Let us now praise a holy man
“I think it is now three years since I last used a typewriter,” Pope John XXIII began a letter to his brother. “I used to enjoy typing so much and if today I have decided to begin again, using a machine that is new and all my own, it is in order to tell you that I know I am growing old…” He had just turned 80.
Shortly after he died, about a year and a half since sitting at that typewriter, his spiritual notebooks and some of his letters and special prayers were published as “Journal of a Soul.” A few years later, I found my father’s copy of the book; I have been reading it, on and off, ever since.
When Pope Francis signaled his intent to canonize both John XXIII and John Paul II perhaps within the year, the first news reports used journalistic shorthand to describe the Second Vatican Council. The epochal assembly (only the 21st ecumenical council in history) which John XXIII convened, and which met for a few months each year in Rome from 1962 to 1965, was described as either “liberal” or “liberalizing.” In part this was to meet journalism’s summarizing tendency; but in part this was also a recognition that Vatican II happened such a long time ago, and needed “placing.”
To be sure, there was certainly an epic struggle between “liberal” and “conservative” forces during the Council deliberations. I hesitate to use the word “liberal,” however, to describe the unlikely pope who startled the world with his surprising idea. Born Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli in 1881, John XXIII was both traditional (as his journal attests, his seminary formation was decidedly old-school) and modern (he was the first to write an encyclical—a papal letter of the highest doctrinal significance—to “all men of good will”).
Perhaps the better word to describe him, and the Council he gave life to, was “pastoral.”
His notebooks, for instance, reveal his openness to the surprises of the spirit.
In 1962, during a special spiritual retreat undertaken to prepare for the opening of Vatican II, he listed what he called a “Summary of great graces bestowed on a man who has a low esteem of himself but receives good inspirations and humbly and trustfully proceeds to put them into practice.”
One of those great graces was the idea of the Council itself. “Without any forethought, I put forward, in one of my first talks with my Secretary of State, on 20 January, 1959, the idea of an Ecumenical Council, a Diocesan Synod and the revision of the Code of Canon Law, all this being quite contrary to any previous supposition or idea of my own on this subject.” He added, with characteristic candor: “I was the first to be surprised at my proposal, which was entirely my own idea.”
A year earlier, he outlined the reasoning that led him to write an apostolic letter encouraging devotion to “the mystery of the Precious Blood of Jesus.”
He wrote, thus. “I admit: this was a sudden inspiration for me. I saw private devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus when I was a boy, little more than a child, as it was practised by my old great-uncle Zaverio, the eldest of the five Roncalli brothers. In fact he was the first person to train me to that practice of religion from which my priestly vocation was to spring, very early in my life and, I think, quite spontaneously. I remember the prayer books he kept on his prie-dieu, and among them The Most Precious Blood which he used during July. Oh sacred and blessed memories of my childhood!
“…. This inspiration, which has lately taken me by surprise, is like a new impulse, a new spirit in my heart, a voice that imparts courage and great fervour.”
The notebooks he kept, and the letters he included in them, were spiritual in nature; they are a record of his interior life. But it is a life rooted in the concerns of the outside world. References to that world abound. “… in various Italian cities and in other European countries active Catholics, bold bands of youthful enthusiasts, have been commemorating the Rerum Novarum of the great Pope of the working people and joyfully celebrating the new conception of Christian democracy” (May 15, 1903); “More heart-rending than the gentle resigned grief for my Bishop is the clamour of war now rising from every part of Europe” (Aug. 10, 1914); “First Sermon: cancelled for the visit of the Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlevi” (1961).
I have many favorite passages in his spiritual diary. Let me end with one in particular.
In November 1939, while serving as the papal delegate to Turkey, he found time for his annual spiritual retreat.
“Every evening from the window of my room, here in the Residence of the Jesuit Fathers, I see an assemblage of boats on the Bosporus; they come round from the Golden Horn in tens and hundreds; they gather at a given rendezvous and then they light up, some more brilliantly than others, offering a most impressive spectacle of colours and lights. I thought it was a festival on the sea for Bairam [an Islamic feast], which occurs just about now. But it is the organised fleet fishing for bonito, large fish which are said to come from far away in the Black Sea. These lights glow all night and one can hear the cheerful voices of the fishermen.
“I find the sight very moving. The other night, towards one o’clock, it was pouring with rain but the fishermen were still there, undeterred from their heavy toil.
“Oh how ashamed we should feel, we priests, ‘fishers of men,’ before such an example! To pass from the illustration to the lesson illustrated, what a vision of work, zeal and labour for the souls of men to set before our eyes!”
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