Today, October 11, the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. John XXIII. Pope Francis canonized him along with Pope St. John Paul II year and a half ago, on April 27, 2014. That date happened also to be the 46th anniversary of my ordination as a priest.
Most saints’ feast days are celebrated on the anniversary of their death, which is appropriately seen as their birthday into eternal life. Very seldom is the earthly birthday celebrated; the significant exceptions are John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Jesus himself. Very fittingly, Pope Francis chose to designate October 11, the opening day of the Second Vatican Council in 1963, which John XXIII, inspired by the Holy Spirit, conceived, called, and launched, as his feast day. So today we celebrate the double gift of this holy man himself and the Council
The Turkish people – 99% of them Muslim – have a special fondness for Pope John XXIII, often referring to him as “our Turkish Pope.” The feeling was mutual.
Long before becoming Pope John XXIII in 1958, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (1881-1963) served as the Apostolic Delegate (that is, papal ambassador) to Turkey from 1934 to 1944, which included the very difficult years of World War II. He was not only a conscientious and effective diplomat, but also a man of people who enjoyed getting out among them and especially bringing whatever resources he could to help the poor. Because Turkey was both neutral in the war and had historical ties to Germany, he was also instrumental in saving the lives of countless Jews during that terrible period. He would often say Io amo i turchi, “I love the Turks.”
To this day, he is honored in Istanbul by having a street named after him, Papa Roncalli Sokak, and a statue of him stands in the courtyard of the St. Anthony Church, the most popular Catholic Church in Istanbul, a place of prayer honored by Christians and Muslims alike. It is not unusual to see young, devout Muslim couples praying in the Church at any hour of the day.
If you want to read a little more about St. John XXIII, please see the articles I wrote last year for the Good Shepherd website: The “Turkish Pope”, A Panorama of Popes, and The Good Pope and the Great Pope.
If you want to read a lot more about the time the future pope spent in Turkey, you can access and download a unique but long out-of-print book by Rinaldo Marmara, who as served as secretary to the Turkish Catholic Bishops’ Conference and director of Caritas International in Istanbul. The book is John XXIII: Friend of the Turks, with an Introduction by Archbishop (now Cardinal) Loris Capovilla, who was the Pope’s private secretary and friend – and who turns 100 this coming Wednesday, October 14. It is very difficult to find of this book; in fact I could only obtain a copy on a four-week inter-library loan from the University of Pennsylvania. Naturally I scanned it, and since it is so long out of print and impossible to find otherwise, I think it qualifies as “fair use” to share it with you in PDF format. To keep the size of the files manageable, it’s in four parts:
The news out of Turkey is distressing. I am deeply saddened by the terrorist bombing in Ankara, and concerned about the Turkish government’s disarray and confusion in its response. Let us not fail to pray for the victims, and all the Turkish people and their leaders. St. John XXIII, pray for us.
I stay abreast of the news from Turkey through the two major English-language Turkish news services, Today’s Zaman and Hürriyet Daily News, as well as Al-Monitor, which I think provides balanced editorial commentary on the entire Middle East.