At a pope's deathbed
Those of us of a certain age will remember that fifty years ago today Pope John XXIII lay dying. Here is what I wrote in a piece published some years ago in Commonweal:
Several times in his writings Pope John quoted a description of St. Martin: “he neither feared to die nor refused to live.” The sentence conveys what is called “holy indifference,” an attitude of utter openness to the will of God. For the last fifteen years of his life, the idea that his death could be near is a frequent theme in his notes. He prayed that he would be able to endure pain. When in fact his final illness came upon him (doctors diagnosed his stomach cancer in October 1962 but do not seem to have told him), he was ready. His notes detail the onset of the difficulties, embarrassments, and sufferings of his disease (“How do you feel, Holy Father?” he was asked. “Like St. Lawrence on the grill,” he replied.), until on May 31, 1963, his secretary, Msgr. Loris Capovilla, fulfilled a promise he had made long before and told him: “Holy Father, I am now performing the same duty that you performed for Msgr. Radini at the end of his life. The hour has come; the Lord is calling you.” The press was informed and, as older people will remember, it seemed that the whole world gathered in a vigil around his deathbed.
At 7:00 on the evening of June 3rd, the Monday after Pentecost, a Mass was celebrated for Pope John in St. Peter’s Square below the apartment where we knew he lay dying. Half full as it began, the square was crowded by the time it ended. Around 7:40 the Ite missa est was chanted and we began to sing “Ubi caritas et amor ibi Deus est.” Above in his room, where the hymn could be heard, John XXIII trembled for an instant and peacefully died.
The days that followed were a remarkable tribute to the person and the work of Pope John. The paradox of mourning the death of a pope was noted by more than one Protestant. The universal grief was a first testimony in the process that this year will pass a major milestone when Pope John Paul II beatifies him and confirms the Gospel peace and freedom that characterized the serene man and defined his bold ministry.
About the Author
Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.