Our Community, though Anglican of course, feels a deep sense of involvement in the canonisations this year of St John XXIII and St John Paul II because of some precious memories from the past. Back in the mid-twentieth century, when we were based in Sussex, our then Priest Warden, Canon Donald Rea, had an historic private audience with Pope John XXIII on 4 June 1959. This was the time when plans for the forthcoming Second Vatican Council were getting underway. A driving force behind the Council was Pope John’s longing for Christian unity. Canon Rea was of the same disposition. They were kindred spirits. During the audience the Holy Father spoke of the qualities needed by those working for unity – as relevant today as they were half a century ago.
‘In working for reunion, it is necessary: 1. to be very meek and humble; 2. to be patient and know how to wait God’s hour; 3. to avoid discussions that may hurt the virtue of charity and to insist on positive arguments, leaving aside for the moment those elements on which we differ.’
When Fr Rea spoke of the Convent, showing pictures of the centenary celebrations, Pope John said:
‘He sends (i.e. I send) a special blessing to the good Holy Cross Nuns and a rosary to each of them, exhorting them in the way of religious perfection and asking them to intensify their prayers for union, especially in view of the Ecumenical Council.’
These rosaries are treasured still. Moreover the good Pope gave an incredible gift to the Anglican Canon himself.
The Pope Gives His Breviary Away
‘The news that at the end of an audience Pope John XXIII gave Canon Donald Rea, Vicar of Eye, Suffolk, his own personal breviary has inevitably become known.
‘The Holy Father’s touching and most personal gift to his Anglican visitor came at the end of an audience when the Canon opened his own Breviarum Romanum to show the Pope the card of himself in it. The Holy Father noticed the worn look of the breviary, and, apologising for his own white breviary for not being too new, told the attendant monsignor that he would like to give it to the Canon.
‘After his Mass next morning, the Pope dictated the following message: ‘The Cardinal Patriarch of Venice at St Marks held this book dear, so much so that as the Pope of the Universal Church he used it while praying in his private chapel in the Vatican until now’ (The Catholic Herald, 28 Aug. 1959).
The four-volumed breviary is now in Lambeth Palace Library. A Sister has had the joy of handling them and was able to annotate for the Community the precious personal cards and mementoes which the Holy Father had left there between the pages in his act of spontaneous generosity.
After the dear Holy Father’s death in 1963, the Sisters prayed the Office for the Dead together in their Conventual Church – a profoundly moving occasion.
Good Pope John XXIII pray for us all.