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Like a lamp

Evening had fallen on 3 June 1963, half a century ago, when Pope John died, ending the agony that had gathered an ever increasing crowd beneath his window. St Peter’s Square was covered in darkness and an almost unreal silence. A great number of people, the faithful beside non-believers, had been moved by the Mass in which they had participated on Pentecost Monday, outside the Basilica by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome. So ended the life of a man whose goodness had been immediately visible and transparent, before the world.

It was at the very end of the celebration that the Pope’s window was lit up, to indicate the earthly end of a man who had known how to touch many hearts. It was like what had happened only a few months earlier, on a mild autumn evening, when even the moon had come out to shine on the square and with brief, unforgettable words — indeed, the “moon speech” — he greeted the Romans who were celebrating the opening of the Council on 11 October 1962, asking them to pass on the Pope’s caress to the children and to those who had stayed at home.

The life of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli concluded in this way, in the peace of a death before the public. Because of its universal resonance it had no precedents in the history of the Church of Rome. It recalled the Christian end in the context of families, especially patriarchal ones, like the family in which the Pope had grown up, once upon a time neither rare nor surprising. His pontificate — not long but decisive — had opened with the election of the 77-year-old Cardinal Patriarch of Venice in the Conclave on 28 October 1958, and was now drawing to a close.

Of peasant stock, Roncalli completed a sound spiritual and cultural training which was to sustain him throughout his life. An able and wise priest and diplomat, he was appointed the 71st Patriarch of Venice by Pius XII who created him a cardinal in his second and last consistory. Roncalli was almost immediately identified in diplomatic sources of the time (by the middle of the 1950s) as a possible candidate “of transition” for a papal succession which, towards the end of the long and important pontificate of Pius XII promised to be far from easy.

And a transition it truly was; especially because of the surprising and necessary intuition of the Council which was certainly a providential inspiration in a perspective of faith. In the first weeks of John XXIII’s pontificate the announcement exploded like a bomb on 27 January 1959. Thus the Second Vatican Council came into being, to borrow the words of the Gospel (cf. Jn 1:6), used in the title of the film And There Came a Man directed by Ermanno Olmi for the Pontiff who had convoked and begun it. The film was based on the Pope’s extraordinary Journal of a Soul , published in 1964 by his Secretary, Loris Capovilla. However another sentence of John’s Gospel (5:35), describing the first witness of Christ as “a burning and shining light”, sums up equally well the human and Christian trajectory of the Pope who wanted to take the name of the two Johns.

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St. Peter’s Square

Aug. 24, 2019

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