Journal of a Soul

Pope John XXIII is both an icon and a Rorschach test. For virtually all who remember him, he is revered as a good and holy man who was as warm as Pius XII was aloof, a man who visited the Roman prisons, received the archbishop of Canterbury, and welcomed Jewish visitors to the Vatican with the greeting, "I am your brother." For many, he remains the embodiment of all that is good in Catholicism, a reminder of that "one, brief, shining moment" when undreamed-of renewal was possible and a "new Pentecost" seemed on the horizon.

But for those under forty-five, John is at best a faint memory obscured by the conflicted Paul VI and overwhelmed by the titanic John Paul II. I was born seven years after John’s death and turned eight in the "year of three popes," just a few months shy of my First Communion. I have no firsthand recollection of John or Vatican II. My Catholic existence has been formed in large part by John Paul II-I remember Yankee Stadium in 1979, not Saint Peter’s in 1962. Who John was and what the big deal about him is remain questions for many Catholics my age.

So the reissue of Pope John’s spiritual diary, Journal of a Soul, comes at an opportune time. His beatification is scheduled for later this Jubilee year, John Paul II is in the twilight of his pontificate, and the inevitable reflection and politicking about what qualities the next pope should possess are widespread. More pointedly, after nearly four decades during which John has remained the touchstone for liberal Catholics, how does he compare with John Paul II, the pope with whom he is most often contrasted and even set against, and the only pope of whom Catholics under thirty-five have any substantial memory?

Part of the answer is found in Journal of a Soul. Published originally in 1965, and written intermittently over John’s active and long life, Journal alternates between broad swatches of formulaic, if earnest, piety and moments of moving personal and spiritual clarity. The early entries reveal Angelo Roncalli, a young Italian seminarian of great devotion and scrupulosity, who strives to imitate the purity and precocious sanctity of saints like Aloysius Gonzaga. His spiritual guides emerge: Mary, Thomas à Kempis, Ignatius Loyola, and, above all, Francis de Sales, whose gentleness and charity were John’s lifelong model. Many passages are embroidered with the spiritual vocabulary of the time ("the honey and heavenly nectar of your consolations"), but there is flesh and blood under the filigree. As a sixteen-year-old, in 1898, he writes of his abjectly poor peasant family: "This is what is hardest for me to bear, to think that in the case of my dear ones, suffering seems to serve no good purpose, but rather to do them harm." No resigned mysticism of suffering here, but rather intimations of his landmark social encyclicals Mater et magistra and Pacem in terris and their clarion support of basic human rights.

Roncalli’s later years as papal nuncio in Paris and cardinal patriarch of Venice (1945-58) reveal a man of deep humanity and worldly understanding, yet he repeatedly questions his own belief that a "caress is better than a scratch." Does he too often avoid necessary conflict? he asks himself. Is not the sword sometimes necessary? Is he afraid of the inevitable upheavals reform will bring? In the context of these misgivings, it is still astonishing to contemplate how this moderate, deeply traditional man single-handedly brought about Vatican II, the most significant and revolutionary Christian event since the Reformation. How? Why?

I believe the answer can be found in Bulgaria, of all places. Plucked out of the Roman curia in 1925, the newly ordained Bishop Roncalli was assigned there as apostolic visitor (later delegate). Incessant conflict between Orthodox and Catholics, and Latin and Eastern Catholics, and uncertainty about his own mission caused him immense suffering. The vulnerability of the diary entries from these years makes clear that John’s gentleness was not spinelessness or a purely natural disposition, but the fruit of suffering endured "without letting anyone even know it [was] there." He knew that the way of Christ was not an easy one. It demanded the strength and humility to be conformed to Christ and his cross. John’s smile was that of a man who knew how much God loves his people.

And this love, born of suffering, created in Roncalli an extraordinary evangelical simplicity, which allowed him to distill Christianity to its essentials and eventually renew the church. That purity of intent will also remind the reader of John Paul II (at least I find it hard to think of one without the other). Both men knew suffering intimately, John through childhood poverty and in his diplomatic service, John Paul II through the early loss of his parents, the experience of nazism and communism, attempted assassination, and illness. Both are transparently evangelical-John in his gentleness, and John Paul II in his fearlessness. Moreover, even their papal activities are yoked. John Paul II has done more than any other pope in modern history to be truly the bishop of Rome, a pastoral activity initiated in fact by John. John convoked a Roman synod and then Vatican II, the latter at which John Paul II was an active participant, and to which he has been firmly committed. Both have been untiring advocates of the inviolable dignity and rights of the human person. Both have been deeply committed to Christian unity, and John Paul II has extended this to interaction with non-Christian religions. Their papacies, I submit, are not as far apart as some think-or wish.

And, yet, the two men remain quite different in their simplicity. Could John Paul have given the council the space it needed to be truly collegial and open to unexpected developments? The conduct of the recent synods of bishops suggests otherwise. Or, in the face of relentless challenges to human dignity and life, could John have sustained the prophetic, unyielding defense of the human person that has been a hallmark of John Paul’s pontificate? Simply put, one can scarcely imagine John confronting Sandinista hecklers, or John Paul II delivering John’s opening message to the council.

Journal illustrates how, despite the overwhelming influence of John Paul II in the formation of its generation, the substance of its Catholicism owes just as much to John XXIII. John Paul II’s evangelical fearlessness has been a gift to the church, one to which youth especially have responded. Time will reveal the fruit it bears. John’s evangelical gentleness has already born abundant fruit in Vatican II and in John Paul II. John, and Journal of a Soul, remind us-particularly those younger-that boldness need not exclude gentleness, nor gentleness boldness. The Holy Spirit gives both.

Published in the 2000-03-10 issue: 

Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.

Also by this author
Heralds of the Gospel

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads