Remembering Good Pope John

He always tried to be a saint. And he made it

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was not an ambitious man. Anyone who might be tempted to think him a careerist would be forced to conclude that he was a singularly inept one. Not only did he not choose or even actively seek the steps that defined his journey to the papacy, he was not remarkably successful in most of them, at least not in the judgment of many of his superiors. He went where he was told and did what he was commanded: secretary to his bishop; seminary professor; head of an ecclesiastical office in Rome; apostolic delegate in Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and France; patriarch of Venice; bishop of Rome. These successive appointments seem to have surprised him at every point. Conscious of the oddity of his appointment to Paris, he appealed to the saying: "Where horses are lacking, donkeys trot along." He must have liked the image: asked to go to Venice, he wrote in his notebook: "I pray: ’Obedience and peace.’ An unexpected change in the direction of my life. I remember Saint Joseph and imitate him: I turn my little donkey in another direction. I am not upset and I thank God....Lord, your will is my peace."

On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, Roncalli listed as the first grace granted to "one who has little regard for himself...to have accepted with simplicity the honor and the burden of the pontificate, with the joy of being able to say that I did nothing to obtain it, absolutely nothing; indeed, I very carefully and deliberately avoided anything that might draw attention to myself. When the voting in the conclave was going back and forth I was happy when I saw my chances diminishing and the possibility that others whom I thought quite worthy and venerable might be elected."

"Eccomi nominato papa"-"Here I am elected pope!" Roncalli had written in his private notebook on October 28, 1958. There is a wonder and awe in his voice and, upon his election, he made his own the prayer of Pius XII: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy." His own wonder was shared by many others as they saw him depart so markedly from the model of the papacy that Pius XII had embodied, and as they began to become more familiar with the journey that had brought him to the papal throne, a journey that is worth retracing as we await his beatification next month.

When Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, some looked to Roncalli, then the cardinal archbishop of Venice, as a caretaker pope who might repair the curial machinery that had been allowed to fall into disrepair during Pius’s last years. It was widely supposed that Roncalli, at seventy-seven, would soon be succeeded by someone more fitting, like Montini of Milan. Roncalli knew he was among the papabili and even prepared for the possibility of his election. He was elected on the eleventh ballot, and almost immediately began to benefit from the contrasts with his predecessor that often accompany the election of a new pope. Less than a hundred days into his pontificate, the new Pope John XXIII startled most of the world by announcing his intention to convoke an ecumenical council. For the next four and one-half years he presided over a transition quite different from the one his electors had in mind. And the rest, as they say, is history. By the time he died, after a long and painful illness, on June 2, 1963, less than five years after his election, Pope John had by the force of his personality and by the charm of his manner demystified the papacy, and by unleashing the pent-up movements of renewal and reform, he had begun a transformation of the church.

Journalists and historians discuss "the Roncalli mystery," trying to make their way through the myths and countermyths that swirled around him even during his lifetime. The title given to an English translation of an early book on him, John XXIII, Simpleton or Saint?, puts the choice rather crudely, even cruelly, not to say poorly, since there were and are some ready to answer "both"-he would not have been the first, or last, holy simpleton. More serious questions are whether one can discern in his life points of continuity that, had he been better known, might have made his pontificate less startling, or whether what he did during his short reign presents a break with his own past.

Another question that arises is the relation between the personal holiness of a pope and his public achievements. These are not always coincident: there have been effective popes who were not saints, and holy men who were not good popes. It is possible, for example, to regard Pius X as a saint and to think that his reign, on more than one count, was disastrous. Celestine V was so inept that he resigned after six months. His bull of canonization says, without obvious irony, that his lifelong pursuit of holiness had ill prepared him for the papacy, and it praised him for resigning lest some disaster fall upon the church.

In the case of John XXIII, the personal and the public are closely linked, which helps one to address the question of continuity in his life. We have unusually abundant documentation to help make an assessment. Roncalli was encouraged in his seminary days to keep a spiritual diary, and he was more or less faithful to the task until the end of his life; under his title, The Journal of a Soul, it was published within a year of his death. In addition, he kept a daily record of his activities which, if it contains rather dull accounts of activities and encounters, often enough includes immediate comments on contemporary events, on his experiences and conversations, and even on daily health problems, major and minor. These notebooks have been published only in part, although they were made available to some biographers and to those responsible for drawing up the case for his canonization.

The old maxim, "Nosce teipsum" (know thyself), appears often in Roncalli’s writings, and his journals reveal that he knew himself rather well. He knew he was garrulous and struggled to guard his tongue; he had to fight against what he called his natural sloth. He knew he was by nature simple and unpretentious, friendly, courteous, and patient, and he regularly questioned whether this temperament did not lead him to fail in some of his duties. He knew also that it led some people not to take him seriously. But here, too, his personal virtues, he thought, were publicly and evangelically significant. In a retreat reflection, he wrote: "I would not mind being thought a fool since even a fool should help people to understand what I firmly believe and shall assert as long as I live, that the gospel is immutable and that in the gospel Jesus teaches us to be ’gentle and humble’ (Matt. 11:29), which, of course, does not mean weak and simple minded."

As pope, Roncalli often found it necessary to recall that lesson. Although some people thought that "even the everyday language of the pope should be full of mystery and awe," he himself preferred simplicity and prudence. "Know-it-alls" might dismiss this simplicity, but such humiliations should be ignored. "A simple man is not ashamed to profess the gospel, even before people who consider it to be nothing but weakness and childish nonsense...; he does not let himself be deceived or prejudiced by his fellows, nor does he lose his peace of mind, however they may treat him." And prudence, he said, enables one to discern, to concentrate on the substance, and to avoid being distracted by the accidental-a distinction which, as the church historian Giuseppe Alberigo has pointed out, Roncalli applied early on to the modeling of his life on the lives of the saints and later, in his opening speech to the council, to the presentation of the faith.

What emerges from Roncalli’s journal and notebooks, in addition to the published editions of his writings, speeches, sermons, and letters, is a remarkably consistent spiritual biography. This record reveals his personal search for holiness and shows how deeply his most significant public acts, in his successive offices, were rooted in it. The spiritual continuity is everywhere visible; what changed were the opportunities he was given to demonstrate its significance beyond the sanctification of his own soul. A recognizable pattern is established early.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born on November 25, 1881, in the village of Sotto il Monte near the city of Bergamo in northern Italy. The fourth of thirteen children of poor sharecroppers, he remained rooted in his family and region all his life. He began his seminary studies in Bergamo and completed them at the Apollinaris in Rome, from which he received a doctorate in 1904, the same year he was ordained. For nine years he served as secretary to the bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, about whom he would write a memoir. "My bishop" was how he affectionately referred to the man from whom he said he learned what it meant to be a bishop. During the same period he also taught apologetics, church history, and patristics in the Bergamo seminary and had to survive a brief and unjust accusation of sympathy with Modernists. After serving as a chaplain in the Italian army during World War I, he was appointed spiritual director in the seminary, where he also began his chief scholarly work, a multivolume study of Saint Charles Borromeo.

In 1921 Roncalli was called to Rome to organize an Italian office for the propagation of the faith. Four years later he was ordained an archbishop and sent on what was supposed to be a six-month assignment as apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. The appointment lasted nine years, until 1934, when he was appointed apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece. The twenty years of these difficult diplomatic tasks, in which he did not distinguish himself, exposed Roncalli to the worlds of Orthodoxy and Islam, gave him some opportunity to exercise a pastoral episcopal ministry, and put him in a position, during World War II, to assist Jewish refugees from Nazism.

Little in his career or in his accomplishments would have suggested him for his next assignment. At the end of 1944, he became apostolic nuncio to France. Many historians point to Pius XII’s anger at General Charles de Gaulle to explain Roncalli’s unexpected selection. De Gaulle had insisted on the Vatican recall of the man who had served as nuncio under the Vichy regime and threatened a purge of French bishops accused of being Nazi collaborators. Pius XII told Roncalli that the appointment was his own choice, made in the hope that Roncalli’s gentle manner might accomplish more than aggressiveness. But some historians are skeptical and suggest that by moving a little-regarded diplomat from one of the lowest posts in the Vatican service to one of its most important, Pius XII had found the best way to express his irritation with de Gaulle.

The nine years of Roncalli’s service in Paris were a time of great excitement and turmoil. The worker-priest experiment and the controversies over the so-called "new theology" were in full flower. Yves Congar called it "one of the finest moments in the history of the church." That Roncalli took much interest in it, however, is not obvious in the scant documentation available for this period. In fact, there is little evidence to offset the image Roncalli created of a gregarious chatterbox who combined a peasant’s slyness with a diplomat’s tact ("A half-turn to the right, a half-turn to the left," is how he described his style), but showed no great interest in or sympathy with the ideas, movements, and events of the period. His service does not seem to have been more highly appreciated in Rome than it was in France, and he does not seem to have been involved in the often traumatic resolutions of the various crises.

In 1953 he was made a cardinal and appointed patriarch of Venice. Seventy-two years old at the time, he might have been expected to end his days there in a pastoral ministry to which he was delighted to return. Perhaps the most remarked-upon fact about Roncalli’s ministry was that he was much less intransigent than the Vatican and other Italian bishops with regard to the first stages of the "opening to the left" in Italian politics.

What are we to make of this ostensibly lackluster record? Two phrases recur frequently in Roncalli’s journal and notebooks and are crucial to understanding how the man saw his vocation: "Obedience and peace," the episcopal motto he chose in 1934, and "Your will our peace," a phrase he took from Saint Gregory Nazianzen. Speaking of these two aphorisms, he said, "This is the mystery of my life; don’t look for other explanations."

Roncalli was convinced that a divine providence guided his and every other life. He believed that his ecclesiastical superiors were a primary way in which the will of God was mediated to him, and that, in surrender to that will, he would find peace. This did not mean that he was uncritical or uncomplaining. He spoke on more than one occasion of the crosses he had to bear. But he also possessed a remarkable serenity, which he attributed to his faith and to his surrender. On the eve of Vatican II, conscious of his age and the state of his health, he characteristically thanked God for being given the opportunity to open the council but was equally willing to say his "fiat voluntas tua" if it was God’s will that another pope see it through.

The council was proof enough that this sense of peace did not induce passivity, but enabled Roncalli, throughout his life, to conceive and to undertake various initiatives, large and small. In 1928 he wrote: "Once one has renounced everything, I mean everything, boldness becomes the simplest and most natural thing in the world." "A power of bold simplicity" occurs in a self-description after he became pope, and just before Vatican II opened, he noted the "second grace" for which he was grateful: "To have been able to accept as simple and practicable certain ideas which were not at all complex in themselves, indeed quite simple, but far-reaching in their effects and future significance, and with immediate success. Proof that one should accept the good inspirations of the Lord ’simply and confidently.’" He went on to illustrate the point by what he called the "inspiration" to call the council. He did not mean that God had tapped him on the shoulder and whispered the word "council" in his ear. He did mean that his idea was not entirely his own ("My merit your mercy," was another favorite adage), and that its divine grace was confirmed when he brought the idea to his closest advisers.

Pope John spoke of the importance of self-knowledge and the dangers of trusting too much in one’s own ideas. Roncalli found gentleness and humility-and patience-too often lacking in churchmen. "A caress is better than a sting," he once wrote; he preferred the style of Saint Francis de Sales to that of Saint Jerome. If he knew his own temptation was to be too patient and to keep quiet, he found the opposite vices even more dangerous, whether within his own household or in public affairs. He was grateful for the thirty years of contact with a larger world than that of the Roman curia; it made him "inclined to gather the good wherever he finds it, not wasting time and energies on investigating evils." Long before he spoke of "prophets of doom" in his opening speech to the council, he was critical of those who did nothing but bemoan the evils of the modern world. The image of the "medicine of mercy" which he famously contrasted to the "weapons of severity" was anticipated years earlier when he spoke of the duty of bishops "to spread the balsamic oil of sweetness over the wounds of humanity."

It was and is common for "Good Pope John’s" openness to be dismissed as "naive optimism." (Why does no one speak of the "naive pessimism" of those who blame everything on the devil?) When he saw evil, he was able to identify and denounce it. But where he differed from many of his predecessors and contemporaries was in the spirit of faith and confidence with which he faced the world. "Distrustful souls," he wrote in December 1961, "see only darkness burdening the face of the earth. We prefer instead to reaffirm all our confidence in our Savior who has not abandoned the world which he redeemed. Indeed, we make our own the recommendation of Jesus that we learn to distinguish ’the signs of the times,’ and we seem to see now in the midst of so much darkness more than a few indications that augur well for the fate of the church and of humanity." The conviction that God was still present and active in the world, as in the church, lay behind his frequent remark that the church is not a museum of antiques but a living garden of life.

If Roncalli had died as patriarch of Venice, he certainly would not be widely remembered today. In the aftermath of Vatican II, however, the nearly universal grief that followed his death led to proposals that the council canonize him by acclamation. Pope Paul VI refused. His reasons were threefold: the problem of departing from the ordinary process; he was also being besieged with requests for the canonization of Pius XII; and, it seems, because some of the proposals subtly implied a contrast between what was taken to be John XXIII’s vision of the council and the orientations his successor was thought to be giving it. Instead, on November 18, 1965, Paul VI announced that he was authorizing the introduction of the causes of both John XXIII and Pius XII and that the process would follow the normal procedures. The failure of the canonization effort at the council, especially the linkage with Pius XII, deeply disappointed some people who saw it as emblematic of the failure of Vatican II to live up to the goals of John XXIII.

The early stages in the canonization process proceeded apace but then stalled. It was Pope John Paul II who insisted that it be vigorously pursued, and earlier this year it was announced that the beatification of John XXIII will take place on September 3, the feast of Gregory the Great. In some press accounts this act was linked with the expected beatification, not of Pius XII, but of Pius IX. This connection suggests a desire to link the two Vatican Councils, the present pope and other high Vatican officials being concerned to offset efforts to view Vatican II as a "rupture" of the church’s tradition. John XXIII, it may surprise some, would probably be pleased by the association: several times in his diary he expressed the hope that he himself could canonize Pius IX.

Pope John’s canonization should help to illuminate the constants in his spiritual journey. The sources on which he regularly drew remained quite traditional ones: the Scriptures, the fathers of the church, the breviary, the liturgy, the lives of the saints, the Imitation of Christ, and other spiritual classics. No less familiar, at least to older Catholics, were the practices to which he remained faithful: the rosary and other popular devotions, weekly confession, annual retreats, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. His favorite saints were Joseph, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and Francis de Sales.

The same spiritual orientations appear throughout Roncalli’s adult life. His spirituality was that of a Christian, of course, but also that of a priest, and his self-examination always kept these two dimensions of his life in close connection: it was as priest, bishop, pope that he was to be a Christian, as a Christian that he was to be a church leader. As he remarked, it was the serenity that came from surrender to God’s will that gave him the bold freedom to act as he did when his unlikely journey brought him to the papacy.

Several times in his writings, Pope John quoted a description of Saint Martin: "He neither feared to die nor refused to live." The sentence conveys what is called "holy indifference," an attitude of utter openness to the will of God. For the last fifteen years of his life, the idea that his death could be near is a frequent theme in his notes. He prayed that he would be able to endure pain. When in fact his final illness came (doctors diagnosed his stomach cancer in October 1962, but seem not to have told him), he was ready. His notes detail the onset of the difficulties, embarrassments, and sufferings of his disease ("How do you feel, Holy Father?" he was asked. "Like Saint Lawrence on the grill," he replied), until on May 31, 1963, his secretary, Monsignor Loris Capovilla, fulfilled a promise he had made long before and told him: "Holy Father, I am now performing the same duty that you performed for Monsignor Radini at the end of his life. The hour has come; the Lord is calling you." The press was informed and, as older people will remember, it seemed that the whole world gathered in a vigil around his deathbed.

At seven on the evening of June 3rd, the Monday after Pentecost, a Mass was celebrated for Pope John in Saint Peter’s Square below the apartment where he lay dying. I was in that crowd. Half-full as the Mass began, the square was crowded by the time it ended. Around 7:40 the Ite missa est was chanted and we began to sing "Ubi caritas et amor ibi Deus est." Above in his room, where the hymn could be heard, John XXIII trembled for an instant and peacefully died.

The days that followed were a remarkable tribute to the person and the work of Pope John. More than one Protestant noted the paradox of their mourning the death of a pope. Universal grief was a first testimony in the process that this year will pass a major milestone when Pope John Paul II beatifies John XXIII and confirms the gospel peace and freedom that characterized that serene man and defined his bold ministry.

Published in the 2000-08-11 issue: 

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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