A statue of Pope John XXIII in his birthplace in Sotto il Monte
On Sunday, April 27, 2014 multitudes of pilgrims will descend upon the Vatican City for the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, descendants to the throne of St. Peter who both shepherded the Catholic Church through the complexities of the modern era.
On this day, a small and once obscure town north of Italy will also be swarming with thousands of devotees: Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII, a commune’ in the province of Bergamo in the Lombardia region named after its most famous citizen, who once belonged to a family of peasant farmers, would eventually become pope, and now, a saint.
The residence of Pope John XXIII, now the Museo di ca' Maitino
Ten years ago, in July of 2004, I had the great blessing of visiting the birthplace of Pope John XXIII. His canonization stirred an impulse within me to dig up old photographs and journals from that trip, in the hope of getting reacquainted with a man who, though not as widely known as Pope John Paul II, made just as much contributions to the Church.
From farm boy to pope
One of the places that I saw was the humble farmhouse where Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Roncalli, grew up. The place has since been converted into a museum , the Casa Natale del Santo Papa Giovanni XXIII.
The farmhouse is painted a dusky shade of pink with wooden beams and staircase surrounding the porch. Planters are adorned with bright flowers in season. Inside the rooms are simple furnishings like wooden dressers and simple beddings that give a glimpse of the austere life of young Angelo.
Angelo was the fourth of 13 children, and though he grew up in poverty, his biographical notes stated that his family was wealthy in faith, love and trust in God.
The parish church named Parrochia di Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII
I also visited the summer residence that he used when he was already Pope John XXIII, now the Museo di ca’ Maitino. There are a lot of memorabilia including photographs which show John XXIII often smiling, a glimpse into his warmth and congeniality. One can also visit the Pope’s personal bedroom, his study and chapel.
Inside the parish church named after Pope John XXIII
A statue of Christ inside the parish church
In another room, pilgrims leave behind mementos such as medallions, paintings and pictures that are testaments to John XXIII’s intercession. There were those who were spared from death, those who survived near-fatal accidents like a car crash or falling off an electrical tower or from a tall building. There were photos of infants born of parents who thought they would never bear a child.
A fresco inside the parish church named after Pope John XXIII
I also visited the parish church named after the Pope, Parrochia di Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII. It is a lovely hillside Church, which is a solemn space for prayer as well as a place to admire for its frescoes.
While John XXIII worked in mysterious ways in the lives of many people, his enduring legacy is his work as head of the Catholic Church from 1958 to 1963. Bishop Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope in 1958 at the age of 77, and he took the name inspired by three personalities: his father, the patron of his birthplace, and of John, the evangelist of the charity.
He announced the Second Vatican Council in 1959, and when it opened in 1962, the Church took a big evolutionary step by seeking ways to unify Christian Churches, and create an atmosphere of dialogue with contemporary culture in the modern world.
John XXIII also appointed 37 new cardinals during his term, including a Filipino, Rufino Santos.
His 1963 encyclical “Pacem in terris” (Peace on Earth) spoke, not only to Catholics, but to all good willing people, a sign of reaching out to people in peace and solidarity, regardless of faith.
On Sunday, the saints in heaven shall welcome with open arms John XXIII, a man who has dutifully served his flock.