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!”

It is with respect to his work in Turkey, where, during the war, he came into contact with Jewish organizations (and, in one instance, prevented the Turkish government from shipping back to Germany some hundred Jewish children who had escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe) that he later raised one of the very rare serious reproaches against himself—for all “examinations of conscience” notwithstanding, he was not at all given to self-criticism. “Could I not,” he wrote, “should I not, have done more, have made a more decided effort and gone against the inclinations of my nature? Did the search for calm and peace, which I considered to be more in harmony with the Lord’s spirit, not perhaps mask a certain unwillingness to take up the sword?” At this time, however, he had permitted himself but one outburst. Upon the outbreak of the war with Russia, he was approached by the German Ambassador, Franz von Papen, who asked him to use his influence in Rome for outspoken support of Germany by the Pope. “And what shall I say about the millions of Jews your countrymen are murdering in Poland and in Germany?” This was in 1941, when the great massacre had just begun.

It is on matters of this kind that the following stories touch. And since, so far as I know, none of the existing biographies of Pope John ever mentions the conflict with Rome, even a denial of their authenticity would not sound altogether convincing. There is first the anecdote of his audience with Pius XII before his departure for Paris in 1944. Pius XII began the audience by telling his newly appointed Nuncio that he had but seven minutes to spare, whereupon Roncalli took his leave with the words: “In that case, the remaining six minutes are superfluous.” There is, second, the delightful story of the young priest from abroad who busied himself in the Vatican, trying to make a good impression on the high dignitaries to further his career. The Pope is said to have told him: “My dear son, stop worrying so much. You may rest assured that on the day of judgment Jesus is not going to ask you: And how did you get along with the Holy Office?” And there is finally the report that in the months preceding his death he was given Hochhuth’s play The Deputy to read and then was asked what one could do against it. Whereupon he allegedly replied: “Do against it? What can you do against the truth?”

So much for the stories which were never published. There are still enough to be found in the literature about him, though some of them are strangely changed. (According to the “oral tradition,” if that is what it was, the Pope had received the first Jewish delegation with the greeting: “I am your brother Joseph,” the words with which Joseph in Egypt made himself known to his brothers. They are now reported to have been uttered when he first received the cardinals after his election. I am afraid that this version sounds more plausible; but while the first one would have been very great indeed, the latter is hardly more than very nice.) All of them show the complete independence which comes from a true detachment from the things of this world, the splendid freedom from prejudice and convention which quite frequently could result in an almost Voltairian wit, an astounding quickness in turning the tables. Thus, when he protested against closing the Vatican gardens during his daily walks and was told that it was not fitting his station to be exposed to the sight of ordinary mortals, he asked: “Why should people not see me? I don’t misbehave, do I?” The same witty presence of mind, which the French call esprit, is borne out by another unpublished story. At a banquet of the Diplomatic Corps, while he was Apostolic Nuncio in France, one of the gentlemen wanted to embarrass him, and circulated a photograph of a nude woman around the table. Roncalli looked at the picture and returned it to Mr. N with the remark, “Mrs. N., I suppose.”

When he was young he had loved to talk, to linger in the kitchen and discuss things, and he accused himself of “a natural inclination to pronounce judgment like a Solomon,” to tell “Tom, Dick and Harry…how to behave in certain circumstances,” of meddling “in matters concerning newspapers, Bishops, topics of the day,” and taking “up the cudgels in defense of anything which I think is being unjustly attacked and which I think fit to champion.” Whether or not he ever succeeded in suppressing these qualities, he certainly never lost them, and they blossomed forth when, after a long life of “mortifications” and “humiliations” (which he thought very necessary for the sanctification of his soul) he suddenly reached the only position in the Catholic hierarchy where no voice of superiors could tell him the “will of God.” He knew, he writes in his Journal, that he had “accepted this service in pure obedience to the Lord’s will, conveyed to me through the voice of the Sacred College of Cardinals”; that is, he never thought that the cardinals had elected him but always that “the Lord chose me”—a conviction which must have been greatly strengthened by his knowledge of the purely accidental way his election had come to pass.

Thus it was precisely because he knew it was all a kind of misunderstanding, humanly speaking, that he could write, not uttering some dogmatic generality, but pointing clearly to himself: “The Vicar of Christ knows what Christ wants from him.” (The editor of the Journal, Pope John’s former secretary, Mgr. Loris Capovilla, mentions in his Introduction what must have been highly irritating to many and puzzling to most: “his habitual humility before God and his clear consciousness of his own worth before men—so clear as to be disconcerting.”) But though absolutely sure of himself and seeking the advice of no one, he did not make the mistake of pretending to know the future or the ultimate consequences of what he was trying to do. He had always been content to “live from day to day,” even “from hour to hour” like the lilies in the field, and he now set down the “basic rule of conduct” for his new state—to “have no concern for the future,” to make no “human provision for it,” and to take care “not to speak of it confidently and casually to anyone.” It was faith and not theory, theological or political, that guarded him against “in any way conniving with evil in the hope that by so doing he may be useful to someone.”

This complete freedom from cares and worries was his form of humility; what set him free was that he could say without any reservation, mental or emotional: “Thy will be done.” In the Journal, it is not easy to discover, under the layers and layers of pious language which has become for us, but never for him, platitudinous, this simple basic chord to which his life was tuned. Even less would we expect from it the laughing wit he derived from it. But what else except humility did he preach when he told his friends how the new awesome responsibilities of the pontificate had at first worried him greatly and even caused him sleepless nights—until one morning he said to himself: “Giovanni, don’t take yourself that seriously!” and slept well ever after.

However, no one should believe it was humility that made it so easy for him to keep company with everybody, enjoying himself equally with the inmates of prisons, the “sinners,” the workers in his garden, the nuns in his kitchen, Mrs. Kennedy, and the daughter and son-in-law of Khrushchev. It was rather his enormous self-confidence that enabled him to treat everybody, high or low, as his equal. And he went to considerable lengths where he felt that this equality needed to be established. He thus addressed the burglars and murderers in jail as “Sons and Brothers,” and in order to make sure that this would not remain an empty word, he told them how he had stolen an apple as a child without being caught, and how one of his brothers had gone hunting without a license and had got caught. And when they led him “to the cell block where the incorrigibles were confined” he ordered “in his most commanding voice, ‘Open the gates. Do not bar them from me. They are all children of our Lord.’ ” To be sure, all this is no more than sound and long established Christian doctrine, but it had remained doctrine for a long time, and not even Rerum Novarum, the Encyclical of Leo XIII, “the great Pope of the working people,” had prevented the Vatican from paying starvation wages to its employees. The new Pope’s disconcerting habit of talking with everybody brought this scandal almost immediately to his attention. “How are things going?” he asked one of the workers, according to Alden Hatch. “Badly, badly, your Eminence,” said the man, and told him what he earned and how many mouths he had to feed. “We’ll have to do something about this. For just between you and me, I’m not Your Eminence; I’m the Pope,” by which he meant: forget the titles, I’m the boss here, I can change things. When later told that the new expenses could be met only by cutting down on charities, he remained unperturbed: “Then we’ll have to cut them. For…justice comes before charity.”*

What makes these stories so enjoyable is this consistent refusal to bow to the common belief “that even the everyday language of the Pope should be full of mystery and awe,” which according to Pope John was in clear contradiction to “the example of Jesus.” And it is indeed heart-warming to hear that it was quite in accord with Jesus’ “example” to conclude the highly controversial audience with the representatives of Communist Russia by announcing: “And now the time has come with you permission for a little blessing. A little blessing can’t do harm after all. Take it as it is given.”

The single-mindedness of this faith, never troubled by doubt, never shaken by experience, never distorted by fanaticism—“which, even if innocent, is always harmful”—is splendid in deed and living word, but becomes monotonous and lame, a dead letter on the printed page. This is even true for the few letters which are added to this edition, and the only exception is the “Spiritual Testament ‘to the Roncalli family’ ” in which he explains to his brothers and their children and grand-children why he, contrary to all custom, had refused to give them titles, why now as before he refused to lift “them out of their respected and contented poverty,” though he had “sometimes come to their aid, as a poor man to the poor,” why he had never asked “for anything—position, money or favors—never, either for myself or my relations and friends.” For “Born poor,…I am particularly happy to die poor, having distributed…whatever came into my hands—and it was very little—during the years of my priesthood and episcopate.” There is a slightly apologetic tone in these passages as though he knew that his family’s poverty was not quite so “contented” as he made it out to be. Much earlier, he had noted that the constant “worries and suffering” that beset them “seemed to serve no good purpose, but rather do them harm,” and this is one of the few instances where one can at least guess what kind of experiences he felt necessary to discard. Just as one can guess, more comfortably, at the enormous pride of the poor boy who throughout his life was to stress that he had never asked a favor of anybody, and who had found comfort in the thought that whatever he received (“Who is poorer than I? Since I became a seminarist I have never worn a garment that was not given me out of charity”) was provided by God so that his poverty became for him an evident sign of his vocation: “I am of the same family as Christ—what more can I want?”

Generations of modern intellectuals, insofar as they were not atheists—that is, pretending to know what they couldn’t know—have been taught by Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and their countless followers inside and outside the existentialist camp, to find religion and theological questions “interesting.” No doubt they will have difficulties in understanding a man who, at a very young age, had “vowed fidelity” not merely to “material poverty” but to “the poverty of spirit” as well. Whatever or whoever Pope John XXIII was, he was neither interesting nor brilliant, and this quite apart from the fact that he had been a rather mediocre student and, in his later life, was without any marked intellectual or scholarly interest whatsoever. (Apart from newspapers, which he loved, he seems to have read almost no secular writings.) If a small boy tells himself, Alyosha-like, “As it is written: ‘If thou wilt be perfect go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor and follow me,’ how can I give just two rubles instead of my possessions and go to early mass instead of the ‘follow me’?” And if the grown man keeps asking himself “Am I making any progress?” setting up timetables for himself and nothing with meticulous care how far he has progressed—incidentally treating himself quite gently in the process, cautious not to promise too much, tackling his failings “one at a time,” and not once in despair—it is not likely that the result will be of particular “interest.” So little is a timetable for perfection a substitute for a story—what remains to be told if there were no “temptation and failure, never, never,” no “mortal or venial sins”?—that even the few instances of an intellectual development in the Journal remained strangely unnoticed by its author who re-read and prepared it for posthumous publication during the last months of his life. He never tells when he ceased to see in Protestants the “poor unfortunates outside the Church” and came to the conviction that “all, whether baptized or not, belong by right to Jesus,” nor was he aware of how odd it was that he who felt in his “heart and soul a love of [the Church’s] rules, precepts and regulation,” should make, as Alden Hatch says, “the first change in the Canon of the Mass in a thousand years,” and generally put his whole strength immediately into the “efforts to straighten, to reform, and…to make improvements in everything,” trusting that his Ecumenical Council “will surely be…a real and new Epiphany.”

No doubt it was the “poverty of spirit” that preserved him “from anxieties and tiresome perplexities” and gave him the “strength of daring simplicity.” It also contains the answer to the question of how it could have happened that the most daring man was chosen when an easy-going and compliant one had been wanted. He had succeeded in his desire, recommended by Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, one of his favorite books, “to be unknown and little esteemed,” words which, as early as 1903, he had adopted as his “motto.” He probably was thought by many—he lived in a milieu of intellectuals after all—to be a bit stupid, not simple but simple-minded. And it is unlikely that those who had observed for decades that he really seemed “never [to have] felt any temptation against obedience,” understood the tremendous pride and self-confidence of this man who never for a moment relinquished his judgment when he obeyed what for him was not the will of his superiors but the will of God. His faith was: “Thy will be done,” and it is true, though he said it himself, that it was “wholly evangelical in nature,” true also that it “demanded and obtained universal respect and edified many.” It is the same faith that inspired his greatest word when he lay dying: “Every day is a good day to be born, every day is a good day to die.”

This Issue

June 17, 1965