Good Pope John and the Knights
When Blessed John XXIII was elected the 261st bishop of Rome Oct. 28, 1958, succeeding Pius XII, many thought he would be a transitional pope, a kindly grandfather or a simple and serene pastor. A humble man of peasant origins, he had a warm personality and affectionately became known as “Il Papa Buono” (“The Good Pope”). On the first Christmas of his pontificate, Pope John made a point of visiting children with polio as well as prison inmates in Rome, saying, “You could not come to me, so I came to you.”
A month later, however, the 77-year-old pontiff astonished countless Catholics and non-Catholics alike by announcing his intention to convene a historic ecumenical council that would profoundly affect the future of the Church.
During his brief but dynamic pontificate, a friendship also developed between Good Pope John and the Knights of Columbus. In May 1959, John XXIII became the first pope to visit a Knights of Columbus recreation center in Rome when he came to St. Peter’s Oratory, near Vatican City.
Years later, regarding an April 10, 1961, private audience with Pope John, Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart recalled how the Holy Father said that he had heard about the Order’s initiatives during his youth and later was pleased to witness with his own eyes “the fruit their charitable assistance was producing in the Oratory of St. Peter.” That work, the pope said, “was like a flower of American charity transplanted and blossoming close to the basilica and tomb of the Prince of the Apostles, St. Peter.”
‘THE BREATH OF NEWNESS’
As a young priest, Father Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, was drafted into the Italian Army Medical Corps where he served as a chaplain to wounded soldiers. Called to the Vatican in 1925, he was made apostolic delegate to Bulgaria at age 43. He later served for a decade as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece and for eight years as apostolic nuncio to France before his appointment as Patriarch of Venice in 1953.
With this background in Vatican diplomacy, “John understood the powerful changes that had occurred, the dangers the world was facing, and the calamitous results of the Second World War,” said Matthew Bunson, a leading authority on the papacy and the Church. “John was elected in 1958 at a time of immense social upheaval. He understood that he needed to move quickly to deal with the challenges.”
And move he did, announcing his intention to convene the Second Vatican Council just one year later. Bunson calls John XXIII “a prophet in his time in anticipating the need for the Church to speak to the modern world in ways the world could understand.” In retrospect, Bunson added, it was “a brilliant way of anticipating the new evangelization.”
Pope John Paul II specifically commented on this approach in his homily for John XXIII’s beatification Sept. 3, 2000: “The breath of newness he brought certainly did not concern doctrine, but rather the way to explain it; his style of speaking and acting was new, as was his friendly approach to ordinary people and to the powerful of the world. Christians heard themselves called to proclaim the Gospel with renewed courage and greater attentiveness to the ‘signs’ of the times.”
But there were also unintended misunderstandings. Some interpreters, for example, considered that Pope John’s call for the Second Vatican Council meant that he had a negative view of the Church. On the contrary, “John XXIII saw the Church as strong, vibrant,” Bunson explained. “Yet he wanted to make sure she was able to communicate solutions the world needed in a way the modern world could understand.”
With his papacy in full swing, John XXIII’s major contributions continued. He worked to internationalize the College of Cardinals and anticipated the continued growth of the Church in Asia and Africa, which became a hallmark of the pontificate of John Paul II. In addition, the pope published eight encyclicals, including Pacem in Terris (1963) on establishing peace, the first encyclical addressed to “all men of good will” rather than only to Catholics; Mater et Magistra (1961) on the importance of work, workers’ rights, private property, and principles of solidarity and subsidiarity; and others on the rosary, penance and St. John Vianney.
“Pope John was blessed with an inordinate amount of common sense,” said Bunson. “He grew up in a family of peasant farmers and always had a practical view of things. He never lost that simplicity. He saw himself, to borrow Pope Benedict’s description, as a humble worker in the vineyard.”
FRIEND OF THE KNIGHTS
In 1959, more than 600 children greeted the smiling Pope John XXIII at St. Peter’s Oratory. The priest-president welcomed him and paid special tribute to the Order for maintaining the recreation centers and giving financial support to the oratory’s programs. A report of the event mentioned that the Holy Father was particularly happy to have made the visit since Pius XI had been unable to do so in 1924 when the recreation center was founded.
John XXIII could not accept the Order’s invitation to attend the dedication of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., later that year. He did, however, commend the Order’s support in several initiatives at the time, including the Pope Pius XII Memorial Library in St. Louis and the construction of the shrine’s bell tower, known as the Knights Tower. The letter, sent through the Vatican secretary of state, stated: “The report of these praiseworthy achievements has brought much comfort and consolation to the paternal heart of the sovereign pontiff, who would have me express his heartfelt appreciation and warm gratitude.”
Likewise, John XXIII remembered the Order in a 1962 letter to Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston in which he highlighted the Knights of Columbus and its record of aiding the Church.
“Of all the organizations which have demonstrated their generous and unflagging devotion to the Vicar of Christ down through the years, the Knights of Columbus undoubtedly ranks among the most praiseworthy,” wrote Pope John. One year earlier had shared similar thoughts during a 25-minute audience with the Order’s board members and their wives. Of this audience Supreme Knight Hart wrote: “His Holiness opened his address to us by applying to the Knights of Columbus the admonition from the New Testament: ‘Let them see your good works so that they may glorify your Father who is in heaven.’ The Knights of Columbus, he said, have been faithful to that Scriptural exhortation with an admirable record of achievement of which they may be justly proud.”
Hart further noted that, days after the meeting with the board, at a private audience with him and Supreme Chaplain Bishop Charles P. Greco of Alexandria, La., John XXIII expressed gratitude for the Order’s efforts to have the words “under God” added to the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance so that “some 30 million children, at the beginning of each school day, acknowledged the existence of God and their dependence upon Divine Providence.”
The Order’s tireless support was no less apparent during these audiences. Hart presented the pope with $50,000 to enlarge and improve the facilities of Vatican Radio. When the board later learned the cost for the new transmitting center would be $120,000, an additional $70,000 was swiftly sent for this purpose.
EMBRACING THE WHOLE WORLD
The Knights frequently aided the Holy Father not only materially, but also spiritually. At their 1961 meeting, Supreme Knight Hart presented the pope with a spiritual bouquet from the Columbian Squires of North America overflowing with more than a half-million spiritual offerings for his intentions. This tradition of offering a spiritual bouquet continued when the pope asked for prayers for the Second Vatican Council’s success.
John XXIII died June 3, 1963, and did not see the council to completion. During his pontificate, however, he made a tremendous and lasting impact on the Church.
“Never within memory has there been such a universal sense of loss as that which spread over the world with the news of the death of Pope John XXIII,” said Supreme Knight Hart in an official statement. “Although his reign extended for less than five years, his warmth and amiability combined with the depth and broadness of his vision to capture the imagination and affection not only of Catholics but of non-Catholics and even of unbelievers. He was, to all men, an exemplar of all that is good in man.”
John XXIII will be remembered for convening the Second Vatican Council, as well as for his social teachings. In August 2013, at the 131st Supreme Convention, the Order honored Pope John by resolving “to live out the call of Pacem in Terris by continuing to serve the poor and the disabled among us and to stand up for life from natural conception to natural death; and … to serve the Church in the tradition of the Second Vatican Council as lay leaders who serve as the leaven of the Church’s message in the world.”
Nonetheless, it is because of John XXIII’s personal holiness and joyful witness to the Gospel that he will be raised to the glories of the altar and named among the Church’s saints.
When Pope John Paul II beatified John XXIII in 2000, he recalled the late pontiff in these words: “Everyone remembers the image of Pope John’s smiling face and two outstretched arms embracing the whole world. How many people were won over by his simplicity of heart, combined with a broad experience of people and things!”
He was a man of peace “who could communicate peace,” noted Pope Francis on the 50th anniversary of his predecessor’s death. “Indeed, Pope John conveyed peace because his mind was profoundly at peace: he had let the Holy Spirit create peace within him.”
Pope St. John XXIII, pray for us!
JOSEPH PRONECHEN is a staff writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register.