My first "encounter" with John XXIII was during my Junior Year abroad at Louvain. Albert Dondeyne, prominent Belgian theologian, came rushing into the theology class I was taking at Louvain, breathless and flushed, to announce that "we had a Pope." But he couldn't remember the new Pope's name!
My relationship with the Pope picked up when I arrived in Rome in 1962 to begin theological studies. I was present at his famous "Discorso della Luna" the night of the opening of the Council when John said even the moon was shining brightly upon the joyful gathering of the faithful in Saint Peter's Square. He then told the mothers and fathers to go home and give their children an embrace and tell them it was from the Pope.
I was also present on the much sadder day a scant eight months later when the funeral procession bearing the Pope's body solemnly made its mournful way through that same Square.
During my years in Rome I came to know distant cousins with whom I became quite close. They lived at the periphery of Rome and were quite poor. Their loyalty was with the very strong PCI: the Italian Communist Party, and they had a visceral antipathy to Pius XII. But they were great fans of John XXIII.
When I was ordained in 1965 they gave me a gold medal of John which I have worn around my neck for almost forty-nine years. It was always good to have il Papa buono close to my chest; but tomorrow the medal will take on even more meaning.