A pilgrim group from Roncalli Newman Parish in La Crosse, Wis., has journeyed to Rome for the canonization of Pope John XXIII, whose baptismal name was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.
As the parish celebrates the 50th anniversary of its church building, its pastor Fr. James Kurzynski felt “that it would be wonderful to have some parishioners go to Rome to be present at the canonization Mass to remember this great event in the context of our 50th anniversary.”
“I felt that it's not just a once in a lifetime opportunity but it made a lot of sense in terms of the different celebrations our parish is having - but also the celebration for the universal Church with the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII,” Fr. Kurzynski told CNA April 26.
The dual canonization is particularly meaningful for the 40-year-old Wisconsin pastor.
“Up until Benedict, the only Pope I really knew was John Paul II,” he recounted. Thus, “as someone who would consider himself a JPII Catholic and a JPII priest, it means a great deal to me in terms of being here.”
Fr. Kurzynski noted that both John XXIII and JPII have been influential on his vocation to the priesthood.
One of the changes brought about by Vatican II, the ecumenical council called by Pope John XXIII, was a wider use of the vernacular language not only in the Mass but in seminary training.
“I am somebody that struggles with language and I know that for me – as much as I love Latin, I can sing Latin and I have a great love for the Latin tradition – I'm not sure if I could have cut the mustard grade-wise in languages in seminary,” the priest reflected.
But more importantly, he added, “is the simple mentality of John XXIII who, as he went to bed at night, would simply pray, ‘It your Church Lord, and I am tired.’ As a young priest, we can fall into a trap of thinking that the success of the Church falls on our shoulders. Instead, the role of the priest is faithfulness and Christ is the one who does the work.”
“With John Paul II, the influence from him is really his zeal, his love, and his simple phrase that he would speak over and over again, ‘fear not,’” he added.
Another member of the Roncalli Newman Parish pilgrim group was Dewey Bjorkman, a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism seven years ago.
“John XXIII is very special to me for many reasons,” he noted, adding that the Pope’s statement on ecumenism at Vatican II in particular “was fundamental to me eventually moving into fellowship in the Catholic Church.”
“As someone who’s just seven years a Catholic, I’m continually discovering the depths of diversity within the Church, the various themes of the gospel that are picked up by various leaders and popes throughout the years,” he added.
Gregory Wegner, professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, also joined the parish pilgrimage.
Wegner is a Holocaust historian who is currently engaged in research on John XXIII’s time as the papal nuncio to Turkey in the 1940s.
“I’m deeply interested in people like John XXIII in the Roman Catholic Church, who risked a good deal to rescue Jews,” he explained, noting that the then-Roncalli helped to save 24,000 Slovakian Jews, “people who most certainly would have been sent to Auschwitz,” by aiding them to get immigration visas.
The Roncalli Newman parish will follow the footsteps of its namesake in reaching out to their Jewish neighbors. On May 1, the parish will celebrate an interfaith prayer service with the synagogue across the street.
The local rabbi told Fr. Kurzynski that “for the Jewish people, two of the most beloved Popes are John XXIII and John Paul II...their example as Popes, first of all, but also their fighting against the Holocaust, against the Nazis: their standing for human dignity in the face of hatred that they both endured.”