John XXIII, Minus the Myths

Author: ZENIT


John XXIII, Minus the Myths

Part 1

Interview With Pope's Great-Nephew Marco Roncalli

ROME, 24 NOV. 2006 (ZENIT)

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 They stand out clearly if one revises carefully all the Roncalli sources, especially those that are unpublished.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?"

Part 2

ROME, 26 NOV. 2006 (ZENIT)

The Second Vatican Council was not an invention of Pope John XXIII, says his great-nephew Marco Roncalli.

Rather, the Council was "the valuable instrument ... [to] interpret in the line of Tradition the role to which [John XXIII] had been called" and "to make the Church advance on her path in step with the world," insists Roncalli.

He is the author of a new book published in Italian, entitled "Giovanni XXIII — Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Una vita nella storia" (John XXIII-Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: A Life in History), published by Mondadori.

In this interview with ZENIT, Marco Roncalli analyzed the focus given to Vatican II by John XXIII. Part 1 of this interview appeared Friday.

Q: What were the Pontiff's real expectations in regard to Vatican II?

Roncalli: In the last four chapters of the book, in fact, I concentrate on the Council. Based on new sources, I recount how this idea germinated, how it was received.

I follow the venture of Vatican II in the coming to light of the first idea, in the phase that preceded the preparation, in the preparation itself, in the beginning, also talking about a free confrontation — what the Pope called the holy freedom of the children of God — which the whole world witnessed.

And I reflect on the anxieties and consolations of the Pope who every day thought of the Council.

The Council was not his invention. It was a valuable instrument verified by history of the Church which he knew well. The instrument that would have enabled him to interpret — in the line of tradition, but open to updating — the role to which he had been called; an instrument that would have allowed him to make the Church advance on her path in step with the world, questioning the whole episcopate involved in the exercise of collegiality in an extensive "universal" reflection.

But let us go back to the beginning of it all: the idea of the Council. As he stated, it did not ripen within him "as the fruit of a prolonged meditation, but as the spontaneous flower of an unexpected spring."

Therefore, he applied to himself that rather familiar spiritual rule "of absolute simplicity in accepting divine inspirations, and prompt submission to the apostolic needs of the present time."

"In announcing the ecumenical Council, we have listened to an inspiration; we have considered its spontaneity, in the humility of our soul," he said in a message to the Venetian clergy.

It's true, he had the applause of the secretary of state, Domenico Tardini, as the latter's diary documents. And there are also the statements of Cardinal Ruffini and of others who maintain — plausible fact — that they suggested to the Pope the idea of a Council, an idea that, moreover, according to several unanimous and concordant statements, Roncalli had also expressed repeatedly during the years of delegation in Istanbul to Monsignor Righi, to Jacquin of the Institut Catholique of the Paris Nunciature, to Monsignor Bortignon of the Venetian Patriarchate, and also to his nephew Privato Roncalli, my father.

We should recall that the convocation of a Council had already been considered at least twice in the 20th century, by Pius XI in 1923 — who then put it to one side awaiting a solution to the "Roman question" — and by Pius XII — to whom in fact Cardinals Ruffini and Ottaviani had written a memorandum enumerating the reasons for a convocation.

There were two outlines, held for a long time in strict secret, for the second of which Monsignor Francesco Borgoncini Duca — a friend of Roncalli, who also might have spoken about it with him, but before 1954, the year when he died — was appointed director general of all the preparatory works.

And this is not all. There were also other prelates in the past who had supported the idea of a Council for a long time as a "necessity" or "wish," such as Monsignor Celso Constantini, author of a lengthy dossier dated February 15, 1939, and reported under the title "The Council: On the Appropriateness of Convoking an Ecumenical Council."

A week after Constantini's reflections, Giovanni Papini wrote in Il Corriere della Sera: "We like to think that the new Pontiff will see to the reopening of the Vatican Council that was suspended on October 20, 1870. (...) Now that the independence and authority of a sovereign have been restored to the Pope, a resumption of the Council interrupted seventy years ago, will take place in a more moderate climate and would be welcomed with very great joy by Catholics worldwide."

And now we come to the central point: the meaning that John XXIII wished to give, at least in the focus, to "his" Council, something that at the beginning was not at all defined: that it should probably be more pastoral than dogmatic — pastoral, however, but not in a reductive sense.

It should make room to evaluate everything. As Monsignor Dell'Acqua has attested, Pope Roncalli "never thought of opening and closing the Ecumenical Council. Whoever thinks this, is outside of the truth. Pope John told me repeatedly: 'What matters is to begin; the rest we leave to the Lord'; in how many other circumstances a Pope began a Council that was concluded by another Pope. It was not his intention, therefore, to speed things up."

When he announced it for the first time, take note, he wrote in his own writing on the text that he invited everyone to pray for "a good beginning, continuation and happy success of these intentions of hard work, for the light, edification and joy of the whole Christian people, as a kind and renewed invitation to our brethren of the separated Churches to take part with us in this encounter of grace and fraternity."

Moreover, the event of the Council convoked by John XXIII, in keeping with the preceding perspectives and being open to the breath of the Spirit, should manifest to the Church and the world the holy freedom of the children of God, in the sign of a less defensive general vision, [...] more open to confidence, respect, to confrontation, to co-responsibility, to the "signs of the times."

Evaluated carefully, it was also a courageous choice. Conscious of his age, he could have remained tranquil between blessings and canonizations, ordinary activity and the writing of some document, leaving to his successors all the problems that cardinals and bishops put on his desk, and dismissing situations in continual evolution.

Instead, he did the opposite. He addressed everything and not on his own. It was his sensitivity, his historical studies: "A Council is necessary." He confided to his secretary a "biblical reason" to explain his idea: "Did Jesus ever speak to Peter on his own? No, the other disciples were always present."

Q: In what ways was Pope John XXIII prophetic?

Roncalli: Suffice it to read his October 11 address with which he opened the Second Vatican Council, a memorable text because of the breadth of its horizon and prophetic inspiration. Do you not perceive in him, in his essence, the force of a religion that unifies?

It was Pope John's prophetic task, however, to indicate the goal of peace: urgent, which cannot be delayed. ... Let us think of his encyclical testament, "Pacem in Terris."

He is the one who is writing — speaking of himself in that text as "the vicar of Him whom the prophet announced as the Prince of Peace, [we] conceive of it as Our duty to devote all Our thoughts and care and energy to further this common good of all mankind. Yet peace is but an empty word, if it does not rest upon that order which Our hope prevailed upon Us to set forth in outline in this encyclical. It is an order that is founded on truth, built up on justice, nurtured and animated by charity, and brought into effect under the auspices of freedom." ZE06112625

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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