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The Christian Pope

Journal of a Soul

by Pope John XXIII, translated by Dorothy White
McGraw-Hill, 453 pp., $7.95

This is a strangely disappointing and strangely fascinating book. Written for the most part in periods of retreat, it consists of endlessly repetitive devout outpourings and self-exhortations, “examinations of conscience” and notations of “spiritual progress,” with only the rarest references to actual happenings, so that for pages and pages it reads like an elementary textbook on how to be good and to avoid evil. And yet in its own strange and unfamiliar way, it succeeds in giving a clear answer to two questions which were in the minds of many people when, two years ago, “Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli who took the name of John XXIII” lay dying. They were very simply and unequivocally brought to my own attention by a Roman chambermaid: “Madam,” she said, “this Pope was a real Christian. How could that be? And how could it happen that a true Christian would sit on St. Peter’s chair? Didn’t he first have to be appointed Bishop, and Archbishop, and Cardinal, until he finally was elected to be Pope? Had nobody been aware of who he was?” Well, the answer to the last of her three questions seems to be “No.” He did not belong to the papabile when he entered the Conclave, no garment fitting his size had been prepared by the Vatican tailors. He was elected because the Cardinals could not agree and were convinced, as he wrote himself, that he “would be a provisional and transitional Pope” without much consequence. “Yet here I am,” he continued, “already on the eve of the fourth year of my pontificate, with an immense program of work in front of me to be carried out before the eyes of the whole world, which is watching and waiting.” What is astounding is not that he was not among the papabile but that anyone could have thought of him as a figure without consequence.

However, this is astounding only in retrospect. To be sure, the Church has preached the imitatio Christi for nearly two thousand years, and no one can say how many parish priests and monks there might have been, living in obscurity throughout the centuries, who said as the young Roncalli did: “Here then is my model: Jesus Christ,” knowing perfectly well even at the age of eighteen that to be “similar to the good Jesus” meant to be “treated as a madman”: “They say and believe that I am a fool. Perhaps I am, but my pride will not allow me to think so. This is the funny side to it all.” But the Church is an institution and, especially since the counter-reformation, it has been more concerned with maintaining dogmatic beliefs than the simplicity of faith. It did not easily open the ecclesiastical career to men who had taken literally the invitation: “Follow after me.” Not that they were consciously afraid of the clearly anarchic elements in an undiluted, authentically Christian way of life; they simply would have thought that “To suffer and be despised for Christ and with Christ” was wrong policy.

And yet this was what Roncalli wanted passionately and enthusiastically, quoting these words of St. John of the Cross over and over again. He wanted it to the point of “bearing with me a clear impression of resemblance…with Christ crucified” from the ceremony of his episcopal consecration, deploring that “until now I have suffered too little,” hoping and expecting that “the Lord will send me trials of a particularly painful nature,” “some great suffering and affliction of body and spirit.” He welcomed his painful and premature death as confirmation of his vocation: the “sacrifice” that was needed for the great enterprise he had to leave undone.

Perhaps there was a time when people in the ecclesiastical hierarchy thought along the lines of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, fearing that, in Luther’s words, “the most permanent fate of God’s word is that for its sake the world is put into uproar. For the sermon of God comes in order to change and revive the whole earth to the extent that it reaches it.” But such times were long past. They had forgotten that “to be gentle and humble…is not the same thing as being weak and easygoing,” as Roncalli once jotted down. This is precisely what they were going to find out, and great as the hostility against this unique Pope was in certain ecclesiastical quarters, it speaks for the Church and the hierarchy that it was not greater, and that so many of the high dignitaries, the Princes of the Church, could be won over by him.

From the beginning of his pontificate in the fall of 1958 it was the whole world, and not just Catholics, that had been watching him precisely for the reasons he enumerates himself: first, for having “accepted with simplicity the honor and the burden,” after having always been “most careful…to avoid anything that might direct attention to myself.” Second, for having “been able to…immediately put into effect certain ideas which were…perfectly simple, but far-reaching in their effects and full of responsibilities for the future.” But while, according to his own testimony, “the idea of an Ecumenical Council, a Diocesan Synod and the revision of the Code of Canon Law” had come to him “without any forethought” being even “quite contrary to any previous supposition…[of his] on this subject,” it appeared to those who were watching him the almost logical or, at any rate, natural manifestation of the man and his astounding faith.

Every page in this book gives testimony to this faith, and yet none of them, and certainly not all of them together, is so convincing as the countless tales and anecdotes that were circulating through Rome during the long four days of his final agony. It was a time when the city was trembling, as usual, under the invasion of tourists who, because of his death which came earlier than expected, were joined by legions of seminarists, monks, nuns, and priests of all colors and from all lands. Everybody you met, from cab driver to writer and editor, from waiter to shop keeper, believers and unbelievers of all confessions, had a story to tell of what he had done and said, of how he had behaved on such or such an occasion. A number of them has by now been collected by Kurt Klinger under the title A Pope Laughs, and others have been published in the growing literature about “good Pope John,” all of which bear the nihil obstat and the imprimatur. But this kind of hagiography is of little help in understanding why the whole world had its eyes focussed on the man, because, presumably in order to avoid “offense,” it carefully avoids telling to what degree the ordinary standards of the world, including the world of the Church, contradict the rules of judgment and behavior contained in the preachings of Jesus of Nazareth. In the midst of our century this man had decided to take literally, and not symbolically, every article of faith he had ever been taught. He really wanted “to be crushed, despised, neglected for the love of Jesus.” He had disciplined himself and his ambition until he really cared “nothing for the judgments of the world, even the ecclesiastical world.” At the age of twenty-one, he had made up his mind: “Even if I were to be Pope…I should still have to stand before the divine judge, and what should I be worth then? Not much.” And at the end of his life, in the Spiritual Testament to his family, he could confidently write that “the Angel of Death will…take me, as I trust, to paradise.” The enormous strength of this faith was nowhere more manifest than in the “scandals” it innocently caused.

Thus, the greatest and most daring stories which then went from mouth to mouth have remained untold and, needless to say, cannot be verified. I remember some of them and I hope they are authentic; but even if their authenticity were denied, their very invention would be characteristic enough for the man and for what people thought of him to make them worth telling. The first, the least offending story, supports the not very numerous passages in the Journal about his easy, non-patronizing familiarity with the workers and peasants from whom, to be sure, he himself came but whose milieu he had left when, at the age of eleven, he was admitted to the seminary of Bergamo. (His first direct contact with this world came when he faced military service. He found it “ugly, filthy, and loathsome” in the extreme: “Shall I be sent to hell with the devils? I know what life in a barracks is like—I shudder at the very thought of it.”) The story tells that the plumbers had arrived for repairs in the Vatican. The Pope heard how one of them started swearing in the name of the whole Holy Family. He came out and asked politely: “Must you do this? Can’t you say merde as we do too?”

My next three stories concern a much more serious matter. There are a few, very few, passages in his book which tell of rather strained relationships between Bishop Roncalli and Rome. The trouble, it seems, started in 1925 when he was appointed Apostolic Visitor in Bulgaria, a post of “semi-obscurity” where he was kept for ten years. His unhappiness there he never forgot—twenty-five years later he still writes about “the monotony of that life which was one long sequence of daily pricks and scratches.” At the time, he became almost immediately aware of “many trials…[which] are not caused by the Bulgarians…but by the central organs of ecclesiastical administration. This is a form of mortification and humiliation that I did not expect and which hurts me deeply.” And it is as early as 1926 that he began to write about this conflict as his “cross.” Things began to brighten when, in 1935, he was transferred to the Apostolic Delegation in Istanbul where he was to stay another ten years, until, in 1944, he received his first important appointment as Apostolic Nuncio to Paris. But there again, “the difference between my way of seeing situations on the spot and certain ways of judging the same things in Rome hurts me considerably; it is my only real cross.”

No such complaints are heard from the years in France, but not because he had changed his mind; it seems he had only got used to the ways of the ecclesiastical world. In this vein he notes in 1948 how “any kind of distrust or discourtesy shown to…the humble, poor or socially inferior…by these colleagues of mine, good ecclesiastics…makes me writhe with pain” and that “all the wiseacres of this world, and all the cunning minds, including those in Vatican diplomacy, cut such a poor figure in the light of the simplicity and grace shed by…Jesus and his Saints!”

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