Canonization Profile: John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli)

In light of the upcoming canonizations in Rome on 27 April 2014 (at which, Deo Gratias, I will be present), the following are a few thoughts on the soon-to-be-Saint John XXIII (Pont Max MCMLVIII-MCMLXIII).

Loris Capovilla, erstwhile secretary of John XXIII and recently raised to the Sacred College by Pope Francis, can still recall with vivid clarity the the memories he experienced at the side of this soon-to-be-canonized Pontiff. Here is an anecdote from May 1963, as stomach cancer took its irrevocable toll on the bedridden Pope.

Among many of the visitors who came to offer their farewells to the dying Pope was, as expected, the Cardinal Secretary of State Amleto Cicognani. Cicognani was a giant, a seasoned veteran of the Holy See diplomatic service, having lived through the crucible of World War II, including the tense maneuvers and secret talks required to safeguard many Jews and Christians in occupied lands. As Apostolic Delegate to the United States, he was instrumental in forging advantageous and cooperative bonds between the Holy See and the United States in an era when highly-Protestantized America would not allow full diplomatic relations with the Papacy. Cicognani was indeed a diplomat above diplomats: cool, clear-headed, and firm; he was known to show little emotion. This is why what Capovilla observed on that day in 1963 made such a strong impression on him.

Like Cicognani, Angelo Roncalli was also an old diplomat. His personal formation, first as a soldier in the Great War and later as a Holy See diplomat in the interwar years, had certainly hardened his courage but not his heart. When Cardinal Cicognani came to bid his final farewell to the Pope, Capovilla recounts to much astonishment that the Secretary of State, this great man, entered with his face in his handkerchief, commosso come un bambino— crying like a little child. But John XXIII, seeing this Prince of the Church, his first collaborator, conducting himself in such manner, quickly rebuked him in Latin. Emintissime Domine: laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus! 

“Most eminent Sir,” said the ailing Pope, admonishing him with all the regal formality of his office and delivering the words of the Psalmist, “I rejoiced when it was said unto me: let us go to the house of the Lord!”.

Stories like this and many like them (preserved for posterity by Cardinal Capovilla) demonstrate why Pope John XXIII is more than just il Papa buono, the good Pope who did nothing more than be nice to people. Much like today’s widespread image of the Fantasy Francis, such simplistic caricatures do little justice to the vibrant Catholic spirituality of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. In fact, John XXIII was a man steeped in the traditions of the Church; his spirituality was that of Charles Borromeo. His Latin constructions were exquisite, his theological mind was immersed in Thomas Aquinas, and his attachment to the Virgin Mary fervent. John was ever mindful of his continuity with Pius XII and Pius X, fostering a strong personal devotion to the latter. Cardinal Capovilla, the last living close friend of this Pope, has repeatedly protested the gloss of buonismo, the hazy hermeneutic which refashions John XXIII into a huggable grandpa opposed to that stern meanie Pius XII.

Certainly, his persona was endearing, but he did nothing to abolish the great doctrines and traditions of the Church. His last Apostolic Constitution, Veterum Sapientia [Latin, English], extolled the virtues of Latin as an ecclesiastical language and ordered that its study be renewed and made mandatory in seminaries and theological faculties. Far from abolishing Latin, he pushed for for its expansion in the Church, even as the Second Vatican Council’s opening approached. When one considers John XXIII’s good humor and affable personality, one cannot separate it from his highly sophisticated and cultivated mind. To illustrate, we know of a famous story in which the Pope was walking through Rome on one of his many pastoral visits. The abbreviation SPQR, as we know, is inscribed all over the City on things both ancient and modern. Pointing to one such inscription, John remarked that it meant not Senatus Populusque Romanus, as anybody would normally say, but pointing to the letters in reverse order, said Rideo Quia Papa Sum! Obviously, the punchline is lost to those without a comparable intellectual formation.

John XXIII’s great legacy, of course, is his convocation of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Today, mention of that great event invites polemic after divisive polemic, with theologians and even prelates still arguing about what it all meant. But for John XXIII, there was nothing controversial about his intention. Among things he certainly did not envisage: abolition of Latin, a drastic reform of the Mass, reorientation of altars toward the congregation, communion in the hand, and any compromise of the great dogmatic tradition received from our forefathers in the faith. The mens of the Holy Father was simple: to communicate the splendor of the Catholic Faith in all its truth to the modern world. This is not the same as judging Church doctrine by the vicissitudes of modern standards. Papa Roncalli, in his allocution Gaudet Mater Ecclesia with which he opened the Council, said this quite plainly (section 5):

Quod Concilii Oecumenici maxime interest, hoc est, ut sacrum christianae doctrinae depositum efficaciore ratione custodiatur atque proponatur.
What is of greatest interest to the Ecumenical Council is that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and spread in a more effective manner.

Unfortunately, John did not see the end of his Council; he died after the first session but before any of its constitutions or decrees were promulgated. Such actions fell to his successor Paul VI. But, with the discerning eyes of historians and the faith of theologians, we should think that were John XXIII to have presided over the entire Council, much of the post-Conciliar crisis might have been averted.

Outside the Council, the Pope proved himself a man of peace and a stalwart promoter of the true faith. In the encyclical Pacem in Terris, he appealed for the preservation of fundamental human rights and won the hearts across the world by visiting prisons, asylums, and children’s hospitals. However, he shirked not from defending sound doctrine and Christian morality, in numerous writings and speeches repudiating contraception and abortion while reaffirming the teaching of Christ against remarriage after divorce.

With certainty we know that Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, was a man of authentic Christian disposition, pious faith, devoted to the liturgy, to the Virgin Mary, to Christ, and to the Church. With sadness we regret that he could not guide the Church a few years more, but feliciter, we rejoice that he will be numbered among the saints in heaven as an example for all of us who desire to share his eternal reward.

Sancte Ioanne XXIII, ora pro nobis. Amen.

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