Today at 6:30 a.m. Pope John XXIII left the Vatican’s train station on a pilgrimage to Loreto and Assisi to pray for the success of the Second Vatican Council.
In doing so, he became the first pope to leave the confines of the Vatican City State since 1857, when Pius IX made his last visit to the Papal States before the unification of Italy by King Victor Emmanuel II, which ended the absolute monarchical secular power (including taxation) of the papacy over some three million people, earned the king an excommunication and caused subsequent popes to remain in the Vatican as a protest. In this way, they avoided contamination by the secular state of Italy and kept alive their claim to ownership of a large swath of modern Italy.
But John has turned this tradition on its head, refusing to be yet another “prisoner of the Vatican,” as previous popes liked to call their self-imposed isolation. He has ended a century of seething resentment by popes over losing their secular kingdom in order to visit the shrine of St. Francis, who forbad his disciples to build permanent housing for themselves.
On this first papal excursion into the modern world, John XXIII was met by throngs of joyful Italians at each train station along his route.
John’s dramatic gesture astounded onlookers not only because it had previously been unthinkable that a pope would venture beyond the walls of the Vatican, but also for the wildly enthusiastic reaction it provoked among the faithful. One wonders if the pope can go out into the world, what will happen when the world is welcomed into the Vatican at the Council.