Today is the Feast of Blessed John XXIII, the beloved "Papa Roncalli." Here is a reflection on his life from My Life with the Saints.
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was the third of thirteen children, born in 1881, into the Roncalli family, who were poor farmers in the town of Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo. As a boy, Angelo is devoted to his mother, Marianna, who teaches him his first poem, about the Blessed Mother. About his father he writes his journal: "My father is a peasant who spends his days digging and hoeing...and I am worth much less, for my father is at least simple and good, while I am full of malice."
Angelo is a cheerful and naturally religious boy, who is delighted when his normally reserved father hoists him on his shoulders to get a glimpse of a church procession in a nearby town. He recalls this incident when, as pope, he is first carried into St. Peter's Basilica on his grand sedia gestatoria, the portable papal throne. "Once again I am being carried....More than seventy years ago I was carried on the shoulders of my father at Ponte San Pietro...The secret of life is to let oneself be carried by God and so carry Him [to others]."
Not surprisingly, Angelo decides to study for the priesthood, and enters the minor seminary in Bergamo at age 12. His childhood piety continues unabated. The biographer Peter Hebblethwaite, in his book John XXIII: Pope of the Century, says simply, "His aim in life was to be a holy priest."
In 1904, Roncalli is ordained in Rome, and receives his doctorate in sacred theology from the Roman College. The next year Don Roncalli is appointed secretary for the new, reform-minded bishop of Bergamo. One day, by chance, he stumbles upon the archive of the papers of St. Charles Borromeo, the Milanese archbishop who was active in the Council of Trent. The project of editing Borromeo's archives would take Roncalli almost the rest of his life: the last volume would appear in 1957. As Hebblethwaite notes, Roncalli's familiarity with these papers deepened his understanding that the Council of Trent was not an "anti-Protestant polemic" but as a "reforming council." It would be a lesson put to use many years later.
When the First World War erupts, Don Roncalli is conscripted into the Italian army as a hospital orderly and, later, as a military chaplain. The experience affects him deeply. While he will always maintain that "war is and remains the greatest evil," he experiences a sense of God's presence beside the men with whom he served. A few years after the war, in 1920, Roncalli speaks of ministering to the dying and wounded men: "It often happened—permit me this personal memory—that I had to fall on my knees and cry like a child, alone in my room, unable to contain the emotion I felt at the simple and holy deaths of so many of the poor sons of our people."
After the war, Pope Benedict XV appoints Roncalli as the national director of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, known by its Latin name, Propaganda Fide. In this role he is to provide for the needs of the church in what were called "mission territories." Besides collecting funds for overseas dioceses, Roncalli is asked to promote the ordination of local clergy in the mission territories, encourage missionary orders to set aside any nationalist tendencies, and exhort Italian Catholics to pray for the needs of the mission church. In his extensive travels around the Italian dioceses and his work with various missionary orders, he begins to acquire an understanding of the worldwide church, another resource upon which he will draw in later life.
Because of Roncalli's success at Propaganda Fide—and in particular his interest in Charles Borromeo, the former archbishop of Milan—he come to the attention of the current archbishop of Milan, named Achille Ratti. In 1922 Ratti is elected pope, taking the name Pius XI. This friendship will begin Roncalli's career in the Vatican: in 1925 he is told that he has been named "apostolic visitor," to Bulgaria.
Roncalli objects, saying (truthfully) that he has no diplomatic experience and, worse, the assignment would take him away from his beloved family. (His two unmarried sisters, who look after him in Rome, are deeply attached to their brother.) But after meeting with his family and spending time in prayer he agrees. Before Roncalli departs, Pius XI comments that when he himself had served as a Vatican diplomat in Poland, it proved awkward working with other bishops without having been one himself. So Roncalli is consecrated archbishop, and takes up his residence in Sofia, where he will stay for the next ten years.
The position proves arduous. "Bulgaria is my cross," he writes candidly. But Roncalli accepts it freely, and with an open heart he tries to do his best. (He chooses for his bishop's motto Obedientia et Pax—Obedience and Peace.) "I'm sincerely ready to stay here until I die, if obedience wants it. I let others waste their time dreaming about what might happen to me....The idea that one would be better off somewhere else is an illusion." During his assignment he cares for the 62,000 Bulgarian Catholics, often reaching their poor villages by mule or on horseback. At the same time he deals deftly with the variety of Christian denominations in the country: the Bulgarian Catholics are a minority in a country where the official church was the Bulgarian Orthodox one. By the time he leaves the country, Archbishop Roncalli is widely admired for his perseverance, good humor and patience.
His next diplomatic role will likewise call on his ecumenical skills: having earned the reputation as an expert on the Balkan region, Roncalli is appointed apostolic administrator in Istanbul.
Here too the archbishop will deal with a wide variety of Christian denominations. First of course are the Catholics in his reign—about 35,000 living around Istanbul: "Latin" Catholics from France, Italy, Germany and Austria; as well as "Uniate" Catholics including Armenians, Chaldeans, Syrians, Maronites, Melkites, Bulgarians and Greeks. In addition, Archbishop Roncalli is responsible for entering into good relations with the 100,000 Orthodox Christians in the area and negotiating with the often suspicious Turkish government as the world is consumed once again by war. During the Second World War he does what he can to prevent the deportation of Jews from German-occupied Greece. Indeed, his journals show special concern for the Jews, who he calls "children of the promise." Once again Roncalli's deft diplomacy earns him favor in the Vatican. In 1944 he receives word of his appointment as apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, to France.
Postwar France calls on all of Roncalli's diplomatic skills. An initial challenge will be treating the delicate issue of "collaborationist" bishops, that is, those bishops who cooperated with the pro-Nazi Vichy régime. (In the end they are discreetly removed.) He deals deftly with the new worker-priest movement. His time in France also coincides with the flowering of "la nouvelle théologie," championed by such French Catholic scholars as the Jesuit Henri de Lubac and the Dominican Yves Congar. Their theology would emphasize a return to Scripture and to the early church fathers; it would also provoke condemnations from many in the Vatican. Archbishop Roncalli handles all of these concerns with charity and tact.
The nuncio also becomes a fixture in larger French cultural world. His French, however, is far from fluent. After a microphone malfunctions during one of his Masses, he says, "Dear children, you have heard nothing of what I was saying. Don't worry. It wasn't very interesting. I don't speak French very well. My saintly mother, who was a peasant, didn't make me learn it early enough!"
Archbishop Roncalli is especially popular with the diplomatic corps in France, of whom, by longstanding protocol, the Vatican nuncio was the head. Their respect may have been a tribute to his diplomatic skills, but their affection was a tribute to his personality, his warmth and, often, his wit. During a dinner party in Paris he was asked, "Aren't you embarrassed, Monseigneur, when there are women present who wear very low-cut dresses? It's often a scandal." "A scandal? Why no," the nuncio replied, "When there's a woman with a plunging neckline, they don't look at her. They look at the apostolic nuncio to see how he's taking it."
Roncalli had faithfully kept a journal his whole life that he began in his days as a seminarian. Published after his death as Journal of a Soul, it is a remarkable document that gives the reader a sense of the sweep of Catholic history from 1895 through 1961. Yet when I first read it not long after the Long Retreat at Gloucester, it seemed remarkable less for its historical interest than for its spiritual value; it offers a window into the soul of one of the great religious figures of our time. Moreover, it shows that Roncalli's spiritual stance scarcely changed over his lifetime. Paradoxically, his spiritual "growth" consisted in maintaining the simple piety of his youth in the face of his increasing authority and power.
It is a piety based on humility and obedience, and a reliance on God that only deepens as Roncalli moves up in Vatican circles. A few weeks after a seminary retreat in 1898, he writes: "A month has already gone by since I came out from the holy Exercises. Where I have got to now in the way of virtue? Oh poor me!" in preparation for consecration as bishop in 1925 he writes, "I have not sought or desired this new ministry: the Lord has chosen me, making it so clear that it is his will that it would be a grave sin for me to refuse. So it will be for him to cover up my failings and supply my insufficiencies. This comforts me and gives me tranquillity and confidence." And three years after his taking over as nuncio in Paris, in 1947, he says: "The sense of unworthiness keeps me good company: it makes me put all my trust in God." The constant thread woven through his journals is that of a desire for humility and a reliance on God, to be "carried by God" as he would say later.
He will need all of his humility in the coming years. In 1952 Archbishop Roncalli is informed that he would soon named a cardinal and to prepare to become archbishop of Venice. Before departing Paris he invites to dinner the eight men who had served as prime minister during Roncalli's term as nuncio. Only under the nuncio's roof, say Parisians, could so French politicians with such diverse views meet in such a friendly way.
When he assumes leadership of the archdiocese in a grand ceremony (the city's gondoliers had repainted their gondolas in preparation) he was 71. Over the door to his study he places the motto Pastor et Pater—pastor and father—to remind him of the nature of his new job, which he expects will be his last. He enjoys Venice, its people, its history. Even the rumors of his being papabile, that is, possible papal material, he dismisses. "Who wants to be more than a cardinal?," he writes to his sister Maria.
But in 1958, at the conclave to select a successor to Pius XII, Roncalli becomes one of the early favorites. And after eleven ballots, at 4:50 in the afternoon of October 28, Cardinal Roncalli is elected pope. He had feared this, had wished that it were not so, but in the end his lifelong trust in God does not fail him. "Listening to your voice," he tells the conclave, "I tremble and am seized with fear. What I know of my poverty and smallness is enough to cover me with confusion. But seeing the sign of God's will in the votes of my brother cardinals in the Holy Roman Church, I accept the decision they have made...."
The dean of the college of cardinals asks the new pope by what name he will be called. As many of his biographers have noted, his choice will be the first of many innovations: "I will be called John," he says, resurrecting a name that had been thought unsalvageable, thanks to the murderous "anti-pope" John XXIII, who reigned in the fourteenth century. But no matter for Roncalli: "The name of John is dear to me," he explains to the assembled cardinals, "because it is the name of my father, because it is the name of the humble parish church where we were baptized, and because it is the name of innumerable cathedrals throughout the world." It has taken him only a few minutes to begin to change the church.
Immediately after his election, Roncalli is escorted into an anteroom where a Roman tailor has at the ready two white papal cassocks—one for a thin pope and one for a fat one. But even the larger cassock does not fit the 205-pound pontiff. In the end the tailors used safety pins and covered his ample girth with a surplice, hiding their handiwork before the television cameras. And so, in contrast with his gaunt, ascetic, taciturn predecessor, Pius XII, a portly, jovial and garrulous Pope John XXIII walks onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square with a smile, to the overjoyed crowds.
Even on this day he records an entry in his diary. His thoughts go back to his early life. "Today the entire world writes and talks of nothing but me: the person and the name. O my dear parents, O mother, O my father and grandfather Angelo, O my uncle Zaviero, where are you? What has brought this honor upon you? Continue to pray for me."
During the first few months of his pontificate the contrast between John and his predecessor becomes apparent: John is more loving grandfather than stern uncle. And he better understands how to engage the world outside the Vatican walls. During his first Christmas Pope John visits the Bambin Gesu children's hospital and revives the custom of visiting prisoners at the nearby Regina Coeli prison. While there the pope embraces a prisoner who had asked, "Can there be forgiveness for me?" His visit was much noted in a world accompanied to the seemingly otherworldly predecessor. But for Angelo Roncalli this was simply what needed to be done as pater et pastor did. Besides, as he explained to the prisoners, his uncle was once thrown into this same jail for poaching. (The comment is not repeated by the official Vatican news account at the time.)
John Long, a Jesuit studying in Rome at the time, once told me of a visit of John XXIII to the Pontifical Oriental Institute. The pope, seated on a throne-like chair in the middle of a large hall, read out his prepared remarks to a group of 120 students gathered in one of the church's most prestigious schools. (Father Long remembers the pope's feet not even touching the floor.) After he had finished delivering a dry, formal address, he handed the text to an aide, settled comfortably into his chair. "That was the official part," he said. "Now let's talk!"
In 1959, only three months after his election, following a Mass with a handful of cardinals, he astonishes his listeners by announcing his intention for an ecumenical council. His intention, to "let some fresh air" into the church, to encourage a kind of updating, or aggiornamento, catches almost everyone off guard. Including, it would seem, himself. "The Council did not ripen in me as the fruit of long meditation," he says, "but came forth like the flower of an unexpected spring." He envisions not a "doctrinal" council that will propose theological dogmas and issue condemnations, but rather a "pastoral" council, one that will address the relationship of the church to the modern world.
Many observers, and not a few cardinals, had predicted that Pope John XXIII would be a "transitional pope," to continue the policies of his predecessor until a younger man could be elected. As Robert Ellsberg noted in his book All Saints, he will indeed be a transitional pope—but in a different way: by bridging two eras of the church. John will see the church move from one which is largely suspicious of the modern world to one which seeks to engage that same world with a spirit of openness and optimism.
Privately, some express anger at what they see as his presumption. What's wrong with the church that it needs to be changed? Francis Cardinal Spellman, the powerful archbishop of New York, writes to a friend, "How dare he summon a council after one hundred years, and only three months after his election? Pope John is rash and impulsive."
While John would never learn of Spellman's comments, he will hear similar things from other fearful cardinals, suspicious bishops and threatened members of the Roman Curia. In his Opening Address to the Second Vatican Council, on October 11, 1962, he responds to this kind of thinking, as well as to those in the church who are fearful of the contemporary world per se.
"In the daily exercise of our public office," he tells 2,500 bishops gathered from around the world in St. Peter's Basilica, "we sometimes have to listen—much to our regret—to voices of persons who, though burning with religious zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion of measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin....We feel we must disagree with these prophets of gloom. In the present order of things, divine providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by human effort, and even beyond human expectation, are directed toward the fulfillment of God's higher and inscrutable designs; and everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the church."
The Second Vatican Council will be called the most important religious event of the twentieth century. The assembled cardinals, archbishops and bishops are joined by—yet another innovation—Catholic laypersons, women religious, as well as representatives of other religious denominations. Over the next three years the Council will address an astonishing array of topics: relations with other Christian denominations, religious liberty, relations with the Jewish people, the church in the modern world and the liturgy.
Throughout his short pontificate, John will emphasize similar themes. He is a tireless advocate of the cause of Christian unity, of social justice, of human rights, and world peace. His 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris is conceived during the Cuban Missile Crisis (an event in which John plays an important behind-the-scenes role). In this document, addressed for the first time not simply to Catholics but to "all men of good will," he emphasizes the dignity of the human person as the foundation for any moral system.
Seeking to read the "signs of the times," in Pacem in Terris John contemplates the world and sees many positive developments: among them the desire of workers for a just wage, the desire of women to be treated with dignity and respect, and the growing belief that imperialism is rapidly becoming an anachronism. All of these observations, as Peter Hebblethwaite points out, "were instances of emancipation or liberation."
In order to protect and promote these and other fundamental human rights which flow from the "astonishing order" in the universe created by God, John identifies in Pacem in Terris the need for bills of rights, written constitutions and the "rule of law." He speaks of the "universal common good" with its support of the work of the United Nations system. And—something new for a church that had previously argued the opposite—he affirms the right of every person "to worship God in accordance with the rights of his own conscience."
Most especially, John calls for peace in the midst of a dangerous nuclear age: "In this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation on justice." The only options in an increasingly complex political world are dialogue and reconciliation, also themes from his Council. In his encyclical, John echoes the work of the Council fathers; like them, he sees the Holy Spirit at work in the modern world, and calls on the Catholic community to respond.
John's colleagues describe him as particularly determined to publish Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) as a means of influencing the later progress of the Council. For Angelo Roncalli now knows that he will not live to see the conclusion of the ecumenical council he has called. In September of 1962 he is diagnosed with stomach cancer.
His last few months are painful ones; he grows increasingly feeble, and is eventually bedridden. During his illness he confides this to a friend visiting him: "The secret of my ministry is in that crucifix you see opposite my bed. It's there so I can see it in my first waking moment and before going to sleep. It's there, also, so that I can talk to it during the long evening hours. Look at it, see it as I see it. Those open arms have been the program for my pontificate: they say that Christ died for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, his forgiveness."
When Angelo Roncalli dies on June 3, 1963, he is universally mourned. A Jesuit friend of mine, living in Rome at the time, found himself in a taxi when news of the John's death was reported over the radio. "I'm not a Catholic," said the tearful cab driver to my friend, "But he was our pope, too."
James Martin, SJ