Sr. Regina Bechtle is Charism Resource Director for the Sisters of Charity of New York and is also a spiritual director, retreat leader, and writer. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, we asked Sr. Regina: what we can learn from Pope John XXIII‘s spirituality?
A month after I began my life as a Sister of Charity, Pope John XXIII opened a new chapter in the Church’s story by convening the Second Vatican Council. To my 18-year-old eyes, the Council was a wondrous spectacle, signaling hope and possibility for the Church I loved.
Later, after studying theology, I realized just how transformative the Council was. Much of its dynamism, I learned, was set in motion by a man who looked more like a grandfather than a prophet.
A peasant by birth and a pastor at heart, Pope John stayed close to the needs of people in a rapidly changing world. The Council he convoked would renew the Church to spread the light of Christ’s love to all, not just Catholics.
God’s Spirit at work
My community’s leaders took seriously the Council’s call to rediscover the core of our mission and to re-examine our lives. For our daily meditations we prayed with the latest Council documents. John XXIII’s openness to the “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” of the world (Gaudium et Spes
, 1) shaped my sense of ministry. I was not above or apart from the people I served; they
had much to teach me
Pope John trusted that God’s Spirit was always at work in the world, so he welcomed the good wherever he found it, even in non-Christians and nonbelievers. He saw God’s light shining through “the signs of the times” and believed the Spirit would show him how to respond. Hopeful and resilient, he took the long view and didn’t let small setbacks discourage him. At perplexing times in my own life, I try to remember the evening prayer attributed to him, “It’s your Church, God. I’m going to bed.” God is indeed in charge!
Holy and wholly human
John XXIII modeled key leadership skills of building consensus, inviting questions, using humor gently, and keeping focus on the mission. He wanted Vatican II’s tone to be pastoral, not reproving; its style collaborative, not dictatorial; its language gentle, not judgmental. He directed the Church’s attention outward, using its influence to address pressing world issues of justice, human dignity, poverty, war, and peace in encyclicals like Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris
For Pope John, differences were not barriers. Even—especially—with those of divergent opinions, he opened doors to dialogue and built bridges of relationship. He guided the Church through unprecedented changes by believing in the grace of the possible, that is, the way things always were isn’t the way they have to be forever.
As we live through times of constant change, may the example of Bl. Pope John XXIII, a holy and wholly human pastor, leader and prophet, light our way.