Letters of Pope John XXIII to His Family

Author: Archbishop Loris Francesco Capovilla


Archbishop Loris Francesco Capovilla

The Most Rev. Loris Francesco Capovilla, Archbishop of Chieti, will publish shortly the Letters of Pope John XXIII (1902-1962). He has graciously allowed theL'Osservatore Romano to publish his introduction to the two volumes which will appear later. In this introduction, he explains the origin and the nature of the work and its documentary importance. These Letters are, so to speak, a ''family Catechism'' which, in these day of grievous stress for the Church, present it precious testimony of loyalty.


Four years have elapsed since the publication of The diary of a soul, of which numberless editions and translations have spread over the whole world. With utter simplicity, the Diary reveals to the reader the intimate spiritual life of Pope John, the perfectlimpidity of his soul and the hidden source of the shining light that his Pontificate shed in the Church and on all humanity. These humble pages of the Journal are, probably, unique in contemporary literature. They have found their way into numberless families; they have become the spiritual nourishment of thousands of religious, priests and laymen of all social conditions, of all degrees of asceticism and cultural levels. All have drawn comfort and strength from this itinerary of holiness and perfection. As a boy of fourteen, Pope John started to trace, with utter sincerity, the mysterious path along which, step by step, Divine Providence was to guide him. We know now that he was being led to the very See of' Peter, to become the Father and Teacher of the universe...


The Letters of Pope John will enable us to follow, one by one, all the phases of his life. This documentation presents us with a patrimony of inestimable religious and human wealth. The two volumes contain all the letters he wrote to his family. They bring back sweet memories of' the Pope's evangelical simplicity, which was to be the characteristic of a new epoch in the Church, laden with, hope and blessings and destined to nourish and influence numberless disciples.

These Letters were to have been published in 1961, on the occasion of Pope John's eightieth birthday, in an edition strictly limited to the Roncalli family and to their relatives and friends. For this same birthday, the Pope had, somewhatreluctantly, accepted fromthe Episcopate, the gift of a church and, front the faithful, a Seminaryfor the students of the "Third World". He gave his approbation to the project of publishing his letters because he thought they would show the world the true christian background of his family and also because he wanted his family at Sotto il Monte to share some of' the splendour of his Pontificate. Pope John's birthday was celebrated with the usual Cappella Papale on November 4th, 1961, the third anniversary of his coronation. In his homily, he quoted the words of his predecessor, Leo the Great pronounced in similar circumstances: "I hope to use the time which is still to be granted me, for my sanctification only". PopeJohn spoke with warmth and gratitude of his dear old parents, as if he wished to place them, for veneration, along with the saints, in the niches of' the Basilica: Both my parents lived to be over eighty years old; my paternal grandfather died at 89, and I assisted him to the end. His four brothers died at the age of 88, 87, 86, 85, like the patriarchs. They lived in peace "vixerunt in pace longaeva, sepulti in senectute bona." (cfr. Gen. 15-15) ...

Until 1958, most of these letters were kept at Camaitino, a dignified old house at Sotto il Monte, which had been the dwelling of the Roncallifamily centuries back. The house had been leased in view of the time when "Angelino" would come back to live there and await his last hour, amongst the scenes of' his childhood. Don Angelo had planned to rest there, at the foot of the altar in the church of Saint John which he had consecrated in 1929.

When the package of letters reached the Pope at the Vatican, he tried to run through them rapidly, but he soon realized that he had to linger over them. He almost caressed the yellow crumpled pages, and his eyes, that had contemplated so much beauty and sorrow around the western and eastern world, could not but rest again with deep emotion on this vision of his native village and hills, on the sweet stern faces he knew so well, and the humble folk, all labourers of the soil, hardworking and virtuous in their lowly hidden lives. He changed nothing in the Letters, just a few signs show that he did read them through.

He was not a man to disavow anything he had ever said or written. In his family relations and otherwise, he faithfully observed the precept of Saint Paul to do the truth in charity "veritatem facientes in charitate." Pope John could truly say of his letters: "you will not find in them a word against anyone, or one word that I might regret." How many names and events of the past did he not recall as he read the letters, and relived all the feelings which stir in them: pity, faith, love, sympathy for the sorrows of some, and joy for the happiness of others.


At first sight the letters did not seem to be of any particular interest, nor to contain useful historical data. The Pope wrote most of them to persons who had only attended elementary schools for a couple of years. However these simple people did enjoy reading the Bible, the Psalms, Lives of the Saints and other books of devotion. The letters cover a period of sixty years.

Because of pressing obligations in the Pope's service, I was unable to take the time to compile and edit the letters. I wished also to compare them with other letters preserved by different members of the family and also get their comments. Consequently I couldnot present my work to the Pope on his birthday as I had hoped. Ever since his death, I have always wanted to publish the letters. I can never forget some of' Pope John's last words to me, asking me to continue the life intercourse he had kept up with his family for sixty years of his long life. "When I am no longer here," the Pope said to me on his death bed, "you will go to Sotto il Monte, won't you? to see my dear ones. They aresimplehumble People, but their friendship is true. I thank you for having thought of them so often and for having cared for the aged one."

I think it is now time for their publication. It will be a comfort to the Roncalli family and very edifying for the multitudes in the world who found in Pope John "an unexpected teacher", and still turn to him for inspiration, scanning all his words as living memorials of his spirit of love.


There are 727 letters. The first one is dated from Rome, January 1901: Angelo Roncalli, seminarian to his family; and the very last one is also from Rome to his niece Maria Letizia. The Pope kept a copy of most of his letters. The recipients themselves carefullykept all the lettersthey received from their illustrious relative andsafe from the destructive hands of so many children in their families. They are written "currenti calamo", without any literary pretence. They express the Popes thought and well-balanced judgment in simple words. There is always an undercurrent of advice, fitted to each one according to his life and work. But the letters are, above all, the expression of the warm bond of love which kept the seminarian first, and then the Pope, close to his family. Many words and phrases are in the Lombard dialect. Angelo Roncalli writes that he is very tired as he taps his little typewriter late at night. Some phrases arenot finished, there are even grammatical mistakes, all of which show the spontaneous confidential tone of his letters and the crystal-clear quality of his soul. He is always comforting, helping and teaching.


The Letters tell the story of a simple country family, its circumstances, difficulties and poverty; its passing joys and sorrows, its defects also, but through itall the heritage of true christian virtue jealously guarded and cultivated as their greatest wealth. In them one follows the itinerary of Pope John's sacerdotal vocation, as he passes from the halls of the Roman Seminary to the threshold of Vatican Council II, ever faithful, through so many contrasting happenings, to his exacting motto: "Obedientia et Pax."

The most significant and important events of the sixty years of this century are reflected in them. One reads between the lines of Pope John's intuitive perception of "the Signs of the Times". He senses, for the world, future appallingvicissitudes and upheavals; he indicates at the sametime, the spiritual meansof forestalling them, and of interpreting the apparently inextricable meaning of the events of history.


Evidently all the virtues of the poor were practised in the Roncalli family. One by one they stand out and the Pope comments on them; but his Letters are no manual in which the poor are taught fatalism. They are, rather, a hymn to the holiness of the poor, to their constant faith in the presence of God and to the limitless interior resources of grace, God grants to those who live and work in faithful adherence to his will. He extols their sublime vocation to sanctity and perfection as an invaluable contribution to the building of the Kingdom of God in history and he promises them the eternal reward of their hard daily labour.


The Roncalli family was very poor, and remained poor through the whole of Pope John's life. "This is a great strain for me, but I do it willingly to enable you to start the year without the bread and oil bills, in the shop, weighing you down." (November 6, 1937). And again to his sisters: "I feel that my life is necessary to help my family through such lean years." "The only thought that cheers me when I think of the sacrifices I have to make, is that it is true charity: What I give you is, after all, only bread, oil, cheese, sugar and other groceries, the bare necessities of life" (November 20, 1937). He wrote to his brother Joseph: "I am sure thatthere is no better charity for me to exercise than to help you who are, for me, the first poor; you are, indeed, the poor of the Lord whom he loves and blesses, because you always tryto be faithful to him" (Feb. 1st, 1939).

When little Angelo was born, the large Roncalli family were share-croppers and farmed eight acres of land, with four cows in the stable. It was only after forty years of hard labour that Battista Roncalli, with his sons, three of them veterans of the 1914-18 War, and helped by a fortunate rise in the silkworm market, could risk to buy, on a mortgage of 58,000 lire the eight acres and the Columbera farmhouse, The debt was still partly unpaid at the death of his two aged parents and even at the time when Pope John ascended the Pontifical throne. Throughout his whole priestly life, he wanted to share his family's heavy burden. When Don Angelo was 34 years old, he joined with the other members of his family and signed a petition to obtain from the Little Bergamo Bank, a loan which would enable them to make the first down payment to Count Morlani and become landowners, instead of sharecroppers. In terms of living, though, they remained just as poor as before.

It was in the course of these years that he wrote to his sisters: "Poverty has held me in its arms since my childhood and it has never let me down, not even now that I am a Bishop. We must not complain, because when we bear it with patience, poverty likens us to Jesus. We have never lacked what is necessary and never will. Riches, as you see around you, do not make men happy." (June 28, 1926).

His evangelical spirit knew how to use his poverty as a means of sanctification, and it became the source of his unalterable abandonment to God's Will. "I owe, in part, the tranquility of soulI feel as I rest in the arms of Divine Providence and of holy obedience, to having been born in the country and of a family, poor in earthly goods, but rich in faith and in the fear of God and used to the simple daily and yearly things of nature." (to his family, April 30, 1930). And again: "You know that my family is one of the great consolations of my life. I praise you to all those I know as poor, simple,humble folk good and fearing God."

These letters are therefore an extraordinary testimony to the itinerary of poverty and suffering Which God's Providence planned for Angelo Roncalli, from his Bergamo countryside to the See of Peter. In them, Pope John XXIII presents to the world a prophetic picture of the "Church of the Poor" and a stupendous example of the service which the Church is called to fulfil in this new era of her history, as she faces a martyred world torn by hunger and war, and athirst for justice and peace. In them, we sense the hope and the foretelling of "a new world and a new earth."  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 January 1969, page 9

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069