay persons alike.
His sanctity and his gift of understanding should continue to guide us in our personal faith lives and in our ministry to others. He was not hesitant to proclaim that peace will only be achieved through adherence to Jesus Christ. In fact, he saw the biggest problem that the world faces today is whether or not people choose to embrace their faith. Only when people live faithfully, he believed, would the other crises of our times be solved.
We Are blessed by the elevation of a new saint, a man who loved God and loved the Church enough to call the momentous Second Vatican Council. As we strive to teach children about the richness of the faith and the way it applies to their lives today, let us implore Saint John XXIII to intercede for us.
Saint John XXIII, Pray for Us!