Diocesan priests share recollections of St. John XXIII

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By Dave Jolivet, Anchor Editor

FALL RIVER, Mass. — St. John XXIII will forever be best known for calling together the Second Vatican Council that he opened on Oct. 11, 1962 and that closed more than two years after his June 3, 1963 death.

Many in the diocese have few remembrances of him, but there was much more to the man born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the fourth of 13 children in a family of sharecroppers in Sotto il Monte, Italy.

Like Pope Francis today, St. John XXIII was a pope who cared a great deal for the poor and marginalized, and advocated peace in a period in history when relations between the East and West were tenuous.

Prior to becoming the 260th Successor of St. Peter in 1958, this humble priest was already recognized for his compassion for his fellow man and his love for the Church.

According to a timeline of his life issued by Catholic News Service, he served as a medic and chaplain during World War I; was named as the head of the Italian offices for the Church’s Society of the Propagation of the Faith; and served as a delegate to Turkey and Greece working to improve relations with the Orthodox and Muslims. During World War II, then-Father Roncalli assisted many Jews in escaping the Nazi persecution by issuing “transit visas” from the apostolic delegation and coordinating rescue plans with other ambassadors.

As pope, besides initiating Vatican II, he issued the encyclicals “Mater et Magistra” (“Mother and Teacher”) pointing out the obligations of nations and individuals to bring about social justice; and “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”) expressing that true peace must be built on pillars of “truth, justice, love and freedom.”

These encyclicals were issued in the midst of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. During his papacy, St. John XXIII also created the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

While most of the priests  and lay faithful in the Fall River Diocese only experienced the papacies of Pope Paul VI and St. John Paul II, several were in seminary and were young priests during St. John XXIII’s reign.

When The Anchor contacted Fathers William and Gerald Shovelton, who are 92 and 84 respectively, at their Lady Lake, Fla. home, the brothers were more than happy to share thoughts about the beloved St. John XXIII.

Father William Shovelton was ordained in 1946. “I remember St. John XXIII as a great man, very saintly, yet very approachable,” he told The Anchor. “Everyone felt comfortable around him. He never thought of himself as saintly, but strove to encourage others to become saints. He was someone you could call friend. He was always a saint to us, and I appreciate that he is thought highly enough by the Church to be named a saint.

“As a priest, even though I never met him, I considered him a friend and a confidant. It remains that way even to today.”

Father Gerald T. Shovelton was ordained in 1956, 10 years after his brother. “I was at Sacred Heart Parish on Martha’s Vineyard when Pope John XXIII was elected,” he told The Anchor. “We all had great hopes for this new pope, hopes for new things. He prepared the way for the Second Vatican Council, which he never did get to see implemented. But I remember it was he who got lay people involved in the Mass, and it  was exciting and I was a part of that.

“What also impressed me about the man was that he opened the doors of the Church to everyone. He felt God came for everybody, not just Catholics. He was instrumental in the ecumenical movement that is so alive today. He was so kind and gentle. To me he was always a saint, but now it is also decided by the Church.”

Retired Msgr. Barry W. Wall was in St. John’s Seminary in Brighton when Pope John XXIII was elected on Oct. 28, 1958, and he was ordained a priest during St. John XXIII’s papacy, on Feb. 2, 1962.

“I was more than mid-way through my seminary course when Pope Pius XII died,” Msgr. Wall told The Anchor. “When we came to the chapel for Mass on Oct. 9, 1959 the altar was being prepared for the celebration of the Mass for the dead, for the pope who had died during the night. Since he was elected when I was three years old he was the only pope I had known. The election of the new pope, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was announced in the dining room on Oct. 28, 1958. 

“The new pope took the name John which had not been chosen for 600 years. This should have prepared us for the unexpected from Pope John XXIII as when on his first Christmas he visited Rome’s Regina Coeli prison where he drew smiles from the inmates and frowns from some of his entourage when he remarked he wasn’t unfamiliar with prison since he had a cousin who was jailed once. His optimism and good humor and simplicity rooted in his holiness of life immediately endeared him to all in much the same fashion as our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, and the short-lived Pope John Paul I.” 

Msgr. Wall continued, saying that those labeling Pope John XXIII as “liberal” was “meaningless. Pope John was actually traditional in his thinking and his piety. He was pastoral, that is he was eager to present the Gospel message to Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the most effective way possible, hence the renewal initiated by the Second Vatican Council which he convoked.”

“Only a month into his pontificate Pope John named new cardinals, among them Archbishop Cushing of Boston,” he continued. “It was Cardinal Cushing whom I first heard refer enthusiastically to ‘Good Pope John.’ Early in 1959 Pope John made his first appointment of a bishop in New England, naming Msgr. James J. Gerrard, vicar general and pastor of St. Lawrence Parish in New Bedford, Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Fall River.”

Noting just how Pope John XXIII was beloved by many including non-Catholics, Msgr. Wall recalled, “When Pope John XXIII died in June 1963 Bishop [James L.] Connolly celebrated a Mass for the pope in St. Mary’s Cathedral, which was attended by a significant delegation of ecumenical leaders and non-Catholic clergy, a first for such occasions.”

Father Peter Graziano, a retired diocesan priest, was ordained on May 25, 1963, just nine days before St. John XXIII died of cancer in June.

“On Oct. 28, 1958, I was going through Army basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., when I heard the news that a new pope had just been elected,” Father Graziano told The Anchor. “His picture in the newspapers caused a type of culture shock. For some 19 years we Catholics had been pastored by an austere ascetic Pope Pius XII. Now we had a very outgoing, down-to-earth pope. The buzz was not unlike that we encountered with the emergence of our current Pope Francis.”

Father Graziano said that Pope John XXIII chose that name because it was dear to Angelo Roncalli, being the name of his dad. That, Father Graziano remarked, “said so very much about the man.”

Father Graziano told The Anchor that Pope John XXIII influenced him as a seminarian at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and as a priest. “During those seminary years, John XXIII was a dynamic model for all of us in seminary,” he said. “He showed us how to act as future priests and how to be open to facing so many issues facing the Church as we interfaced with all segments of society. 

“This so-called transitional pope [Pope John XXIII, at age 76,  was the oldest pope elected in more than 200 years] opened up true dialogue within the Church in a very catholic universal way. His teaching on social matters in the document “Mater et Magister,” is relevant even today. His plea for world peace in the letter “Pacem in Terris,” calmed tensions throughout the world.”

Retired Msgr. Thomas J. Harrington was in seminary at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., when John XXIII was pope.

“Pope John XXIII came to the office the year that I graduated from college and entered Theological College in Washington,” Msgr. Harrington told The Anchor. “He began using language about ‘throwing open the window and letting the fresh air of the Spirit’ into the Church. He cautioned about ‘prophets of doom.’

“Our theology classes at Catholic University of America crackled with electricity as the debates occurring in St. Peter’s Basilica resonated in the classrooms of Caldwell Hall [at Catholic University of America].”

Msgr. Harrington was ordained to the priesthood on May 30, 1964, nearly one year after St. John XXIII’s death. “Pope John’s pontificate had ended with his death just before I was ordained,” said Msgr. Harrington. “Still, his charism stamped the Church of that era in a truly unforgettable manner.”

“I am thrilled with his canonization,” he added.

Ironically, St. John XXIII was beatified as Blessed John XXIII by then-Pope John Paul II in 2000, the same man with whom he was canonized by Pope Francis last Sunday.

“The day John XXIII died we decided to have an evening Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Taunton (I had been ordained for a little more than a year),” said Msgr. Wall. “With the news just spreading by word of mouth in a few hours, there was no texting then, we had standing-room-only attendance. The same saddened crowd turned out a few months later on the day of JFK’s funeral,  with a bit more notice.”

“John’s spirit accompanied me through seminary training and profoundly impacted my priestly ministry,” Father Graziano told The Anchor. “Even in my 50th year of ministry, his spirit moves me and will do so until the Good Lord calls me home and I meet face-to-face Papa Roncalli, ‘the Good Pope John.’”

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts