Getting to know St John XXIII (Hint: he also confessed to an ordinary priest!)

At 9:00am Roman time today, Pope Francis declared two former popes Saints of the Catholic Church.

Everyone, of course, knows St John Paul II — but St John XXIII…?

St  John XXIII was also known as "the Good Pope" -- and most probably with the same sense of humor as Pope Francis'. Image from mahhai on Flickr.

St John XXIII was also known as “the Good Pope” — and, some say, had the same sense of humor as Pope Francis’. Image from mahhai on Flickr.

Like most Catholics now, I’m also a recent “acquaintance” of John XXIII. I used to recognize him only as the fat, jolly pope who convened the Second Vatican Council in the ’60s. I also knew he had a published journal — modestly titled Journal of a Soul — which gives us glimpses of his interior life.

But that was all.

Now that his canonization has finally come, I did some research. Of course, you know my bias. 😉

It turns out he also went to Confession. Haha! Of course, all popes (not just Pope Francis) would go to Confession regularly! Didn’t I say even St John Paul II used to confess once a week?

St John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. Whooooaaaa, clergy galore. Photo from CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

St John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. Whooooaaaa, clergy galore. Photo from CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in 1881, St John XXIII reigned as Supreme Pontiff only for about five years. Brief, but what a church-changing period! He convened the Second Vatican Council, in a move that Pope Francis described today as a bold “openness to the Spirit”, as was the entire life of John XXIII. That Council, of course, had been misinterpreted by some but, in the mysterious ways of God, later on produced so much fruit and its true message came to light especially starting with the pontificate of St John Paul II. (Part of this message was the universal call to holiness — that everyone is called to become saints!)

And Confession — penance in general — was so much in the mind of the St John XXIII that he urged Catholics to do penitential acts in preparation for the Council. Months before the Council opened in October 1962, he issued the encyclical Paenitentia Agere (Doing Penance), in which he underlined the importance of penance in the spiritual life, both individual and ecclesial.

Doing penance for one’s sins is a first step towards obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation,” he wrote. “No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigor, except it be on the basis of penance.”

In a section where he discussed Baptism, he said:

…[W]ell may those sinners who have stained the white robe of their sacred baptism fear the just punishments of God. Their remedy is “to wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb”(cf. Rev. 7.14 )—to restore themselves to their former splendor in the sacrament of Penance—and to school themselves in the practice of Christian virtue. 

Former splendor! Restored to grace, we can indeed become as angelic as newly baptized infants.

The body of St John XXIII in the crypts of St Peter's Basilica. The lady is taking a picture...and praying. Photo from Fox News

The body of St John XXIII in the crypts of St Peter’s Basilica. The lady is taking a picture…and praying. Photo from Fox News

And did you know that St John XXIII also did something like what St John Paul II did decades later? A story goes: when he was still Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Roncalli knelt and asked to go to Confession to one of his priests, whom he had caught doing something that a man of God wouldn’t. What he told the priest was simply edifying. Read the full article on page 2, par 1 »

After all this meager information I got, I’m now curious to know more about St John XXIII. His Journal should be a good start, right?

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