Clear, bright stars sparkled outside Angelo Roncalli’s window on Christmas Eve of 1902. As merrymakers reveled in the streets of Rome, his fellow seminarians lay asleep in their beds. The future pope, however, sat at his desk pondering the birth of Jesus. At age twenty-one, he had just completed a grueling year of military service in the Italian National Army, and now he wanted nothing more than to pray and get back into the rhythm of seminary life.
As he pictured himself in the scene at Bethlehem, he was filled with a sense of unworthiness. “I am a poor shepherd,” he wrote. “I have only a wretched stable, a small manger. . . . The straws of so many imperfections will prick you and make you weep—but O my Lord, what can you expect? This little is all I have.”
It was the beginning of a lifelong contemplation of the infant Christ—a contemplation that would transform the “little” he had and form him into a beloved leader of the whole Church.
An Expanding Vision. A couple of weeks later, at a Mass concluding the Octave of Epiphany, Roncalli once again pondered a Nativity scene, this one displayed on the altar:
What thoughts filled my mind, what emotions filled my heart at the sight of Jesus being worshipped by the shepherds and the three kings! I thought of the Gospel preached to the Gentiles, of the Christian missions scattered throughout the world, of the truly Catholic, that is, universal Church. O Lord Jesus, your star has appeared in every sky and yet so many have not recognized it. . . . May all the peoples serve you, love you, and acclaim you as their Savior.
The son of poor Italian tenant farmers could not escape the idea that Jesus had come for the whole world: East and West, rich and poor, baptized and unbaptized. He wanted the whole world to experience the light of the gospel that felt so near to him that Christmas. Nearly sixty years later, as Pope John XXIII, he would be in a unique position to bring this vision to life.
Early Growing Pains. Ordained in 1904, Roncalli spent the next twenty years in Italy, honing the skills of a pastor and church administrator. He had no diplomatic training, however, so he was surprised when Pope Pius XI appointed him to serve as his representative to Bulgaria—the first diplomatic representative from Rome to that country in five centuries.
This would be the first of many opportunities for him to stretch out a hand of welcome to Christians and non-Christians alike. To strengthen Roncalli’s credibility, the pope consecrated him a bishop before he left. Other prelates assured him the faraway posting would be brief. He left for Sofia in 1925, with two principal tasks before him.
The first task was to assure Bulgaria’s small Eastern Catholic population that they had not been forgotten. On the ground, this meant getting permission from Rome for them to open a local seminary for priests.
Roncalli’s other main priority was to get to know the large Orthodox population in Bulgaria. He accomplished this by taking trips to remote villages on mules or jolting carts. Before long, he had forged strong personal relationships with Bulgarians of all denominations.
From Disquiet to Peace. By 1930, however, five years had passed, and Roncalli felt like the Lord was testing his patience. For one thing, arrangements for the seminary were barely inching forward—because of delays in Rome. On top of that, even after all those years, Roncalli was uncertain about the scope of his mission in Bulgaria to the diverse religious groups. With these and other anxieties weighing heavily on his mind, he was in need of divine help as the time approached for his annual personal retreat. He left for a retreat house on the Danube to meditate on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.
That retreat was a special turning point. As he prayed and meditated, he felt that God gave him the grace of detachment, along with new and tangible acceptance of his assignment. Concluding the retreat, he asked God to help him continue to embrace his responsibilities, however uncertain and new they were.
The following year, on his fiftieth birthday, Roncalli was still feeling the effects of that retreat. “Since then,” he wrote, “I have felt, and I still feel, more composed and ready for whatever the future may bring.” It was a peace of mind that would last until his death.
Fraternal Arms and Warm Heart. Content and at peace, Roncalli spent several more years in Bulgaria. At the end of 1934, he was reassigned to Turkey—a majority Muslim country that was even further afield. Roncalli, who had come into Bulgaria unnoticed, received a grand farewell from his treasured friends. They were sad to see him go: from representatives of the royal court to newly minted seminarians.
In a homily at Christmas that served as his farewell, Roncalli told the Bulgarians about an Irish custom in which families leave a lighted candle in the window at Christmas to show Jesus and Mary that they await their arrival. He promised to do the same:
Nobody knows the paths of the future. Wherever I may go, if a Bulgarian passes by my door, whether it’s night-time or whether he’s poor, he will find that candle lighted at my window. Knock, knock. You won’t be asked whether you’re a Catholic or not; the title of Bulgarian brother is enough. Come in. Two fraternal arms will welcome you, and the warm heart of a friend will make it a feast day.
Roncalli would carry this attitude of openness and peacemaking with him during twenty-two more years of diplomatic work. In Turkey, he worked tirelessly to build bridges of kindness and understanding with the Muslim majority. In Greece, he reached out in friendship to his Orthodox brothers and sisters. And in France, he worked hard to bring reconciliation between factions that had formed as a result of World War II. Everywhere he went, he found opportunities to restore broken relationships and soften people’s hearts toward the Church.
Formed by the Holy Spirit. Despite all his good works, Roncalli had been largely off the radar of the Roman Curia. That changed, however, when he was recalled to Italy in 1953 to serve as the cardinal-archbishop of Venice. He was delighted to take up pastoral work in an Italian diocese, and his international resume soon grabbed the attention of many cardinals. Unknown to him, over the past five decades, the Holy Spirit had been quietly forming him into a viable candidate for the papacy.
It was as if his whole life and career were preparation for this final task. Having dealt with a host of political and interreligious conflicts, he was able to look clearly and calmly at global tensions emanating from the Cold War, as well as conflicts in Asia and Africa. He was able to look at factions within the Catholic Church, as well as between Catholics and Christians of other traditions, and see how few bridges had been built.
It had been a long journey to Rome, but Roncalli never lost the sense of peace that God had given him during that retreat on the Danube—not even when the white smoke arose from the Sistine Chapel in 1958, announcing him pope.
A Church Shining for the World. Despite geopolitical unrest, Pope John XXIII saw a significant opportunity for the Church at the time of his election. He perceived the potential for a new era of openness, where the Church could shine as a beacon to the peripheries of the world. This is why, only three months after his election, Pope John made a surprising announcement.
He invited the bishops of the world to meet in Rome for what would be called the “Second Vatican Council.” John saw the council as a chance for the Church to better meet the needs of its global and diverse members. It was also a chance to promote friendship with other Christian traditions. Finally, for him, this was an opportunity to invite the Holy Spirit to renew the Church, that the light of the gospel might reach new peoples and new places.
In October 1962, at age eighty, Pope John officially opened the council. He set the tone by condemning the “prophets of doom” who saw only darkness and evil in the world. He promised instead that the Church would use the “medicine of mercy.” Then he let the bishops get to work as he followed the proceedings in his apartment on closed circuit television. He stepped in once or twice to ensure that the council stayed true to his evangelistic vision, but for the most part, he entrusted his project to the Holy Spirit and the council fathers.
Illness was slowing John down, but he wanted to stay focused on his vision of the peoples and tribes of the earth paying homage to Jesus in the manger. When he died on June 3, 1963, it seemed as if the whole world mourned him. One newspaper ran the headline, “A Death in the Family of Mankind.”
Come, Let Us Adore. More than fifty years later, it is just as important that we keep spreading the message of salvation and hope for all people. So as you look at the crèche this year, ask Pope John, now a saint, to help you to reflect its light, just as he did. The mission of evangelization starts at the manger—and continues with each of us.
Kathryn Elliott is an editor for The Word Among Us. For help praying about the Nativity, visit wau.org and read Pope John’s own beautiful meditations on the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.