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 …

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Letters

John XXIII September 16, 1965

John XXIII September 16, 1965