Fifty Years Later --
THE LAST DAYS AND
DEATH OF BLESSED JOHN XXIII
I notice in my body the beginnings of some trouble that must be natural for an old man. I bear it with resignation, even if it is sometimes tiresome and also makes me afraid it will get worse. It is not pleasant to think too much about this; but once more, I feel prepared for anything.
In the last days of May, 1963, it fell to Monsignor Capovilla to tell Pope John -- after a series of hemorrhages and subsequent tranfusions -- that the doctors had done all that they could. It was too late for surgery. "The cancer has, at last, overcome your long resistance," Capovilla told him.
Pope John's response:
"Help me to die as a Bishop or Pope should..."
On Thursday, May 30 the Pope suffered a massive hemorrhage, which left him in great pain. Doctors administered sedatives; John slipped into unconsciousness.
By Friday, the 31st, there were signs of peritonitis.
The Pope's confessor was summoned to the papal bedroom in the Apostolic Palace, as was the Papal Sacristan. Pope John received the Blessed Sacrament as Viaticum ("food for the journey") and the anointing of the last sacrament, Extreme Unction. He regained some consciousness.
On Saturday, June 1, there were gathered into the dying Pope's bedchamber his several doctors; Monsignors Capovilla and Samore; Cardinal Cicognani, the secretary of state; other senior prelates of the Vatican Curia - Cardinals Tisserant, Ottaviani, Copello, Aloisi Masella, Cento and di Jorio; the Pope's valets, and the nuns of the Papal Household who had cooked and cleaned and cared for him.
Family members -- his surviving brothers and sister -- arrived from the North and also gathered around the bed.
And in the background was Cardinal Montini of Milan; John had personally summoned him to be present. Montini was witness to the last days of the man who preceded him as Pope.
John managed to say to Monsignor Capovilla (later an archbishop and, at 97 years old, still living today):
"When all this is over, get some rest and go see your Mother."
June 2 -- the last full day of Pope John's life -- was Pentecost Sunday. A Mass was offered in the nearby study; John was fevered and in-and-out of consciousness. At one point, he was able only to sit up a bit and talk briefly with his family, but then he began to gasp for air. He fell into a coma.
A crucifix was placed in his hands - and in the early evening he mumbled a few words of the Regina Coeli, the Easter prayer he would otherwise have prayed with the crowds gathered in St. Peter's Square.
On the morning of Monday, June 3, he was heard to whisper two times the very words that St. Peter had addressed to the Risen Christ:
John XXIII -- "good Pope John", the "Pope of the Council", Pastor et Nauta, "the gentle Pope", "Father to all" "Shepherd of the modern world", raised to the altar as "Blessed" -- and certainly one of the most influential Pontiffs in centuries ...
... had been Pope for only four years, seven months and six days.
From Pope John's last will and testament:
"Born poor, but of honorable and humble people, I am particularly happy to die poor, having given away, for the benefit of the poor and of the Holy Church that had nurtured me, all that came into my hands, during the years of my priesthood and episcopacy."