By: Fr. Ryan Connors, Dean of Men
Sixty years ago, last week, Pope John XXIII delivered what many historians consider the most famous papal speech of modern times. This Petrine discourse did not solve a doctrinal dispute nor settle a moral controversy. The Pontiff did not address a President or Prime Minister. His words neither ended a war nor launched a crusade. October 11, 1962, the night of the famous “Moonlight speech” concluded the inaugural day of the Second Vatican Council.
Thousands—including at least one future pope—gathered in St. Peter’s Square and heard from the window of the Apostolic Palace the spontaneous words of the Successor of St. Peter beneath the Roman moonlight. He said: “When you go home, give your children a hug and tell them it is from the Pope. And when you find them with tears to dry, give them a good word. Give anyone who suffers a word of comfort. Tell them ‘The Pope is with us especially in our times of sadness.’” Put simply, he said the Pope loves you.
Ten years ago, on October 11, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI ascended to the window of the papal apartment, under the Roman moonlight, to recall good Pope John’s famous words. On the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, Pope Benedict did not think it most important to recall a conciliar decree or dogmatic constitution. He wanted the people of our time to relive the experience of the Successor of Peter telling the world he loves them. The good Pope John found new and simple language to express to the world that God loves them.
Pope John Paul II beatified his predecessors John XXIII and Pius IX on the same day. Neither that act nor John’s canonization fourteen years later was meant to endorse every papal decision, episcopal appointment, or judgement of ecclesial governance. But it did confirm Angelo Roncalli’s holiness of life—which offers for our imitation a path to sanctity.
No one could read Pope John’s autobiography Journey of a Soul and fail to be inspired by his spiritual discipline and deep Catholic faith. What strikes me most, though, is the lesson of his speech under the moon: he made people understand that God cared for them, that the Church was near to them, and that he loved them.
It should go without saying that people deserve the full truth of the Gospel. Corner cutting helps no one. The necessary reform of the Church is not a personal project or military crusade. Because it involves real people at every stage, we have got to make clear to those people, at every stage, that God cares for them, that the Church is near to them, and that we love them.
Pope John XXIII found a new language to express a timeless truth—God loves you. The Church desires to journey with you. In Roman restaurants and Italian homes to this day—after Padre Pio—you still see pictures of the good Pope John. Angelo Roncalli was a surprise pope. People will debate how far the implementation of the Second Vatican Council moved from his original inspiration. God solves questions like that.
For my part, John XXIII offers a witness and a challenge to today’s priests to strive to unfailingly demonstrate to the people of our time that we love them. Not that we accommodate them, or capitulate to them, or placate them. We don’t ignore them, or manage them, or tolerate them. We love them. Because, of course, that is exactly how God deals with us.
Pope St. John XXIII…pray for us.