Pope John XXIII: Vicar of Christ

In honor of the pending canonization of Pope John XXIII, Loyola Press and James Martin, S.J., have graciously allowed us to print this chapter from Father Martin's book, My Life with the Saints.

Once you have renounced everything, really everything, then any bold enterprise becomes the simplest and most natural thing in all the world.
Angelo Roncalli, May 5, 1928

The retreat complex at Eastern Point is dominated by a sprawling mansion, once called “Blighty” and built by a wealthy Boston couple eager to escape the sultry city summers. Not surprisingly, the rooms are currently used for purposes far different from what the original builders intended. The oak-paneled living room, whose focus is a huge fireplace, is now reserved in the evenings for prayer and meditation. In the autumn and winter, retreatants sit before the fire as they think about the day’s prayer, quietly read their Bibles, or pen a few notes in a journal. The marble-floored dining room, whose windows face the horizon, serves as the house chapel; there the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated Host, is reserved for private meditation—the devotional practice known by Catholics as “adoration.”In June, after spending four months working with Mother Teresa’s sisters, I returned to the States and began my long retreat at the Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, an easy place to pray.


Blighty’s former solarium is now a small meditation chapel. Two sides are made up of floor-to-ceiling windows that afford a clear view of the retreat house grounds. Terra-cotta tiles cover the floor; blue and pink pillows are pushed up against the wall for one to sit on during prayer. In the middle of the room stands a delicately carved wooden statue of Mary, who cradles the infant Jesus. Sunlight has faded the bright colors of her gown to a pale rose and a paler cornflower blue. Even in winter, with snow swirling outside the windows, the room exudes warmth.

But it is not the mansion that attracts so many to Gloucester (the house is always full); it is what surrounds it. For both the main house and the connecting buildings sit on a windswept promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Because of the retreat house’s position, the sea surrounds it, and you never feel far from the Atlantic. The sea is there as you eat your meals, inescapable as you peer through the large plate-glass windows in the dining room. In the morning sun, with the sea colored a steely blue, the lobstermen drop their traps from their small boats. In the afternoon, plowing the now green-brown water, they return to haul in the day’s catch. The sea is there as you brush your teeth or read or pray in your little room. (Even if you don’t have an “ocean view” you can still hear the waves.) And it is there, unseen, as you amble around the grounds of the retreat house—through the brambles and the bushes, over the gravel paths, or under the fragrant evergreen trees.

I spent much of the time during those thirty days on the huge rocks that line the beachfront at Eastern Point. Walking directly away from the house, you push through sea grasses and wildflowers on a dirt path leading to cliffs of pinkish gray granite that tower above the ocean. You can stand there for hours watching the pounding waves and feeling the occasional mist of salt spray. You can observe the cormorants, seagulls, swans, and mallards that fly the short distance from the ocean to a freshwater pond on the other side of the retreat house. You can watch the magnificent sunsets, the dense morning fogs, and the dramatic North Atlantic storms that announce their arrival with blue-black clouds on the horizon. And you can think about creation and God’s marvelous works.

In my mind, it is the perfect setting for a retreat: the ideal place to pray and to be encouraged to pray.

At the beginning of the thirty days, the assistant novice director, named David, laid out a few simple rules. First, I was to observe complete silence, except for daily meetings with him for spiritual direction. Second, there were to be at least three one-hour-long prayer periods each day. I soon decided that praying after meals worked best: it was an easy schedule to remember, and the torpor that overcame me after meals made it a natural time to sit still. Third, I could not do any reading—except for the lives of the saints, and only before bedtime. Here was another opportunity to meet a new saint; during my time in Gloucester, I plowed through Richard Marius’s splendid biography Thomas More.

Though I imagined that the silence would be the most difficult requirement (a friend asked if I could remain silent for thirty minutes, let alone thirty days), it was the no-reading policy that proved most challenging. While I readily gave myself to prayer, I never lost the desire to read or the tendency—at least occasionally—to find myself bored. Halfway through the retreat, I glumly told David that I felt guilty I was bored. At heart, I was starting to fear that I wouldn’t “change” enough as a result of the retreat.

David smiled and counseled patience. “You know,” he said, “you brought along all your old habits and desires on retreat, and you’ll probably leave with most of them. You’re still a human being, after all! It’s what God does with those habits and desires that will be important.”

One night, around ten o’clock, I was exploring the house library, a small, wood-paneled room with the typically motley jumble of old, used, worn, and downright ugly furniture that characterizes “Jesuit style.” (In fairness, the little library at Eastern Point has since been spruced up.) Poking through the shelves, I came upon a book called Wit and Wisdom of Good Pope John.

Published in 1964, not long after the pope’s death, the book had torn and yellowed pages. Despite David’s warning not to lose myself in books, the temptation to peek inside was irresistable. After a few pages I was hooked: who knew John XXIII was so funny? Of course, not all the stories were laugh-out-loud funny. And I had already heard his famous answer to the journalist who asked innocently, “How many people work in the Vatican?”

“About half of them,” said His Holiness.

But the passage that made me laugh in the retreat house (and drew pointed glances from more silent retreatants) was one that placed the pope in a Roman hospital called the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Shortly after entering the building, he was introduced to the sister who ran the hospital.

“Holy Father,” she said, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”

“You’re very lucky,” said the pope, delighted. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”

It was that somewhat frivolous story that drew me to John XXIII. How wonderful to keep his sense of humor, even while holding a position of such authority, when he could easily have become cold or authoritarian. How wonderful to have a sense of humor at all! A requirement of the Christian life, I think.

It reminded me of a story I had heard from a friend about Fr. Pedro Arrupe, the former superior general of the Jesuits, often called “Father General,” or, more simply, “the General.” Once, Father General was visiting Xavier High School in New York City, which has, since its founding, sponsored a military cadet corps for its boys, a sort of junior ROTC. For his visit, the school’s cadets, in full uniform, lined both sides of the street. When Father General emerged from his car, the phalanx of cadets snapped to attention and saluted crisply.

He turned to my friend. “Now,” he said, “I feel like a real general!”

Pope John XXIII had a similarly wry sense of humor, and who couldn’t love a pope who had a sense of humor? Who couldn’t feel affection for a man who was so comfortable with himself that he constantly made jokes about his height (which was short), his ears (which were big), and his weight (which was considerable). When he once met a little boy named Angelo, he exclaimed, “That was my name, too!” And then, conspiratorially, “But then they made me change it!”

For his humor, his openness, his generosity, and his warmth, many people loved him: Good Pope John.

But to see John XXIII as a sort of papal Santa Claus is to only partly understand him. An experienced diplomat, a veteran of ecumenical dialogue, and a gifted pastor and bishop, he brought a wealth of experience to the office of pope.

* * *

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born in 1881, the third of thirteen children of the Roncalli family, who were poor farmers in the town of Sotto il Monte, Italy, near Bergamo. As a boy, Angelo was devoted to his mother, Marianna, who taught him his first poem, about the Blessed Mother. About his father he wrote in 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 was a cheerful and naturally religious boy who was delighted when his normally reserved father hoisted him on his shoulders to get a glimpse of a church procession in a nearby town. He recalled this incident when, as pope, he was 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 decided to study for the priesthood and entered the minor seminary in Bergamo at age eleven. His childhood piety continued 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 was ordained in Rome, a few weeks after receiving his doctorate in sacred theology from the Roman College. The next year Don Roncalli was appointed secretary for the new, reform-minded bishop of Bergamo. One day, by chance, he stumbled 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 took Roncalli almost the rest of his life: the last volume appeared 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 a “reforming council.” It was a lesson he would put to use many years later.

When the First World War erupted, Don Roncalli was conscripted into the Italian army as a hospital orderly and, later, a military chaplain. The experience affected him profoundly. While he would always maintain that “war is and remains the greatest evil,” he experienced a sense of God’s presence beside the men with whom he served. A few years after the war, in 1920, Roncalli spoke 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 appointed 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 was to provide for the needs of the church in what were called “mission territories.” Besides collecting funds for overseas dioceses, Roncalli was asked to promote the ordination of 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 began to acquire an understanding of the worldwide church, another resource upon which he would draw in later life.

Because of Roncalli’s success at Propaganda Fide—and his interest in Charles Borromeo, the former archbishop of Milan—he came to the attention of the archbishop of Milan, Achille Ratti. In 1922, Ratti was elected pope, taking the name Pius XI. Their friendship began Roncalli’s career in the Vatican; in 1925, he was told that he had been named “apostolic visitor” to Bulgaria.

Roncalli objected, saying (truthfully) that he had no diplomatic experience and, worse, the assignment would take him away from his beloved family. (His two unmarried sisters, who looked after him in Rome, were deeply attached to their brother.) But after meeting with his family and spending time in prayer, he agreed. Before Roncalli departed, Pius XI commented that when he himself had served as a Vatican diplomat in Poland, working with other bishops without being one himself had proved awkward. So Roncalli was consecrated archbishop and took up his residence in Sofia, where he would stay for the next ten years.

The position turned out to be an arduous one. “Bulgaria is my cross,” he wrote candidly. But Roncalli accepted it freely, and with an open heart he tried to do his best. (He chose 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 cared for the sixty-two thousand Bulgarian Catholics, often reaching their poor villages by mule or on horseback. At the same time he dealt deftly with the variety of Christian denominations in the country: the Bulgarian Catholics were a minority in a country where the official church was the Bulgarian Orthodox one. By the time he left the country, Archbishop Roncalli was widely admired for his perseverance, good humor, and patience.

His next diplomatic role called on his ecumenical skills: having earned the reputation as an expert on the Balkan region, Roncalli was appointed apostolic delegate in Istanbul.

Here, too, the archbishop dealt with a wide variety of Christian denominations. First, of course, were the Catholics in his region—about thirty-five thousand 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 was responsible for fostering good relations with the one hundred thousand Orthodox Christians in the area and negotiating with the often suspicious Turkish government as the world was consumed once again by war. During the Second World War he did what he could to prevent the deportation of Jews from German-occupied Greece. Indeed, his journals show his special concern for the Jews, whom he called “children of the promise.” Once again Roncalli’s deft diplomacy earned him favor in the Vatican. In 1944, he received word of his appointment as apostolic ambassador to France.

Postwar France called on all of Roncalli’s diplomatic skills. An initial challenge was treating the delicate issue of “collaborationist” bishops, that is, those bishops who cooperated with the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. (In the end they were discreetly removed.) He skillfully handled the new worker-priest movement. His time in France also coincided 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 emphasized a return to Scripture and to the early church fathers; it also provoked condemnations from many in the Vatican. Archbishop Roncalli handled all of these concerns with charity and tact.

The ambassador, or “nuncio” in Vaticanese, also became a fixture in the larger French cultural world. His French, however, was far from fluent. After a microphone malfunctioned during one of his Masses, he said, “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 was especially popular with the diplomatic corps in France, of whom, by long-standing 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 kept a journal during his days as a seminarian and continued the practice faithfully throughout his life. 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, shortly after my 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 his maintaining the simple piety of his youth in the face of his increasing authority and power.

It is a piety consistently based on humility, obedience, and a reliance on God that only deepened as Roncalli moved up in Vatican circles. A few weeks after a seminary retreat in 1898, he wrote in his journal: “A month has already gone by since I came out from the holy Exercises. Where have I 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 taking over as nuncio in Paris, in 1947, he writes: “The sense of my 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 reliance on God, to be “carried by God,” as he would say later.

He would need all his humility in the coming years. In 1952, Archbishop Roncalli was informed that he would soon be named a cardinal and that he should prepare to become patriarch of Venice. Before departing Paris he invited to dinner eight of the men who had served as prime minister during his term as nuncio. Only under the nuncio’s roof, said Parisians, could so many French politicians with such diverse views meet in such a friendly way.

When he assumed leadership of the archdiocese of Venice in a grand ceremony (the city’s gondoliers had repainted their gondolas in preparation), he was seventy-one. Over the door to his study he placed the motto Pastor et Pater—“Pastor and Father”—to remind him of the nature of his new job, which he expected would be his last. He enjoyed Venice, its people, and its history. Even the rumors of his being papabile, that is, possible papal material, he dismissed. “Who wants to be more than a cardinal?” he wrote to his sister Maria.

But in 1958, at the conclave to select a successor to Pius XII, Roncalli became one of the early favorites. And after eleven ballots, at 4:50 in the afternoon of October 28, Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope. He had feared this, had wished that it would not be so, but in the end his lifelong trust in God didn’t fail him.

“Listening to your voice,” he told 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 asked the new pope what name he would be called by. As many of his biographers have noted, his choice would be the first of many innovations: “I will be called John,” he said, resurrecting a name that had been thought unsalvageable, thanks to the militaristic “antipope” John XXII, who reigned in the fifteenth century. This was of little matter to Roncalli: “The name of John is dear to me,” he explained 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 had taken him only a few minutes to begin to change things.

Immediately after his election, Roncalli was escorted into an anteroom where a Roman tailor had at the ready two white papal cassocks—one for a thin pope and one for a fat one. But even the larger cassock did not fit the 205-pound pontiff. In the end the tailor used safety pins and covered John’s ample girth with a surplice, successfully hiding the handiwork from the television cameras. And so, in contrast with his gaunt, ascetic, taciturn predecessor, Pius XII, a portly, jovial, and garrulous Pope John XXIII walked onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square with a smile for the overjoyed crowds.

Even on this day he recorded an entry in his diary. His thoughts went 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 Zaverio, 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 became apparent: John was more loving grandfather than stern uncle. And he better understood how to engage the world outside the Vatican walls. During his first Christmas as pope, John visited the Bambino Gesù children’s hospital and also revived the custom of visiting prisoners at the nearby Regina Coeli prison. While there, the pope embraced a prisoner who had asked, “Can there be forgiveness for me?” His visit was much noted in a world accustomed to his seemingly otherworldly predecessor. But for Angelo Roncalli, this was simply what needed to be done as Pastor et Pater.

Besides, as he explained to the prisoners, his uncle was once thrown into this same jail for poaching. (The comment was 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 John XXIII made to the Pontifical Oriental Institute. The pope, seated on a thronelike 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. (Fr. Long remembers the pope’s feet not even touching the floor.) After he had finished delivering a dry, formal address, the pope handed the text to an aide and 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 astonished his listeners by announcing his intention for an ecumenical council. His reason, to “let some fresh air” into the church, to encourage a kind of aggiornamento, or updating, caught almost everyone off guard. Including, it would seem, himself. “The Council did not ripen in me as the fruit of long meditation,” he said, “but came forth like the flower of an unexpected spring.” He envisioned not a “doctrinal” council that would propose theological dogmas and issue condemnations, but rather a “pastoral” council that would address the relationship of the church to the modern world.

Many observers, and a few cardinals, had predicted that Pope John XXIII would be a “transitional pope,” who would continue the policies of his predecessor until a younger man could be elected. As Robert Ellsberg notes in his book All Saints, John would indeed be a transitional pope—by bridging two eras of the church. John saw the church move from being largely suspicious of the modern world to seeking to engage that same world with a spirit of openness and optimism.

Privately, some bishops expressed anger at what they saw as his presumption. What was wrong with the church that it needed to be changed? Francis Cardinal Spellman, the powerful archbishop of New York, wrote 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 never learned of Spellman’s comments, he heard 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 responded to this kind of pessimistic thinking, as well as to those in the church who were fearful of the contemporary world.

“In the daily exercise of our public office,” he told twenty-five hundred 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 would be called the most important religious event of the twentieth century. The assembled cardinals, archbishops, and bishops were joined by Catholic laypersons, women religious, and—another innovation—representatives of other religious denominations. Over the next three years the council would 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 emphasized similar themes. He was a tireless advocate of the cause of Christian unity, of social justice, of human rights, and of world peace. His 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), was conceived during the Cuban missile crisis (an event in which John played an important behind-the-scenes role). In this document, the first encyclical to be addressed not simply to Catholics but to “all men of good will,” he emphasized 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 contemplated the world and saw 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 was rapidly becoming an anachronism. All of these observations, as Peter Hebblethwaite pointed out, “were instances of emancipation or liberation.”

To protect and promote these and other fundamental human rights that flow from the “astonishing order” in the universe created by God, John identified in Pacem in Terristhe need for bills of rights, written constitutions, and the “rule of law.” He spoke 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 affirmed the right of every person “to worship God in accordance with the rights of his own conscience.”

In particular, John called 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 were dialogue and reconciliation, also themes from his council.

In his encyclical, John echoed the work of the council fathers; like them, he saw the Holy Spirit at work in the modern world, and he called on the Catholic community to respond.

John’s colleagues described him as particularly determined to publish Pacem in Terrisas a means of influencing the later progress of the council. For Angelo Roncalli now knew that he would not live to see the conclusion of the ecumenical council he had called. In September 1962, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

His last few months were painful ones; he grew increasingly feeble and was eventually bedridden. During his illness he confided 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 died on June 3, 1963, he was universally mourned. A Jesuit friend of mine, living in Rome in 1963, found himself in a taxi when the news of John’s death was reported over the radio. “I’m not a Catholic,” said the tearful cabdriver to my friend, “but he was our pope, too.”

* * *

Soon after finishing the long retreat, I decided that I wanted to know more about Angelo Roncalli than just the few funny stories I had read in the retreat house library. So I slowly made my way through Journal of a Soul and Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography John XXIII: Pope of the Century as a way of getting to know him better.

In time, I realized that I was drawn to John XXIII not as much for his wit, or his writings, or his love of the church, or even his accomplishments as for something more basic: his love for God and for other people. The gentle old man seemed to be one of the most loving of all the saints: always a loving son, a loving brother, a loving priest, a loving bishop, and a loving pope. John radiated Christian love. Was it any wonder that so many people were drawn to him?

These stories from Wit and Wisdom of Good Pope John, collected by Henri Fesquet and published in 1964, are some of those that first attracted me to the person of John XXIII. They are slightly adapted from his book:

As the papal nuncio in France, Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, already a heavyset man, once attended a meeting of the august French Academy. At the end of the meeting the nuncio commented, “It is a beautiful, most impressive place. One hears beautiful things there. Unfortunately, the seats are only large enough for a demi-nuncio.”

* * *

Walking through the streets of Rome one day, Pope John overheard a woman commenting about his obesity to her companion. “God, but he’s fat,” she said. The pope turned to her and said benignly, “But Madame, surely you know the conclave is not a beauty contest!”

* * *

On the night after he announced his plans to convene the Second Vatican Council, John had trouble falling asleep. He later admitted that he talked to himself as follows that night: “Giovanni, why don’t you sleep? Is it the pope or the Holy Spirit who governs the church? It’s the Holy Spirit, no? Well, then, go to sleep, Giovanni!”

* * *

After reading a preparatory schema for the Second Vatican Council that was exceptionally hostile in its treatment of modern theologians and biblical scholars, Pope John grabbed a ruler, measured the page, and exclaimed to one of his colleagues, “Look, there are thirty centimeters of condemnations in the schema!”

* * *

Early in John’s pontificate, a young boy named Bruno wrote the pontiff to ask for some career advice. “My dear pope,” he wrote. “I am undecided. I want to be a policeman or a pope. What do you think?

“My little Bruno,” responded the pope, “if you want my opinion, learn how to be a policeman, because that cannot be improvised. As regards being pope, you will see later. Anybody can be pope; the proof of this is that I have become one. If you should ever be in Rome, come to see me. I would be glad to talk all this over with you.”

I realized that John could teach me a great deal about love and about something else as well: chastity.

Chastity may be the most difficult thing to explain about life in a religious order. For most people, it conjures up the stereotype of the hateful, cold priest or the repressed, bitter nun—both of them out of touch with their own sexuality, closed off to the world of love and human relationships, as well as rigid, spiteful, and even a little cruel. And crazy, too. Definitely crazy.

Before continuing, I should explain that, even though they are used interchangeably, there is a difference between chastity and celibacy. Chastity refers to the proper and loving use of one’s sexuality, and this is something everyone is called to. In his book on human sexuality, In Pursuit of Love, Vincent J. Genovesi, SJ, offers this helpful reflection on chastity:

Living as a chaste person requires that the physical and external expressions of our sexuality be “under the control of love, with tenderness and full awareness of the other.” John A. T. Robinson has made the suggestion that chastity is honesty in sex, that is, chastity implies that we have “physical relationships that truly express the degree of personal commitment” that is shared with the other. . . .

Chastity, then, is for all people and not just for those who are single. . . .

Far from being in any way opposed to sexuality, chastity accepts a person’s striving for pleasure and “attempts to put that striving at the service of other human and Christian values.”

Simply put, chastity, as another author states, is the “ability to receive and give love.”

Celibacy is a little different. Technically, it is the restriction against marriage for the Catholic clergy. Another way of seeing it is that celibacy as a requirement could be lifted by the church at any time. During the first three centuries of the church, in fact, no restrictions at all existed against marriage, and many priests were married. (We know that St. Peter himself was married, since the Gospels speak of his mother-in-law.)

Chastity, on the other hand, is a freely chosen way of life for members of religious orders. Even among Catholics, and especially when referring to priests, brothers, and sisters, the two terms are often taken to mean the same thing—choosing not to marry out of a religious commitment—and the spirituality surrounding both celibacy and chastity is similar.

But back to the stereotype of the rigid, bitter celibate that is so popular in jokes, in movies, and on television. The great irony is that some of history’s most loving people—those whom even nonbelievers would point to as role models—were celibate men and women. Think of Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa and John XXIII, to name a few examples. Would anyone say that they were not loving people?

More to the point, think of Jesus of Nazareth, who, Scripture scholars agree, never married. Is there anyone who doubts that Jesus the celibate man was loving?

Jesus demonstrated that the underlying goal of celibacy is to love as many people as possible as deeply as possible. That may seem strange to people used to defining celibacy negatively—that is, as not having sex—but it’s true. The central aim of chastity and celibacy is an increased capacity to love.

The life of celibacy is obviously not for everyone. Most people are called to marriage and sexual intimacy and children and family life. For them, the primary way of living chastely is by loving their spouses and their children with their whole hearts. It is a more focused, exclusive kind of loving. That is not to imply that married couples and parents do not love others outside their families, and love them well. Rather, the focus of their love is necessarily centered on their family.

For the vowed religious the situation is the opposite. You vow chastity so that you give yourself to God as totally as possible and make yourself available to love as many other people as possible. You take this vow for a more practical reason, too: to give yourself as fully as possible to your ministry. Vowed chastity is also a way of imitating the life and ministry of Jesus. This is not a “better” or “worse” way of loving than a sexual or committed relationship; it’s simply different. Nor does it diminish the witness of married clergy in other denominations, who find that they can also give themselves fully to their ministries. It is simply a different way to live out one’s call.

Chastity is the best way for me and others in religious orders to love. While many may love most fully in a committed relationship, for me this way works best. My experience says that this is the path to which I’m best suited, because this is the way that brings me the most joy. It seems that this is how God designed me to function best.

Practically speaking, celibacy is an art, something you have to practice. You don’t learn how to be a good husband or wife on the day of your wedding. And I didn’t learn how to be a good celibate on my ordination day; nor did I fully understand my chastity the moment I made my first vows. It takes time to grow into those vows in a healthy and integrated way. That’s one reason for novitiates and seminaries—they function almost like an engagement, allowing people to see if this way of life is a good fit.

Part of that growth process is discovering what works for you and what doesn’t, understanding the way sexuality works in your life, and, along the way, finding out how to support a life of celibacy. For me it’s pretty straightforward: I experience God’s love primarily through my friends, with those I minister to, and in my family. Even so, to do this well, I must have an active prayer life. I’ve discovered that it’s easier to experience intimacy with others if I experience intimacy with God in prayer.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the love that I encounter: from parishioners, Jesuits, other friends, family members, professional colleagues, and those who come to me for spiritual direction, counseling, and even confession. There are days when all I can think is how lucky I am. And the love comes in a variety of ways. I spend time with Jesuit friends over dinner and we share our common struggles and joys, and I feel what it means to be what St. Ignatius called “friends in the Lord.” Or I listen to someone during spiritual direction and I am able to see the amazing ways that God is active in that person’s life. Or I meet someone I could have met only as a Jesuit and who shares with me an intimate part of his life. Or I spend time with my six-year-old nephew and laugh and laugh at his jokes, and I marvel at his goodness and hopefulness.

Recently, at a Jesuit church in New York City, I celebrated Mass during a Sunday in Advent. Toward the middle of the liturgy, during the distribution of communion, I stood in the main aisle of the gorgeous baroque church while the colossal organ breathed its voice over the congregation, and I offered the consecrated Host to parishioners, many of whom I knew well. As they came one by one to receive the Host, many smiling in recognition, I was filled with a sense of belonging. I belonged to them. And I thought, What a wonderful life this is!

For me, all of those things make up chastity and celibacy.

My chastity also helps other people feel safe. People know that I’ve made a commitment to love them in a way that precludes using them, or manipulating them, or spending time with them simply as a means to an end. It gives people a space to relax. Just recently, I spent a few months working with an acting company in New York City that was developing a play about the relationship between Jesus and Judas. Initially, I was asked by the playwright to help him with the research for his script, and then I began working closely with the actor who would play Judas. In time, I was invited to talk with the director and the entire cast. During the midwinter months, we spent long hours sitting around a huge table in an Off-Broadway theater discussing the Gospels, Jesus, Judas, and concepts such as sin and grace and despair and hope. These were wonderful conversations, too, so different from those that I have with Catholics, who sometimes feel (myself included) that we already have all the answers.

Here was a group of people who inhabited a world far different from my own: the world of the theater. When we began, they didn’t know me at all (and only a few of them were Catholic). I wondered, “How will they react to a priest in their midst?” But slowly I realized that since they knew I was a priest, they also knew I was celibate, and therefore they knew I wasn’t there for any other reason than to help them and to love them. As a result, some of them felt comfortable sharing some intimate details of their lives with me, opening up at times of stress or difficulty or sadness.

Their trust was a great gift to me, and it helped me not simply become friends with them, but, in a real sense, love all of them. Whenever I entered the dressing room, I was usually greeted with plenty of hugs and kisses, from both the men and the women. (Actors, or at least these actors, I discovered, are very affectionate!) And on opening night, though I had seen the play a dozen times already, I found myself filled with gratitude as I watched how each of my friends had used his or her talents to create something new and exciting for the audience. I rejoiced with them in their vocations.

As in other situations, I also realized that I was there not only to love but to be loved. As the show drew to a close, I saw once again that I was called not to hold onto their love, not to cling to it. While I hoped that some of us would remain friends long after the show closed, I knew that I couldn’t expect anyone’s love. It had to be freely given and freely received. That’s a bittersweet but important lesson I learn over and over as I live out my vocation. One Jesuit friend who had spent many years teaching told me that it was similar in schools. When I mentioned to him how sad I was that the show was ending, he said, “It’s the same for me when a school year ends. You have to freely accept love from the students, but you have to remember that you can’t hold onto it.” It reminded me of the experience of the apostles after the Resurrection, who wanted nothing more than for Jesus to stay around. His response: “Do not cling to me.”

But that free kind of love can be a magnificent blessing. Just a few days before opening night, after a round of hugs and kisses and smiles in the dressing room, I looked around at all these former strangers who had become my friends and thought, This is chastity.

Some days I think of my relationship with God as one of those gorgeous Byzantine mosaics of the face of Christ. Each of the people I love and who loves me is a brightly colored tile in this intricate design, and the image of the face of Christ becomes clear only when I am able to stand back in contemplation and take in the whole picture.

* * *

The celibate person also has to accept the possibility that he will fall in love from time to time. This is an integral part of the human condition and it affects everyone, celibate or not. If you hope to be a loving man or woman, you will inevitably run the “risk” of falling in love. Jesus, as a fully human person, also ran that risk, when he offered his heart to others and opened himself to receiving their love. In his essential humanity, Jesus was as prone as anyone to falling in love and having others fall in love with him. His response was to love others chastely and well.

A few months into my novitiate, my novice director said that as a Jesuit I would almost certainly fall in love and that others would fall in love with me. I was horrified!

His response was memorable. “If you don’t fall in love as a Jesuit, then there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “It’s human and it’s natural. Loving is the most important part of being a Christian. The question is what do you do when you fall in love?”

In other words, if you find yourself falling in love as a vowed religious, what choices do you make and how do you respond? Either you find that you cannot live the vow of chastity and you must leave your religious order (and I’ve had friends who have made this decision), or you reaffirm your commitment to your vows and move away in a healthy way from the object of your affection.

My novice director was right. It happened once in my Jesuit life: I fell head over heels in love despite my determination to avoid that situation. A few years after the novitiate, I found myself in love for the very first time. And the depth of my love and the passion I felt were completely unexpected and totally overwhelming. As anyone who has been in love will understand, it was a turbulent time. For some weeks, I believed that this was the person for me, the one I could spend the rest of my life with. I understood what it meant to be “lovesick” and could barely eat or sleep. Compounded with these feelings was the fear that all this might be a sign that I should leave the Jesuits.

In the midst of this turmoil, I met with my spiritual director, a wise and elderly Jesuit. I told him what was happening. He calmly listened to my story, which came out only with many tears. In response, he said just what my novice director had told me: “Falling in love is a wonderful part of being human, perhaps the most human thing you could do. It shows that you are a loving person. And that’s a wonderful thing for a Jesuit and for a priest.” He paused. “But you know that you have to decide what you want to do. You are free to leave the Jesuits and pursue this relationship, or you are free to stay and end the relationship.”

After more prayer and spiritual direction and conversations with friends (Jesuits and otherwise), I started to see that though I had fallen in love, I was still committed to being a Jesuit and keeping my vows. At the time, leaving the Jesuits was a tempting idea, but when I looked back over the years I realized how very happy I had been precisely because of my life as a Jesuit.

In the end, that turbulent experience enabled me to grow in wisdom about the way my heart and head work. It also furnished me with some good insights into the human condition that I’ve been able to put to use when counseling others. In a sense, it helped me become more fully human.

Celibacy is not easy. The more loving you are, the more likely it is that you will fall in love, and the more likely it is that others will fall in love with you. And celibate men and women are prone to the same things that other human beings are: becoming infatuated, getting crushes, falling in love, and so on.

What’s more, for all the talk about colorful mosaics and all that, the life of the celibate priest or the chaste religious can at times be a lonely one. No matter how many friends you have, no matter how close you are to your family, no matter how supportive your community is, and no matter how satisfying your ministry is, you still have to face an empty bed at night. There is no one person with whom you share good news, on whose shoulder you can cry, or upon whom you can always count for a hug after a hard day. And that’s rough.

There are also few cultural supports for a solitary, sexless life. While American society smiles on engagements and weddings and births, when it comes to celibacy, that same culture—perhaps perceiving it as a threat to either married life or the easy commodification of sexuality—offers instead jokes and sidelong glances and outright hostility. During the sexual abuse crisis in 2002, for example, the most common explanation for clerical abuse was “Well, celibacy, of course; it’s unnatural.” People believe that not having sex is weird and unhealthy and sick, so people who are celibate are weird and unhealthy and sick. It is an almost insurmountable stereotype.

The lack of societal support means that it’s crucial for celibates to nourish our life with close friendships, with a healthy attitude toward work, with frequent spiritual direction, and with prayer. Like any state of life—married, single, divorced, vowed, ordained—it requires attention and work.

For me, the loneliness is the toughest part; just as difficult as the lack of sexual intimacy and sexual relationships is the lack of an exclusive emotional relationship. Sacrifice, though, is at the heart of celibacy, as it is at the heart of any committed relationship. And here I like to think of what one theologian calls the “God-shaped hole,” the space in your heart that only God can fill. That’s why an absolutely essential element of celibacy is an attentiveness to an intimate relationship with God, who provides the celibate person with a different kind of love, which he reveals in ministry, relationships, and prayer.

* * *

This is one reason I think that Angelo Roncalli was able to exemplify the ideal of chastity so well—because he himself experienced the love of God. He also understood the absolute need for a vibrant life of prayer and the way that a close relationship with God helped him love so well. In 1959, after his election as pope, he wrote these words in his journal during an annual retreat: “This vision, this feeling of belonging to the whole world, will give a new impulse to my constant and continual daily prayer: the Breviary, Holy Mass, the whole rosary and my faithful visits to Jesus in the tabernacle, all varied and ritual forms of close and trustful union with Jesus.” John’s relationship with Jesus enabled him to be a most charitable and kind man. He was friendly and approachable, human and funny, warm and caring, and always loving.

John’s model of chastity was Jesus, because John’s model of loving was Jesus. “But above all and in all things,” he wrote in his journal in 1931, “I must endeavor to express in my inner life and outward behavior the image of Jesus, ‘gentle and lowly of heart.’”

“May God help me,” he concluded.

So when I look back on the life of Angelo Roncalli, I see a man who led a life vastly different from my own. He was born many years before me, on another continent, in an entirely different world, with far more important responsibilities, cares, and concerns. I know that it is highly unlikely—probably impossible—that my daily life will ever mirror that of Angelo Roncalli. He and I are very different and are called to be holy in different ways.

But there is one thing I do share with John: the desire to become a good priest, a good Christian, and, especially, a loving person. I hope that I can freely love and freely be loved. I hope that I can always live freely in the God-given world of friendship, love, sexuality, and intimacy and be true to my vows. I hope that I can always accept and appreciate the love I receive from others without trying to possess it or hold onto it.

Like anyone else, I hope to be a loving person.

May God help me, too.

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