During his Roman
seminary days, Angelo Roncalli developed another passion, a
love for learning, especially history. Delving deeply into that
subject, he fostered a sense of pragmatism, an assurance that
God’s hand guides humanity through the ups and downs of life.
This was long before Catholic catechists began emphasizing “salvation
history.” Angelo’s sense of history confirmed his innate hope,
a virtue that characterized his pontificate and constitutes
much of his legacy to the Church. This historical perspective
certainly reinforced his natural tendency not to take himself
or life too seriously.
After his ordination
in Rome on August 10, 1904, he visited briefly with his family
before returning to the Eternal City for canon law studies.
Within a year after ordination, he met Bergamo’s new bishop,
Giacomo Maria Radini-Tedeschi, who promptly named the young
priest his secretary. The bishop’s pastoral approach, especially
his views on social and economic issues, closely reflected those
of the late Pope Leo XIII (d. 1903), especially his 1891 social
encyclical, Rerum Novarum.
and the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Andrea Ferrari, tremendously
influenced the future pope’s thought and spirituality. All three
of them were suspected of being “soft” on modernism in the Church.
Pope Pius X was particularly suspicious of historical studies
and talk about the evolution of doctrine. A miracle of grace—or
some political astuteness that Angelo Roncalli rarely showed—prevented
his being condemned. While teaching history in Bergamo’s seminary,
he published the official newspaper of what was probably Italy’s
most activist diocese.
War I Experience
During World War
I, Father Roncalli served as a stretcher-bearer in the Italian
army. Because Italy and the Holy See did not officially recognize
one another, the Italian government did not directly provide
military chaplains. Therefore, able-bodied priests were conscripted
into the medical corps.
the horrors of war firsthand. Years later he noted: “I shall
never be able to forget the screams of an Austrian whose chest
was torn apart by a bayonet during the war and who was carried
to the hospital at Caporetto where I was an attendant. His image
became ever more vivid within me as I worked on the encyclical
Pacem in Terris.”
In 1921, Pope
Benedict XV called Roncalli back to Rome to serve as Italy’s
director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In
that office Angelo’s horizons were broadened as he worked with
influential Italian Church leaders and national directors from
other countries. He also taught patristics (study of the Church
Fathers) in a seminary in Rome.
between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy were normalized
under Pope Pius XI in 1929, not all Italian Church leaders agreed
about how political lay Catholics could and should be. Some
historians suspect that Roncalli’s more tolerant political stance
led to his appointment as apostolic visitor in Bulgaria, where
he served for 10 years. Before his ordination as an archbishop,
he chose the motto “Obedience and Peace.”
in Bulgaria offered him a good deal of spare time, which he
filled with pastoral ministry, reading and observing. He also
made new friends, including heads of state, government officials
and Orthodox Church leaders.
In 1934, he was
transferred to the Apostolic Delegation for Turkey and Greece.
There he continued doing his best to promote the cause of peace
and charity. With the help of the German ambassador, Angelo
saved the lives of an estimated 24,000 Jews. In both countries
he dealt with leaders of independent Orthodox Churches, learning
to emphasize what unites those who believe in Christ. Roncalli’s
knowledge of history helped immensely in this area because he
could speak out of the Church’s past and use a language that
preceded the 11th-century division in Christianity.
In later years
he said: “May everyone be able to say of me that I have never
sowed dissension and mistrust. That I have never grieved any
immortal soul by engendering suspicion or fear; that I have
been frank, loyal, trusting; that I have looked into the eyes
of others with brotherly sympathy, even into those of persons
who do not share my ideals, so as not to hinder the realization,
in its season, of the great commandment of Jesus: Ut unum
sint! [That all may be one].”
From Eastern Christianity
he learned to appreciate more the Holy Spirit’s role, a fact
very significant for future events. Late in 1944, Roncalli was
appointed papal nuncio to Paris, one of the Vatican diplomatic
corps’ most prestigious assignments. In France he walked the
proverbial tightrope, finessing and trying to keep good relations
among three very disparate entities: the government of Charles
de Gaulle, the Vatican of Pius XII and the French bishops. He
was made a cardinal in 1953.
When he was immediately
transferred, most people were disappointed. His fellow diplomats
chose Georges Vanier, the Canadian ambassador, to speak for
them. Vanier said that the nuncio’s personality reminded him
of Bergamo’s three major products: wine, silk and steel. The
wine was Roncalli’s vivacity and warmth, the silk his sense
of nuances, which kept him from being “one of those severe,
Goya-type cardinals” and the steel represented “the firmness
of character which makes no compromise where truth is concerned”
(Peter Hebblethwaite’s Pope John XXIII: Shepherd of the World).
Local Bishop at Last
At the age of
71, the man who had always thought he would be a simple country
pastor was named patriarch of Venice. The boy who once walked
behind horses plowing the fields was now welcomed to his new
home in a procession of flower-garlanded gondolas.
During the ceremony
marking his arrival in this prestigious post, a historic meeting
place for East and West, he introduced himself by saying: “I
am like every other man who lives here below. I am 71 years
old; I have been endowed with the grace of good physical health,
with a little good sense that enables me to look quickly and
clearly into the heart of things, and with a disposition to
love people that keeps me faithful to the injunctions of the
gospel, respectful of my rights and those of others, and which
prevents me from doing harm to anyone.”
When he entered
the conclave to elect Pius XII’s successor, Cardinal Roncalli—just
one month short of turning 77—justifiably assumed that he would
continue living in Venice. Roman gossips—and there are many—report
that everyone considered Giovanni Battista Montini, the archbishop
of Milan and a veteran diplomat, as the most logical choice
for pope. But he was not among the 51 cardinals in that conclave.
According to that rumor, the cardinals wanted someone safe and
elderly to reign a few years—after naming Montini a cardinal.
On October 28,
1958, the cardinals chose Roncalli, who was slightly below the
average age of the voters. He soon made Montini a cardinal and
died within five years. The rest of the rumor did not prove
true. Calling for the Second Vatican Council, a diocesan synod
for Rome and reform of canon law—all announced within three
months—was probably not what most people considered “safe.”
Different Kind of Pope
chose the name John, saying that it was his father’s
name. It is also the name of the Baptizer and of an apostle.
Rome’s cathedral, St. John Lateran, is named for both saints.
Pope John XXIII set about to be, not so much the Vicar of Christ,
the Pontifex Maximus, as the Bishop of Rome. He later
said: “In the first days of this pontificate, I did not fully
realize what it means to be the Bishop of Rome, and therefore
the pastor of the universal Church. Then, week after week the
light dawned fuller and fuller. And I felt very much at home,
as though I had done nothing else during my whole life!”
His style differed
greatly from his predecessor’s. Captivating the hearts of almost
everyone, Pope John XXIII seemed to be uncomfortable “pontificating,”
sometimes even forgetting to use the formal “we” in speeches.
The things he did so naturally, like climbing down from the
sedia gestatoria (the platform carrying his portable
throne) to walk down the center aisle of St. Peter’s during
the ceremonies opening the Council (October 11, 1962), shocked
his many critics but made him precisely what he wanted to be:
a bishop among bishops.
Later that night,
when the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square for a candlelight
prayer vigil, he made an unscheduled appearance at his window.
Speaking briefly about what the Council meant to him, he concluded
by noting that it was late, that everyone should go home, and
when they did, they should give their children a kiss, identifying
it as being from Pope John.
that endeared him to most people, especially journalists, was
his wit and spontaneity. His most famous remark answered a journalist
who inquired how many people work in the Vatican. The pope replied,
“Oh, no more than half of them.” Some Vatican insiders have
remarked that this answer shows why people call him “Good Pope
John.” He always erred on the side of charity!
Tireless Promoter of Peace
Before the Council
began, John XXIII learned he was dying of cancer; this gave
everything a greater sense of urgency. In October 1962 he was
deeply involved in behind-the-scenes initiatives to resolve
the Cuban missile crisis. He became more firmly convinced of
the need for peace and began working on Pacem in Terris,
the first encyclical addressed to all people of goodwill.
John XXIII listened
to the theologians at the Council but he never claimed to be
one. His favorite theologians were popes, Leo the Great (fifth
century) and Innocent III (13th century). Throughout his life
Roncalli consulted their works for insight into theology and
pastoral approaches. Pope John took the name of his famous encyclical
Mater et Magistra from Innocent III’s opening address
to the Fourth Lateran Council. Thus, Franciscans can boast,
in their humble way, of course, that the pope of Vatican II
was inspired by the pope of Francis’ council.
for Each Person
John’s position on controversial points have shown how this
man of God worked. If he liked an idea or a thought, he invited
the speaker to explain it more. Roncalli later worked with the
idea, regardless of how it was labeled, developed it and made
it his own. The idea was always considered on its own merits.
Most importantly, every person he met was considered for his
or her own merits and dignity as a child of God.
In looking at
the life of “Good Pope John,” we ask what he teaches us about
Christian living. He has much to say to a society and a Church
still marked by divisions. About the Council, he urged the bishops:
“Let us look at each other without mistrust, meet each other
without fear, talk with each other without surrendering principle.”
On his deathbed
he said: “It is not that the gospel has changed; it is that
we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived
as long as I have...were enabled to compare different cultures
and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern
the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look
He prized St.
Bernard of Clairvaux’s advice, “Notice everything, turn a blind
eye to much and correct a few things.” Or, as the pope said,
administering the “medicine of mercy,” may we too never do harm
Celaschi, O.S.F., is a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis
(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). She has worked in Italy for 16 years,
in an Assisi bookstore, on the staff of L’Osservatore Romano’s
English edition and now at the International Franciscan Conference
of the Third Order Regular. She directs its education department,
edits its journal, Propositum, and has conducted workshops
for Franciscans in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Pius IX (1792-1878). Elected pope in 1846, he is second
only to St. Peter in length of service as pope. Pius IX
encouraged the Church’s missionary efforts, issued the
Syllabus of Errors (1864), refused to condemn Austria
during Italy’s wars for independence and called Vatican
Council I. After 1870, he did not leave the Vatican, giving
rise to the unofficial title “Prisoner of the Vatican.”
The Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See recognized one another
officially only in 1929.
Tommaso Reggio (1818-1901). Born in Genoa, he was
ordained for that diocese in 1841. Founder of a Catholic
newspaper and the Sisters of St. Martha, he became bishop
of Ventimiglia in 1877 and archbishop of Genoa 15 years
later. He zealously promoted Catholic education and assistance
to those in need.
Guillaume [William] Chaminade (1762-1850). Ordained
shortly before the French Revolution began, he worked
mostly in the Bordeaux region. He founded the Marianist
Sisters in 1816 and the Society of Mary (Marianists) the
following year. He helped several other religious communities
reestablish themselves after the French Revolution. The
Marianists have three U.S. universities: Chaminade (Honolulu),
Our Lady of the Lake (San Antonio) and the University
of Dayton (Ohio).
Marmion (1858-1923). Born in Ireland and ordained
a diocesan priest in 1881, he later became a Benedictine.
In 1909 he was elected abbot of the monastery in Maredsous,
Belgium. His numerous books are considered classics on
the spiritual life, presenting the person of Christ as
the center of a Christian’s interior life. An abbey and
academy in Aurora, Illinois, are named for him.