The Vatican kept telling the world he had “gastric troubles” and “a distress of the stomach.” Pope John XXIII was dying from cancer, and in constant and growing pain. John had called and opened the Second Vatican Council, but would not be the pope to see it through. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in late September 1962, just three weeks before the Council began. He died on June 3rd of the next year.
Only a month from his death, John gave a visiting bishop a copy of one of his books. He wrote in the dedication, Ubi patientia, ibi laetitia: Where there is patience, there is joy. The saying captured the way the pope went about dying.
The First Duty of a Pope
After a reception where he’d received a major prize, and barely got through it, he went home and watched a television news story about it. He told his closest aide, Loris Capovilla: “A few hours ago I was being feted and complimented, and now I’m here alone with my pain. But that’s all right. The first duty of a pope is to pray and suffer.” He later told Capovilla that he felt “like St. Lawrence on the gridiron.”
In the middle of May, after he’d stopped appearing in public, he received Communion early in the morning. He told those with him: “I’m ready to go. I’ve said all my breviary and the whole Rosary. I’ve prayed for the children, for the sick, for the sinners.” He added: “Will things be done differently when I’m gone? That’s none of my business.” He told a friend a few days later, “Don’t look so worried. My bags are packed and I’m ready to go.”
He still had his papal schedule, even though he couldn’t follow it. It included a trip to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the first Benedictine abbey, established by St. Benedict in the early sixth century. The abbey was roughly a two hour drive from the Vatican.
His doctors said he couldn’t go. They worried he might die there away from medical care. John said if he started dying, “I’d go to bed. I’d go to a cell in the Abbey. Think of it: to die at Monte Cassino, the cradle of monasticism.”
The Pope’s Death
On May 30th, John suffered sharp pains in his abdomen. The tumor had cut into the intestine and he would soon die of peritonitis. Capovilla told him. John said, “Help me die as a bishop or a pope would.”
As he received the last rites, he stopped the priest. “The secret of my ministry is that crucifix you see opposite my bed,” he said. “It’s there so I can see it in my first waking moments and before going to sleep. It’s there, also, so that I can talk to it during the long evening hours. Look at it, see it as I see it. Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate: they say that Christ died for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness.”
After three more days of suffering, he died on the evening of June 3rd. His last clear words were, “Lord, you know that I love you.”
Taken from Greg Tobin’s The Good Pope and other sources. For a short story of the saint’s life, see the Vatican’s biographical profile prepared for his canonization. The photo is produced by John Ennis and used under a Creative Commons license.