John XXIII, Minus the Myths (Part 1)

Interview With Pope’s Great-Nephew Marco Roncalli

ROME, NOV. 24, 2006 ( The life of Pope Blessed John XXIII is still the focus of intense debate and numerous clichés which distort his intellectual and spiritual figure.

To clarify the matter, a book has just been published in Italian by Marco Roncalli, entitled “Giovanni XXIII — Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Una vita nella storia” (John XXIII — Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: A Life in History), published by Mondadori.

The author is John XXIII’s great-nephew, who, among other things, has been the editor of the correspondence (1933-1962) between Loris Francesco Capovilla, Giuseppe De Luca and Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, published this year by Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

The new biography of John XXIII was to be presented today in Bergamo, Italy, by Archbishop Loris Capovilla, who was John XXIII’s secretary, and by Monsignor Gianni Carzaniga, president of the Giovanni XXIII Foundation.

To understand better the figure of John XXIII, ZENIT interviewed his great-nephew, Marco Roncalli. Part 2 of this interview will appear Sunday.

Q: What are the clichés that you hope to refute on the human and spiritual history of the beloved Pope John XXIII?

Roncalli: I would say they are many. They stand out clearly if one revises carefully all the Roncalli sources, especially those that are unpublished.

I am thinking of certain youthful notebooks, agendas or diaries, some collected letters and collections of homilies. But I’m also referring to documentation relative to his figure, which has appeared in several archives and was known by few specialists in the most recent congresses.

And we can start with those of long ago. Let us think of the spent cliché of a peasant Roncalli, virtually the receiver of an ancestral wisdom. It is true that his roots are important, also his family.

But let’s not forget that he entered the seminary while still a child and that was his new family. The seminary formed the man, and the man of the Church.

In sum, Roncalli’s social extraction is not a secondary fact — though common to most of the Italian northern clergy at the beginning of the 20th century: From this extraction a certain tenacity and constancy are derived, joined to a strong practical sense and respect for the times necessary in each cycle […], all elements of his character.

And from this stems also a certain harmony between nature and the supernatural, a way of living in the present, looking at the future with unconditional confidence in God’s providence.

However, I repeat, the cliché of Roncalli as an exclusive product of a peasant culture — or of the country boy who became Pope who does not forget the “least,” as if Roncalli’s roots alone “sic et simpliciter” could explain everything to us — does not stand on its own.

Instead, beginning with the years of the seminary, without breaking or attenuating the bond with his own and his land, the awareness soon matures in him of being a member of the universal Church. Once elected Pope, he said immediately that the world was his family.

Another cliché is that of a simple Roncalli, whereas whoever studies his life has before him a complex figure — but a figure in which culture has had an important role: studies, meetings with writers, philosophers, theologians, etc., in the course of his life.

Thus, exploring the archives, we come across a very young Roncalli who is, yes, the one known until now for the “Diary of a Soul,” his spiritual compendium, but also a very sensitive seminarian, attentive to the widest cultural horizons of his time.

We see him at the dawn of the 20th century, very aware of the problematic relationship between tradition and renewal, of the need for the Church’s progressive attention to new cultural realities.

Whoever, for example, leafs through one of his unpublished notebooks entitled “Ad Omnia,” sees him wondering not only about the phenomenon of Modernism, a storm through which he also goes through, but also about Americanism: ecclesiological theories, his idea of the unavoidable confrontation between Christianity and modernity.

Another point: Pope John has often been depicted as a weak Pope, who suffered. Instead, if one wishes to weigh up his gestures in a correct manner, suffice it to read his agendas or diaries to realize how well he was able to move decisively.

Some biographers have said that John XXIII read at the last minute texts prepared by others. Nothing could be further from the truth. Several journal notes document whole days spent preparing an address in his own handwriting.

On June 28, 1962, for example, he wrote: “Day of the vigil of St. Peter: occupied entirely in preparing an address in St. Peter’s after Vespers. It was a bit of an effort for me to write it, word by word as I do, and all by myself in these circumstances. But in the end, though I’m not always delighted with myself, I am happy to fulfill a function, and to transmit to the clergy and the faithful a sentiment that is entirely my own. I am Pope by the will of the Lord who is my good witness: But to be a parrot who repeats by heart others’ thought and voice, truly mortifies me.”

He certainly was born — to use a slogan — “to bless and not to condemn,” but his humble and amiable being was not equivalent to being weak or accommodating.

He was certainly less decisive than his predecessor; however, he put meekness to one side when it became an alibi for others.

I am thinking of May 1962, when the so-called crisis of exegesis continued, and, seeing the inactivity of the commission with the same name — to say nothing of the frictions with Cardinal Augustin Bea’s work, ever more active in the Council’s preparation — he wrote a letter to Cardinal Eugène Tisserant which seems like an ultimatum: “Either the commission intends to move, work and provide, suggesting to the Holy Father measures appropriate to the needs of the present hour, or it is worthwhile for it to be dissolved and a higher authority provide ‘in Domino’ a reconstitution of this organism.

“However, it is absolutely necessary to remove the impression about uncertainties circulating here and there, which honor no one, of fears about clear positions that must be taken on the orientations of persons and schools. […] It would be a motive of great consolation if with the preparation of the Ecumenical Council a biblical commission could be established of such resonance and dignity that it would become a point of attention and respect for all our separated brothers who, leaving the Catholic Church, took refuge as shelter and salvation under the shadows of the sacred Book, diversely read and interpreted.”

This fact emerges also in relations with his collaborators. When someone did something he didn’t like, while being careful to safeguard relations, he was not afraid to make his interlocutors understand his displeasure.

It happened especially with Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, but also with Cardinal Angelo Dell’Acqua. An example? The latter — the day after the ministerial crisis of the winter of 1961, centered on Fanfani — realized the Pope was colder toward him.

The reason? It became known that Dell’Acqua, the substitute of the Secretariat of State, had dined at Fanfani’s home, and the family dinner became, thanks to the Curia’s “telltale,” a meeting for the definition of the government’s team with the outstanding role of Dell’Acqua.

The substitute’s quick clarification was the occasion to hear from the Pope words of dissociation from Italian political issues: “I was told something else and I’m sorry! We cannot be concerned with issues that correspond exclusively to the Italian state: We are not the ones who must intervene in this matter.…”

Examples with Ottaviani are more numerous. And so John XXIII intervened directly with Ottaviani when he was worried about the identity of the Holy Office, which was running the risk of being no longer, as he wrote in his diary, that “monastery of very strict cloister, left to its task, severe certainly, but most reserved in all that concerned the vigilance, custody and defense of the doctrine and precepts of the Lord,” no longer the “Supreme Congregation of which the Pope is the true Superior” and “from whose authority all should depend and by right and in fact does depend, at least in the most important and significant matters” — but rather the “bulwark” around which, even from the perspective of defending Christian values, ends up by engaging one in unimportant politics.

Also recently there has been talk of a naive Pope in the face of Khrushchev. We read what John XXIII wrote in his diary on September 20, 1961, commenting on the Soviet leader’s speaking well of the Pope for the first time, after the papal radio-message of September 10.

This is his private comment: “In the afternoon on TV they reported the communication of Khrushchev, the despot of Russia, on my appeals to statesmen for peace: respectful, calm, comprehensible. I believe it is the first time that a Pope’s invitatory words to peace were treated with respect. In regard to the sincerity of the intentions of one who is proud to profess himself an atheist and materialist, though he speak well of the Pope’s word, to believe him is something else. Meanwhile, this is better than silence or contempt. ‘Deus vertat monstra in bonum’ [God converts monsters into something good]. It is enough?”

[Sunday: Vatican II]

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