Marco Roncalli was just a child when in his home the fragrance of sanctity was already breathed of his uncle-priest, Angelo Giuseppe, the future Pope John XXIII. It was a fragrance so imprinted on his spirit that it has marked his entire life. So much so that, after receiving his degree, he decided to dedicate himself for over 30 years to the passionate study of the great figure of this revolutionary Pontiff who, next April 27, will be elevated to the honor of the altar together with John Paul II. Today, Marco, one of John XXIII’s great-nephews, president of the Pope John XXIII Foundation, is one of the great experts on the “Good Pope,” thanks also to the testimony of Cardinal Loris Capovilla, Roncalli’s private secretary and the person closest to him, who supported Marco’s years of study – studies which have been translated into innumerable publications. The last, in chronological order, is the book “Pope John, The Saint,” published in Italy by Saint Paul’s as well as in, among other countries, France, Spain, Germany and Poland. Following is a translation of ZENIT’s interview with Marco Roncalli.
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ZENIT: What does it mean for you and your family to have a Saint in your home?
–Marco Roncalli: It is a moment of shared joy in the family, the parish, the diocese but also in the civil community … I can perceive it, or rather I should perceive it, as an invitation to greater responsibility. However, this is true not only for me or for my family. A Saint, as the great Jesuit Xavier Leon-Dufour held, is first of all an appeal and a question. “For one who does not stop to look at man or a hero, a Saint becomes word of God. He is a success of God. God has succeeded, from the earth of which we are made, in molding a being in whom grace has raised above the force of nature …” I think the phrase can be applied aptly to Saint John XXIII.
ZENIT: The Good Pope, the Pope first of transition, then the revolutionary who opened wide the doors of the Church with the Council, now the Pope Saint. What is still to be known of John XXIII?
–Marco Roncalli: There is a complexity behind his apparent simplicity. His culture is not sufficiently known, his knowledge of history and not only of the Church. Unknown are many gestures of hidden solidarity. Not known fully is the awareness and courage with which he assumed important decisions for which he was accused of naïveté. There are still periods of his life that need further reflection, for instance, those as a young seminarian and priest. Then some notebooks should be published on his studies as a young man, on his interest, for instance, in Americanism, and some very important letters to friends, such as Cardinal Gustavo Testa, and the homilies that go back to World War I. However, we already enjoy a huge amount of sources. Of no other Pope do we have, in fact, a “Journal of the Soul” or diaries of almost a whole life. And numerous letters, homilies and notes of various kinds have been kept. I can say, however, with some certainty, that the continuous publication of unpublished materials do no more than give greater fullness to a human and spiritual parable lived with granite-like faith in God and natural trust in men.
ZENIT: Not counted are the writings you have dedicated to your great-uncle. What have you discovered, on the personal level, in your research? For instance, you have just published the correspondence between Roncalli and Montini …
–Marco Roncalli: These are letters of faith and friendship as we wished to express in the sub-title of the book (“A.G. Roncalli e G.B. Montini: Lettere di fede e di amicizia,” ed. Studium). However, there are other letters that I have seen to, for instance those with Schuster or with Father Giuseppe De Luca. The gradations are certainly diverse but he, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, was truly the man of encounter: with God and with men.
ZENIT: As an historian of the Church, in your opinion, what moment is the Church living? And what legacy has John XXIII’s pontificate left?
–Marco Roncalli: I think a second conciliar spring is being lived, it’s as if God had given us the Pope He wanted and that we wanted …. Not forgetting the premise of Benedict XVI’s “renunciation,” which made possible, in fact, what we have under our eyes, or the answer to a widespread need of mercy, which is a key word of this pontificate. It is certainly a pastoral pontificate but, as in the case of John XXIII, less simple than it seems to many persons. Rather, it is a pontificate supported by a robust baggage of culture, of knowledge of history and of many men encountered far from Rome. Not to speak of the spiritual culture of which it is imbued, in fact like that of Pope John.
ZENIT: Many, in fact, have compared Francis to John XXIII, because of the style of communication, the approach to people, the tenderness. Do you see a direct thread between the two Popes?
–Marco Roncalli: Yes, I see a “link” between the two Bishops of Rome which is quite evident. And it was also the first impression I had before the manifestation of the “Bergoglio surprise.” They have in common traits of serenity in their love of truth and charity, of poverty in the Franciscan sense, and in fact the medicine of mercy. I see them close also in their living of Christian optimism, the joy of the continuous encounter with God and with all men, be it those who feel part of the Church, be it those to be approached in care for their spiritual and material needs, always with great respect.
ZENIT: Were you, his relatives, aware of Roncalli’s holiness?
–Marco Roncalli: I heard talk of his virtues. Often at home, I heard from someone truly close to him, testimonies of his goodness, his silent charity, his constant entrustment to God. I remember that when I was small, I accompanied my Grandfather Giuseppe, the Pope’s youngest brother, in the evening, and also at night, because he remained a widower when very young. In the evening he would pray on his prie-dieu, which he had close to his bed, and then, while he was falling asleep, he often talked about his brother Pope, how they grew up, of their meetings before and after his election. Even now my father does not fail to repeat so many incidents that had to do with my Uncle Monsignor or Cardinal. My father visited him a lot when he was in Venice, because he was a conscript in the lagoon to Saint Mark’s Battalion and, especially in the evening, he went to meet him. They would dine together and my father would do small jobs for him or commissions. Also then –he told me – Roncalli lived in the patriarchate in a context of great sobriety. More than stories, however, it was easy to know and to follow Pope John in his longing for holiness, uninterrupted, day after day, studying the pages of the “Journey of a Soul” and even the diaries. In every case, I always heard talk of him as a true person, a “Pope of flesh” as Mazzolari said, and I would like him to be remembered so. I don’t think, in fact, that any Pope is helped by mythicizing, by “papolatria”; I think that, as all others, John XXIII could also have had imperfections and made errors. Certainly his authenticity, his simplicity, as well as his courage, struck the world that today prepares to invoke him Saint. Moreover, as the poet Ungaretti wrote: “He rendered visible that holiness which was private and public.”
ZENIT: In your opinion, did your Great-uncle ever expect to have the honour of being elevated to the altars?
–Marco Roncalli: He himself, while still a priest of Bergamo, wrote in the virtues of Saints that he wished to seek “the substance and not the accidents,” and he wrote down phrases such as “my constant concern must be to become a saint at any cost: a serene concern, however, and tranquil, not heavy and tyrannical.” It’s the concern of a man who lived “always with God and with the things of God,” and with total adherence to the Word. The concern of a Pontiff who, when meditating one day on the praise given in the “Roman Breviary” to Saint Eugene Pope (where one reads “he was benevolent, meek and gentle and, what counts most, was distinguished for his holiness of life”), wrote the phrase: “Wouldn’t it be good to attain this at least?
ZENIT: Why was Pope John’s process of canonization so slow and then so sudden, without even waiting for a second miracle?
–Marco Roncalli: It’s true that for John XXIII a second miracle was not required. However, Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, specified some time ago that it was not a question of reductions, privileges, exemptions, and that in reality Pope Francis wished only to reduce the times to give the whole Church the great opportunity of celebrating together the canonization of two Popes Saints: John XXIII, the initiator of Vatican Council II, and John Paul II, the realizer of pastoral, spiritual and doctrinal ferments of Conciliar documents. The will of the Pope is clear. The recourse to a paired canonization had already happened when Wojtyla himself beatified Pius IX and Pope John in 2000. Certainly, they are two quite different personalities, with two different histories and characters. Yet if we look well at topics such as the Council or peace – to give only two examples – the traits that unite them are certainly there … Beginning with the fact that they were two men capable of assuming great responsibilities, personal and universal, that marked history.