Pilgrims crowd Bl. John XXIII’s grave on day he died

Bl Pope John XXIIIs tomb under the altar of St Jerome Credit John Mosbaugh CNA Vatican Catholic News 6 3 11 Bl. Pope John XXIII's tomb under the altar of St. Jerome. | John Mosbaugh

All day in St. Peter’s Basilica pilgrims have been filing past the flower-covered tomb of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who died on this day in 1963.

“I’m just thankful to be here,” says great-grandmother Georgette Sweat from Stuart, Fla. “He was one of my favorite Popes. He was so very warm and caring and charismatic – and he showed it.”

Pope John XXIII was born Angelo Roncalli in 1881 into a humble farming family in the northern Italian region of Bergamo. He rose through the diplomatic ranks of the Church before becoming Patriarch of Venice in 1953.

To the surprise of many, himself included, he was elected to the papacy upon the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958. When he arrived in Rome for the consistory to elect the new Pope, he came with a return train ticket for Venice.

In spite of his papacy only lasting four years, it was momentous. Most notably, he convoked the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

His personal warmth and good humor captured the affection of many and gained him the moniker “Good Pope John.” Meanwhile, his habit of sneaking out of the Vatican in the dead of night to go for a stroll around Rome also gained him the nickname “Johnny Walker,” a play upon the famous Scotch whiskey. In 2000 he was declared “blessed”--the step just prior to being officially declared a saint-- by Pope John Paul II.

So why is he still so popular nearly 50 years after his death?

“He has remained in the heart of Catholicism as the Pope of goodness, the Pope who was the image of goodness,” Cardinal Angelo Comastri told CNA as pilgrims continued to flood in to St. Peters to visit the tomb. Cardinal Comastri is the senior cleric, or archpriest, currently in charge of the basilica.

“I think it depends on the fact that he was elected Pope at the age of 77-years-old. And at 77 he said that we need to feel young, we need to rejuvenate the Church. He said we need to ‘aggiornare’ to ‘update.’”

Cardinal Comastri quickly added that Pope John never intended to change the Church in order to suit the world.

“It was to rediscover the freshness of the beginnings, the interest in the origins, the interest in the Gospel, the enthusiasm and the freshness of the Apostles. For an old man of 77 years to have this courage is undoubtedly astonishing and fascinating.”

He also thinks that the way Pope John XXIII bore his final illness – an 8 month battle with stomach cancer - inspired many around the world.

“Pope John XXIII, during his sickness, showed his faith, kindness and fatherhood for the world. He said at the time, ‘my bed is like an altar and an altar needs a victim. I offer myself to the Lord and I do it voluntarily.’”

Pope John offered much of that suffering for the unity of Christians, said Cardinal Comastri.

“Because he really lived the drama of the division which was against the prayer to Jesus, against the desire of Jesus. And Pope John XXIII, even though he was dying, prayed to Jesus that the day of reconciliation of all Christians would be ‘anticipato’ or moved forward.”

When he died on June 3, 1963 the world mourned.

“And while he was dying something similar took place to what happened when Pope John Paul II died. The world appeared to be reconciled around the bed of the Pope, the bed of the dying Pope,” the cardinal recalled.

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“Jews, Buddhists, even jail inmates all communicated their sentiments to the Secretary of State because Pope John XXIII was felt to be the father of the world, the father of humanity, the father who had helped men to feel more like brothers.”

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