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Catholic Heroes… Pope St. John XXIII

October 6, 2015 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Part 1

Although rare, it is not unknown for a poor man, who had no connections and did not seek to develop them, to rise above all other men in stature and in influence over mankind. Such was the case of the sharecroppers’ son, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Throughout his ecclesiastical career, he was obedient and kind, but firm, to those under him, and quietly went about doing what his superiors expected him to do. Then he became Pope and surprised the world with his leadership of the oldest organization on Earth.
Angelo was born on November 25, 1881 at Sotto il Monte in Bergamo, a province of Lombardy in northern Italy near the Swiss border. His parents welcomed their first son and the fourth child of 14 children. As a young boy, he went to school in their town and then was tutored by a priest of Carvico, about one mile from his home.
At the age of 12, Angelo entered the seminary at Bergamo. There he enrolled in the Secular Franciscan Order on March 1, 1896, and professed his vows the following year, on May 23, 1897. He was 15 years old.
When he was 20 years old he received a scholarship from the Cerasoli Foundation, enabling him to go to Rome and study at Apollinaris. One of his teachers was the controversial historian Umberto Benigni.
There was a brief interruption of his studies when he entered the Italian army. It was not long before he returned to complete his doctorate in theology as well as his preparations for Ordination. Angelo was ordained at the Catholic church of Santa Maria in Monte Santo in the Piazza de Popolo in Rome on August 10, 1904.
Shortly thereafter, Angelo was taken to St. Peter’s Basilica to meet Pope Pius X. He then returned home to celebrate the Mass of the Assumption on August 15, 1904. After this he continued his education by studying canon law — one of the indicators that higher office was in his future. His first ecclesiastical assignment came when he served as secretary to Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, bishop of Bergamo, for nine years. (He eventually wrote a book about the life of Tedeschi greatly prized by Pope Benedict XV).
Both his own family background and this service taught Angelo about the trials and hardships of the working-class families.
Beyond his routine responsibilities as the bishop’s secretary, Angelo also taught patristics, Church history, and apologetics. Then, in 1914, tragedy struck Europe with the outbreak of World War I. When Italy entered the war in 1915, Angelo dutifully obeyed his recall to the Royal Italian Army. He held the rank of sergeant, serving the medical corps and acting as chaplain for the troops.
In 1918, he was discharged, having reached the end of his service. He returned to the seminary in Bergamo where he became the spiritual director of the seminarians. During the little spare time that he had, Angelo founded a student hostel in Bergamo. He also spent much time researching St. Charles Borromeo’s visit to Bergamo. The multivolume result of his work testifies to his thoroughness.
Three years later, Pietro Cardinal Gasparri, the Vatican secretary of state, called the 40-year-old Angelo to Rome. He obeyed the call to Rome to reorganize the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
Four years after that, in 1925, his focus turned to the Eastern Churches when Pope Pius XI appointed him as archbishop of Areopolis — an area on the west coast of the Mani Peninsula of Greece. In addition he assigned Angelo as an apostolic visitor to Bulgaria.
After his consecration, he selected the motto, “Obedience and Peace” as his motto.
For the next nine years, he visited the Catholic communities and also labored to build trusting relationships with the other Christian communities. Bishop Roncalli was particularly visible in the aftermath of the 1928 earthquake that shook Corinth and caused damage with the resulting rise in water. The bishop seemed to be everywhere in his efforts to assist the victims of the quake.
His work with the poor and marginalized of Greek society — as can be expected when doing the work of God — met with persecutions and misunderstandings. These he endured in silence as he grew in the intimate knowledge of Jesus crucified, surrendering himself to divine Providence.
After being appointed apostolic delegate to Turkey on November 30, 1934, he set up an office in Istanbul. After this transfer to Turkey, he was also assigned as an apostolic delegate to Greece. While he lived in Istanbul, he set up an office for locating prisoners of war.
As the persecutions of the Jews in Germany and throughout Europe increased, Angelo also used his influence and position to assist the Jewish underground to save thousands of Jewish refugees. He posthumously received recognition for this work.
In February 1939, he received a letter from his sister informing him that his mother was dying. As he prepared to leave Istanbul to visit his mother, Pope Pius XI died, forcing him to remain at his position in Turkey until a replacement was appointed. She died on February 20 while the Church still mourned the death of the Pope.
Angelo was in Greece when World War II began at the end of 1939. He stayed there at the request of the Vatican. While there, he sought to get news from the prisoners of war to their families. Most of his time he spent helping Jews escape the ravages of the Nazi Regime by issuing “transit visas” and helping them escape the continent. Ultimately, he assisted the Jews and other refugees from Slovakia, Istanbul, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, and Hungary.
Toward the end of the war, on December 22, 1944 Pope Pius XII called Angelo to Rome. The Pope informed him that he would be the new apostolic nuncio to France. His appointment would be difficult during the occupation by the Germans. This appointment, which had been sought by other prelates in the Vatican, also brought difficulties as those who did not receive it mocked him and made cutting remarks that were later published in the press.
When he settled in France, Angelo began the onerous task of persuading those bishops who had cooperated with the German occupiers to retire. Although he took this assignment with obedience, perhaps reluctantly, he came to love France and the French people.
After the end of World War II, Angelo remained in France until 1953 when he was assigned to Venice.
Next week learn about his departure from France and his arrival in Venice as well as his election to the papacy.

+ + +

(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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