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Des O’Connor SJ

June 2003 marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII. How did people of the day respond? Here is a tribute from that time by Des O’Connor SJ, then editor of the Messenger.

The whole world is mourning the death of a man whom four years ago most of us had never heard of. Because of his position as pope and head of the Vatican State, there would be the usual protocol mourning in any case. But for this man, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, the mourning is heartfelt and sincere.

The city of Richmond, from which this magazine issues, is not one of those pockets of civilisation in which the artificialities of politeness hold any place. Its people are down-to-earth working-class people and its codes and customs are their own. But having the occasion in these last few days to do some shopping in the little shops round about, I was greatly impressed by the sincere expressions of grief for the passing of Pope John XXIII.

Those who spoke to me were not Catholics, but they had a genuinely affectionate regard for Pope John and looked upon him as a great power for good will and peace in the world.

I am sure that the same sort of thing was happening throughout the world. Pope John was a man of the people. In the very first days of his pontificate he entered straight into the hearts of the common people by his simplicity, his jolliness and his completely unaffected sincerity. He thought for himself and he acted independently. He not only did things that we had not been accustomed to see a pope do in living memory, but he also gave to each of these actions a mark of his own particular character.

He visited the jails (‘Since you cannot come to visit me, I have come to visit you’) and, while horrifying the conservative members of his curia, endeared himself to ordinary people by admitting that he had had an uncle who had spent some time in jail for poaching.

He dropped in on the sick and the orphans and visited the places in Rome where its poor live, crowded together in squalor, never bringing with him the barrier of princeliness or the remoteness of the detached social worker. He went as a father visiting the children of whom he was most fond.

He spoke their language and they knew that he was one of them.

They had seen photographs of his brothers and sister and they knew that they dressed much as they themselves did. Their Pope had been in the army as many of them had been, and he was a stretcher-bearer, feeling as much out of place in the army as they did when they were in it.

On a most formal occasion he could joke about his first attempt at reading an English address (‘This is going to be good’). He was always a natural, unaffected man, as much at ease with a queen as with a newsboy. By these things he visited not only those whom he could reach near to him in Rome but he entered into the homes of his children throughout the world and a great many of the homes of those who did not recognise him as father.

If I were asked what quality John XXIII brought to the papacy more than any other, I would say commonsense.

He saw the futility of narrow religious intolerance (‘We must respect the freedom of every person to go their own way. God does’).

He recognised the inescapable unity between Christians, even though many of them may be wandering far from their home, or even attack it from without (‘We must not cease to call them our brothers as long as they say with us "Our Father"’).

He enlarged the College of Cardinals and made them all bishops. He removed where possible the anachronistic accretions of pomp and ceremony which attached to his office.

In four short years, through his warm charity, obvious sincerity and plain commonsense, he achieved more in practical diplomacy for the Church than others have done through years of wrangling and finesse.

He was scarcely elected pope, and already an old man, when he undertook the greatest work of the century and convened the Second Vatican Council. He gave us the great industrial encyclical Mater et Magistra, and in his second and last encyclical, Peace on Earth, he has left us, as if it were his last will and testament, a charter of peace for the world which, if we will only observe and follow it, would remove all those fears and tensions with which the world is most torn at present.

It is no secret that when the 77-year-old Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope on the death of Pope Pius XII, he was considered a stop-gap appointment to take the tiller of Peter’s boat for a few short years till a worthy successor of the great Eugenio Pacelli might be found.

Within ten days, this simple, homely peasant Pope had cast such a gleam of friendship through the earth that the reign of his predecessor was almost obscured. His benevolence reached into the remotest corners of schism and the darkest centres of Communism, and today he leaves a morning for his death beyond the measure of that in any living memory.

(The Messenger, July 1963)