Homily for June 1, 2008

Father Tom’s Homily
9th Sunday
June 1, 2008

Angelo Roncalli was born of a poor peasant family in rural Italy in 1881. He became the pope in 1958 (at age 77), taking the name Pope John XXIII. He died in 1963. He was beatified, that is, officially declared “blessed,” eight years ago. So he is called Blessed John XXIII. June 3rd is his feast day, because he died on that date.
This week we honor his memory. He provided an example of holy wisdom described in today’s gospel. Jesus says: “Everyone who listens to my words and acts on them will be like the wise man who built his house on rock.”

Pope John was universally recognized as a very humble man, who had a warm love for people, great pastoral wisdom and a wonderful sense of humor.
To the dismay of some of the officials in the Vatican after his election as pope, John displayed a carefree sense of his own dignity.

He could be seen at times taking a walk in the neighborhood near the Vatican. For this reason, some press reports took to calling him “Johnny Walker.”
On some of his walks he dropped in to visit prisoners at the Regina Coeli prison which just down the street a few blocks from St. Peter’s Square.
He talked to all the prisoners, but spent the most time talking with those locked up for the most serious crimes.

One day he came upon a carpenter doing repairs in his apartment at the Vatican. John complimented him on his work and invited the worker to have lunch with him. The carpenter was speechless. Pope John said: “Let’s go, the food is getting cold.”

When John was the archbishop of Venice, it was reported to him that a certain priest was creating scandal because he was gambling. So John visited the priest. He began by kneeling down in front of the priest and asking him to hear his confession. Then he sat beside the priest and admonished him about his gambling vice.

Pope John was severely criticized for being soft on communism when he agreed to receive Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s son-in-law Aleksei Adzhubei, the editor of the Soviet newspaper Izvestia, and his wife.
To Mrs Adzhubei he gave his rosary saying: “Signora, I give you this rosary which I learned to say at home while my mother got supper ready each evening.”
Then he asked her the names of their three children.
To Aleksei he said: “You say you are an atheist. But surely you will receive the blessing of an old man for your children.”

The pope has many official titles. The one that seems to be especially fitting for Pope John XXIII is the title “pontifex,” which means “the builder of bridges.”
His earlier career early as a Vatican diplomat, serving as the Vatican ambassador to Bulgaria, then to Greece and Turkey, and finally to France, was characterized by the friendly relationships he was able to build with people he met everywhere.
He lived up his title “pontifex,” building bridges of understanding and tolerance between the separated families of Christendom and the nations of the East and the West.

As he lay dying, John was often heard repeating the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper: “That all may be one.” His very last words were again a quote from the gospel of John: “Lord, you know that I love you.”
A bouquet from the prisoners at Regina Coeli prison was the only flowers displayed at his wake in St. Peter’s basilica.

After his funeral, he was buried in a vault among other popes in the crypt of St. Peter’s. In 2002 when he was declared “Blessed Pope John,” his body was taken from the crypt to one of the side altars upstairs in St. Peter’s basilica.
When you visit this altar, you can see John’s body in a glass coffin encased in the altar. His face is covered by a mask that has his likeness. The rest of his body is covered by vestments.
It is not spooky or ghoulish, but very respectful.

When I was in Rome for my sabbatical four years ago, I served as a communion minister at the papal Masses during Holy Week and on Easter Sunday.
On Easter Sunday, I assembled with about 50-60 other priests inside St. Peter’s about 45 minutes before the Mass was to begin out in St. Peter’s Square (where an estimated 100,000 were gathered). From inside the basilica we were to go in procession outside to the altar in the square.
While we were waiting for the beginning of the procession out to the square, I wandered alone in the silence of that magnificent church till I came to the altar of Blessed Pope John XXIII.
I spent about ten minutes kneeling in front of the altar of this great pastor who inspired the world with his warm humanity. Being alone with this humble, happy, holy man was one of the most memorable moments I experienced during my three-month sabbatical.

The whole world seemed to be at home with this pope, not because of his infallibility, but because of his affability. Today we honor his blessed memory.