As I have just returned from my time in the Holy Land with Bishop Dominic and the grand gathering of members of the “Neocatechumenal Way”, and the double canonizations of now Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, I turn to the opening words of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (written short years before his own martyrdom in Rome c. AD 64-67) where he says “To all in Rome, beloved of God and called to holiness, grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
My experiences in Rome this time, in the City where I literally “grew up” as a priest in the company of so many priests and great friends from around the world, showed in every way the “beloved of God” in the city these past days. From the Mexican families in the airport in Tel Aviv who were singing and praying together with young people from the United States, to not being literally able to walk just a few short blocks, to the Mass of Canonization where truly, the sun came just at the moment that John Paul II and John XXIII were declared to be numbered among “the catalog of the Saints”. It was a day when “all in Rome” met the “gift of grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” in the liturgy of canonization and the lives of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.
My earliest memories of Pope John XXIII were seeing him on my parents black and white television set, and on the occasional time when we could watch television on my grandparents color TV set! I remember my parents, very much involved in our parish of St. Agnes in Springfield, Illinois through the “Confraternity groups”, parish societies and the parish school, having a very good sense and appreciation of him. In later years, I got to know him through his journal entries entitled Journal of a Soul, which chronicled his life from his first years in the minor seminary in Bergamo through his election as Bishop of Rome in l958. This book is still very much worth and read, because one can get a first-hand sense of who Pope John XXIII was, rather than filtered through any other lens. There is one particular entry in this book where the then Papal Nuncio to Bulgaria, (which was not an easy assignment by any means) was reflecting on doing the will of God when he said that “Let the readiness of your will be seen in works done to carry out the will of the Lord, as this is made known to you day by day, and do not show readiness merely by heaving fervent sighs.” I also came to know him during my years of seminary study in St. Louis and a course in the documents of the Second Vatican Council that I took with Sister Zoe Glenski DC, and all of his photos, as well, that are all over the city of Rome!
I arrived in Rome, thanks to my assignment to study Canon Law at the “Angelicum” by the late Bishop Joseph McNicholas of Springfield, Illinois, in the fall of l981. He was still recovering from the assassination attempt earlier that year in May. Yet, I quickly learned that he, in addition to his life as the Vicar of Christ and the successor of St. Peter, was very much involved in the life of the parishes of the city of Rome, taking his role as the Bishop of Rome very seriously. He inspired me that a Bishop is first and foremost a pastor, a parish priest. This was a major point just made by no less by the secular Italian paper “Il Messagero”. He was everywhere in the city, and these were also the days of “Solidarity” and great concern of Russia invading Poland. These were the days and nights of processions through the streets of Rome with candles and hymns. In that time period, I met him in January of l982, and just a few weeks later in a nearby parish Church to the Casa Santa Maria, when he said to me “You were in my chapel”. His example and faithfulness to the Lord inspired so many young priests like myself who were studying in Rome at the time. In his own words as well, in a remembrance of his fifty years of priestly ordination he says in the preface to the book Gift and Mystery “What I relate here, above and beyond the external events, belongs to my deepest being, to my innermost experience. I recall these things above all in order to thank the Lord. ‘Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo!’ [roughly translated from Latin as ‘forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord’] I offer this to priests and to the people of God as a testimony of love.
In the many conversations that I was part of while I was in Rome, the theme that came again and again was that what united these two Saints is their key involvement in the Second Vatican Council, and not any current “lens” or observation that is proffered. This is clearly illustrated for me in a souvenir edition of the Holy See’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. A picture in their shows all of the Bishops of Poland together with Pope John XXIII two days before the Council. It was not sure whether they were going to be able to leave Poland or not for the Council. (Later Pope John Paul II this was not to be taken for granted.) Then Auxiliary Bishop Karol Woytla is in the photo with Pope John XXIII.
In this council which John XXIII called, Bishop and later Cardinal Woytla was to be one of the major architects of a document which was born from the work of the Council and not in any of the preparatory schemata. This is “Gaudium et Spes” or “The Church in the Modern World.” (It should also be remembered that another major architect of the Council was then Father Joseph Ratzinger, theological expert for Cardinal Frings of Cologne. )
I offer these reflections for the “Web log” as a testimony of gratitude and love for the past days in Rome and for the lives of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II in my life and ministry as a priest, pastor and Bishop.
+Kevin W. Vann
Spiritual Postcard from The Eternal City