Today we celebrate St. John XXIII, the pope who not only launched the Second Vatican Council, but engaged in delicate negotiations that helped steer the USSR and the US away from nuclear war in 1961. He made a point of inviting Orthodox observers to the Council, a development that was very surprising to the Curia in Rome. This came out of his profound experiences working with the Bulgarian Orthodox during his time as papal nuncio in that country, and with Greek Orthodox while he was internuncio to Turkey and Greece. At the same time, he became very familiar with the often-delicate position of Byzantine Catholics in Eastern Europe.
The Pope’s ambassador, on a visitation to refugee Byzantine Catholics in the mountains of Bulgaria
He served as apostolic delegate to the kingdom of Bulgaria, in 1925-31, a difficult post in an Orthodox country, which he converted into one popular with the Bulgarian people. He achieved this by his great humility, traveling around in a donkey-drawn cart, and his charity to all Bulgarians, especially after a terrible earthquake in 1928. His charity and personality won over many would-be hostile Orthodox, including the royal family. He gave special help to the Byzantine Catholics of Bulgaria. Many had been driven out of their homes during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, and, along with their Byzantine Rite Eucharist Sisters, were living in real poverty. Bishop Roncalli helped them as much as he could. At that time, many Latin Catholic Bulgarians and foreigners alike looked down on these Eastern Catholic peasants from Macedonia and would not assist them. Only when Bishop Roncalli intervened and not only helped them but established a seminary for them and a monastery for their Sisters, did the other Catholics step forward. It was in Bulgaria that he began his work for the reunion of the Churches:
Catholics and the Orthodox Christians are not enemies but brothers. They have the same faith, share the same sacraments, most of all the Eucharist. We are kept apart by misunderstandings connected with the holy creation of the church of Christ. The authors of these misunderstandings have been now gone for centuries. Let’s abandon the ancient arguments and work in our spheres so that we could make our brothers better people by offering them our best examples…and although we have so far followed different paths, we shall no doubt meet in the unity of our churches to create, all of us together, the true and unified Church of our God Jesus Christ”.
Today streets and buildings are named for him all over the once-communist country, either as Angelo Roncalli (his given name) or his papal title, and he is popularly seen as Bulgaria’s Catholic Saint. In 1935, he became Nuncio to both the Orthodox kingdom of Greece and the overhwhelmingly Muslim state of Turkey. In Turkey he reached out to the minority Christians, and in Greece to the hostile Orthodox while helping the small Armenian, Byzantine and Latin Catholic churches of Greece.
Bishop Roncalli in the midst of transplanted Byzantine Catholics, 1925
During the Holocaust, the future pope intervened successfully with Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria to prevent the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the Nazis. In this, he was working in concert with the Orthodox Exarch and bishops. He also was able to assist with the emigration of Jews out of Nazi-occupied Hungary. In what he dubbed Operation Baptism, with the help of the Sisters of Sion, thousands of Jews were given baptismal certificates and visas for neutral countries like Turkey. The Nazis were forced to let these “baptized” Jews escape. Later, as pope, he undertook to transform Catholic teaching regarding the Jews and Judaism, especially by removing the phrase “perfidious Jews” from the Good Friday ritual in 1960.
As Pope, he took his lived experience of Eastern Christians and made headway in opening ecumenical dialogues with the Orthodox while fully supporting the persecuted Eastern Catholics who lived in communist states. And with the communists, he opened the door to dialogue so as to reach the struggling Catholics behind the Iron Curtain. When Vatican II opened, he was able to persuade some Orthodox Churches to send visitors, along with Anglicans and Protestants. His work defending the persecuted is echoed today in the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and his encylical Pacem in Terris continues to define work for peace.
May he continue to intervene for peace on this bloodied planet, and for reconciliation among Catholics and Orthodox, Christians and Jews!