US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Blessed John XXIII: Opener of Windows, Preventer of Nuclear War

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There's another beloved and Blessed pope of the modern era: John XXIII.

By guest blogger Ken Trainor

The saint who most inspires me is really a sub-saint: Blessed John XXIII, whose feast day, Oct. 11, coincides with the day the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962. He died, alas, too early, on June 3, 1963, so he only saw part one of this four-part council. But he set the pastoral tone and the collegial foundation that enabled a rigid, oppressive institution to be transformed into a pilgrim church, one that was newly relevant to the modern world. He opened the window to “let in some fresh air” and in the process set loose the Holy Spirit in the form of renewed energy and creativity.

Angelo Roncalli was warm, down-to-earth, had a sense of humor and never forgot his humble roots. The Vatican bureaucracy underestimated him, assumed they could control him, but he caught them completely off guard when he announced the council in 1959, and he stood up to them when they tried to hijack the proceedings.

He was the first pope in more than a century to leave the Vatican and move among the people, and the Italians loved him for it. People the world over, in fact, responded to his gentle manner and unpretentious demeanor though that disguised an underlying sophistication as demonstrated during his previous assignments as prelate of Venice, Paris, and Istanbul.

John was no radical. He was conventional, even conservative in his theology; but he listened and was willing to learn from the College of Cardinals, the bishops, and theologians when they asserted themselves at the beginning of Vatican II. He was also deeply influenced by the brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which erupted during the first week of the council in October of 1962. John played an integral role by creating the cover that allowed both superpowers to save face and back away from the edge of annihilation. That, in turn, inspired his influential encyclical, Pacem in Terris.

After his death, he was almost immediately elevated to the level of “Blessed,” and there was a groundswell of support for canonizing him as the council ended. A the Vatican gears slowly began the process of unraveling and undermining most of what Vatican II stood for, John XXIII became a forgotten figure.

The church has a very arcane and archaic canonization process that relies heavily on documented “miracles” related to the candidate to “prove” his or her saint-worthiness. The documentation of miracles is highly subjective, and the definition of what constitutes a miracle is pretty narrow--usually something of a medical nature.

But if hearing the call of the Holy Spirit to create the conditions for a “second Pentecost,” defying the curia, reviving a hidebound Catholic Church, allowing the bishops to have their say, making the church relevant again, and helping to save the world from nuclear annihilation aren’t miracles, then I don’t understand miracles.

The Vatican insiders quickly did their best to close the window John XXIII had opened, but it’s too late. The people of God now know the windows open. It won’t be long before we open them again. At least that’s what I believe when I think of Blessed John XXIII. I feel inspired, renewed. My belief in the Holy Spirit is reaffirmed. So is my hope for a better future for the Catholic Church.

If you ask Catholics whether John XXIII is a saint, those who remember him would answer with a resounding “Yes.”

That should count for something.


By Ken Trainor, a practicing, progressive Catholic, who was 10 years old when Vatican II began. For the past 20 years, he has been a reporter, editor and weekly columnist for Wednesday Journal, a newspaper in Oak Park. You can find his column at


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Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.