A visit to Pope John XXIII’s birthplace

A statue of Pope John XXIII in his birthplace in Sotto il Monte

On Sunday, April 27, 2014 multitudes of pilgrims will descend upon the Vatican City for the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, descendants to the throne of St. Peter who both shepherded the Catholic Church through the complexities of the modern era.

On this day, a small and once obscure town north of Italy will also be swarming with thousands of devotees: Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII, a commune’ in the province of Bergamo in the Lombardia region named after its most famous citizen, who once belonged to a family of peasant farmers, would eventually become pope, and now, a saint.

The residence of Pope John XXIII, now the Museo di ca’ Maitino

Ten years ago, in July of 2004, I had the great blessing of visiting the birthplace of Pope John XXIII. His canonization stirred an impulse within me to dig up old photographs and journals from that trip, in the hope of getting reacquainted with a man who, though not as widely known as Pope John Paul II, made just as much contributions to the Church.

From farm boy to pope

One of the places that I saw was the humble farmhouse where Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Roncalli, grew up. The place has since been converted into a museum , the Casa Natale del Santo Papa Giovanni XXIII.

The farmhouse is painted a dusky shade of pink with wooden beams and staircase surrounding the porch. Planters are adorned with bright flowers in season. Inside the rooms are simple furnishings like wooden dressers and simple beddings that give a glimpse of the austere life of young Angelo.

Angelo was the fourth of 13 children, and though he grew up in poverty, his biographical notes stated that his family was wealthy in faith, love and trust in God.

The parish church named Parrochia di Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII

I also visited the summer residence that he used when he was already Pope John XXIII, now the Museo di ca’ Maitino. There are a lot of memorabilia including photographs which show John XXIII often smiling, a glimpse into his warmth and congeniality. One can also visit the Pope’s personal bedroom, his study and chapel.

Inside the parish church named after Pope John XXIII

A statue of Christ inside the parish church

In another room, pilgrims leave behind mementos such as medallions, paintings and pictures that are testaments to John XXIII’s intercession. There were those who were spared from death, those who survived near-fatal accidents like a car crash or falling off an electrical tower or from a tall building. There were photos of infants born of parents who thought they would never bear a child.

A fresco inside the parish church named after Pope John XXIII

I also visited the parish church named after the Pope, Parrochia di Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII. It is a lovely hillside Church, which is a solemn space for prayer as well as a place to admire for its frescoes.


While John XXIII worked in mysterious ways in the lives of many people, his enduring legacy is his work as head of the Catholic Church from 1958 to 1963. Bishop Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope in 1958 at the age of 77, and he took the name inspired by three personalities: his father, the patron of his birthplace, and of John, the evangelist of the charity.

He announced the Second Vatican Council in 1959, and when it opened in 1962, the Church took a big evolutionary step by seeking ways to unify Christian Churches, and create an atmosphere of dialogue with contemporary culture in the modern world.

John XXIII also appointed 37 new cardinals during his term, including a Filipino, Rufino Santos.

His 1963 encyclical “Pacem in terris” (Peace on Earth) spoke, not only to Catholics, but to all good willing people, a sign of reaching out to people in peace and solidarity, regardless of faith.

On Sunday, the saints in heaven shall welcome with open arms John XXIII, a man who has dutifully served his flock.

This article appeared on abs-cbnnews.com:  http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/focus/04/25/14/visit-pope-john-xxiiis-birthplace



Obama in Asia: The “savior” comes

This week United States president Barack Obama embarks on a 7-day Asian tour that will bring him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Obama’s visit to Asia intends to send a clear message: the U.S. remains a strong strategic partner of its allies in the Asia-Pacific, a region whose balance is being stirred, even agitated, by China which is increasingly flexing its muscles in territorial disputes in East Asia, and staking its claim as an economic superpower.

But observers say this intended message comes muddled, rather than crystal clear. When Obama announced his “pivot to Asia” strategy in 2011 — an effort to “rebalance” U.S. foreign policy direction to Asia after decades of focus on the Middle East and Europe –- the U.S. perhaps did not anticipate an avalanche of crises such as the Arab spring. And even as Obama begins this week’s Asian swing, the U.S. is saddled with the unrest in Ukraine and how to deal with Russia.

Not to be forgotten, Obama’s Asia trip has been cancelled previously because of domestic problems, the most recent was in late 2013 when the White House was locked in a battle with the Capitol that led to the government shutdown. For some onlookers, this begs the question, so where’s this so-called pivot to Asia?

Then again, critics would say, who asked the U.S. to pivot to Asia in the first place?

America and the world

When talking about the U.S. with respect to its relationship with the rest of the world, I am reminded by a question that was posed to me by American Midwesterners at a journalists’ forum at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. This was a question that would repeatedly be asked of us foreign journalists on our trip across the U.S.: How does your country perceive the United States? How does the world look at the U.S.?

I would realize later on that the question was being posed not from a haughty standpoint. Middle America really had but a faint idea as to how the world looked at them, and they were really curious to know.

In one forum, I said that the phrase “the world’s savior” has been used several times during our trip to describe the U.S., sometimes in a plain and forthright manner, other times, with irony and derision.

Love-hate relationship

As a journalist from the Philippines I have some sense of where this image of the U.S. comes from, as well as some understanding of this love-hate relationship with the U.S. We’ve had a long history, I told our American audience, having been a colony of the U.S. for 45 years.

US-Philippine relations were off to a somewhat shaky start, to begin with, dragged as we were into the fray that was the Spanish-American War in 1898 that initially only involved Cuba (which was fighting to overthrow Spanish rule). Eventually, Spain ceded Cuba, and its other colonies including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, to the U.S. for $20 million.

The Philippines thought that the U.S. would quickly grant the country independence. But that would not be the case because the Philippines was placed under military control for fears that Filipinos were not yet ready for full democracy and unprepared to govern themselves and some foreign power might take advantage, so U.S. presence was necessary (a line that we continue to hear and debate about in today’s events). This began the saga of nationalist revolt against the U.S.

To be fair, I told our American audience, the American occupation did bring many gains to the Philippines: urban infrastructure, system of education, government structure, increase in trade, etc. But historians would also say American politics and party system became a breeding ground for the thirst for power and corruption that has become so pervasive in Philippine politics, just one of the downsides of American influence.

New security deal

When U.S. Pres. Obama arrives in Manila next week, he is expected to announce details of a new security deal agreed upon with the Philippines. Among those already reported by the New York Times and Reuters are the use of Philippine installations by U.S. troops for maritime and humanitarian operations, increase in presence of rotational troops, and boosting the Philippines’ defense capability amid tensions with China. This is a significant step since the U.S. military bases were booted out from Philippine shores in 1992.

Many things are still up in the air as far as the U.S.’s pivot to Asia is concerned. And as history reminds us, in every intervention, you take the good with the bad.


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