It is only possible to understand him by going back to his diaries-Who was John XXIII?

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John XXIII is often called, in an endearing yet somewhat simplistic manner, “the Good Pope”. The title suggests a certain naive and lighthearted goodness. His diaries, on the other hand, make an important contribution to revealing to history a more complete and integral vision of the spiritual figure of Pope John: a man of simple, authentic roots, a passionate scholar and refined writer a skilled and sensitive diplomat, a dedicated and balanced pastor, a free and obedient priest, a man of the Church and of the world, a humble and devout Christian, a far-sighted and courageous Pope.

In a famous lecture delivered in 1965, Cardinal Lercaro stated that in order to understand the mystery of John XXIII, that is, his programme for “updating” the Church, one needs to explore his early life in depth, from his solid cultural training to his wide spectrum of pastoral experiences lived out in contexts at times peripheral yet also extremely stimulating and meaningful. Seen in this light, his writings trace out for us the main features of the spiritual approach that Roncalli developed from the time of his youth to the years of his pontificate. Here are a few examples.

It is only possible to understand him by going back to his diaries-Who was John XXIII?

The experience of the war deeply marked Roncalli’s spirit and his pastoral approach to souls. Many traces of this have been left in his diaries. He recounts touching stories about the death bed of “dear young soldiers”. He would often find himself kneeling all alone in his room, crying like a baby, no longer able to contain his emotion before the sight of the simple and holy death of so many young men. War is a hard school of realism. One who does not experience it himself is likely to judge abstractly, like those fellow priests who stayed in their comfortable studies. Roncalli expressed severe judgement in their regard: “These excellent and good priests live their professorship amid books, they see the war from afar; yet I am involved, and I believe it is a blessing for me to live in close contact with souls, in a daily experience of life which is certainly broader and intense than theirs” (16 May 1918).

The war brought him into contact with people of various backgrounds, cultures and religions: Protestants, atheists, Masons, Muslims. Roncalli is concerned to present himself to everyone not “with scourge in hand” (31 March 1918), but with great gentleness and forbearance, and respect for freedom, inspired by Jesus’ example.


In those same years, discussing the value of tolerance with a lady who called him to her bedside and claimed to be a “nonbeliever and a masson”, Roncalli reaffirmed his commitment not to “violate her freedom of conscience or anyone else’s” and gave this explanation: “As regards tolerance, what do you expect? How much tolerance do you want? I feel that I am a minister of a crucified God, who from his altar of pain opened his arms in order to invite and to welcome all in the tenderness of his mercy.... This is my tolerance” (1 May 1918).


There is also a splendidly rich moment in Roncalli’s life and well-documented episode in these volumes concerning his friendships. His friendship remained true for decades, nourished by a vivid memory that held faces and places dear over time. He often visited his friends, he talked amiably and dined gladly with them, asking about their health and their problems, he generously welcomed them to his home. Among the many stories of beautiful friendship with his fellow students, we mention that with Don Angelo Pedrinelli who was only a few months younger than he was, a man of great intelligence who was a student at the Bergamo and Rome seminaries, too. Following their priestly ordination, both taught at the seminary in Bergamo until 1911 when Don Pedrinelli, who was suspected of subscribing to modernism, was appointed parish priest of Carvico, a town bordering Sotto il Monte: where he remained until his death. Every year, when he returned home for the holidays, Roncalli would visit his friend and pass unforgettable moments in his company.


There are many notes relating to this, such as the following which refers to an address delivered on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Don Pedrinelli’s arrival in Carvico: “At the Gospel at the Mass sung by the parish priest Pedrinelli, I spoke about three things (...). They were moving and touching words in honour of my beloved friend (9 September 1951). As Pope, when he learned the distressing news of the death of his friend, he wept and wrote: “Today we heard in the news that Don Pedrinelli died last evening (...). My beloved Don Angelo: you see my tears and the sincerity of my mourning and of my priestly love” (8 June 1960).

From his youth, Roncalli vowed to imitate the poverty of Jesus, “who had come especially to evangelize the poor” and to offer his own contribution so that the Church might show “preference to the dispossessed, the weak, and the oppressed” by “refusing to espouse the cause of those who oppress because they are rich and powerful” (cf. La Vita diocesana 1, 1909, 369). Even during his years in the diplomatic service, when he travelled the length and breadth of Europe, from Turkey to Portugal, from Poland to Algeria, on foot, on horseback, by car, train, ship and plane, Roncalli experienced grave problems firsthand: poverty, misery, war, hunger. Concrete and generous love for the poor was not reserved only for extraordinary circumstances but was a constant factor throughout his life. There are countless testimonies in this regard. For example, he noted in his diary: “fifth anniversary of the death of my beloved mother. Sweet and intimate recollection in prayer for the repose of her soul. In her memory I wrote to Msgr Gustavo Testa who wanted to send some of my money to Bergamo for charity. To the poor of Città Alta lire 1000; to the poor of Sotto il Monte lire 1000; to the parish priest Don Pedrinelli for the poor of Carvico lire 1000” (20 February 1944).


His diaries reveal that, in Istanbul, Roncalli felt the urgency of “letting the Turks enter the plan of salvation”. He began to study their language and introduced it into several parts of the liturgy. His affection for the Turkish people revealed a spiritual fatherhood that excluded no one: “I love them in Jesus Crucified, and I cannot bear it when Christians speak so badly of them, giving clear proof that the Gospel has penetrated so little into their souls. I love them because it is part of my ministry as a father, as a pastor and as an Apostolic Delegate: I love them because I believe that they too are called to redemption. I know that the attitude of many among my Eastern Catholic children is against me. But this neither disturbs nor discourages me” (27 July 1936). In October 1938, when Ataturk — the leader who had always given Christians a hard time — died, Roncalli went to visit the body and to say a prayer. In the same days, the Greek Patriarch Chrisostomos — who was behind legislative projects adverse to Catholics — died. Roncalli wrote in his diary: “I do not share the cold sentiments entertained by these two lives which have now passed away. I pray to the Lord for the one and for the other. It is for the Lord to judge them. I think that his judgement must be meeker and kindlier than our own. Who probes the depths of the human heart? The leader of the Turks, secular reformer of that people, and the religious leader of the Greek Orthodox may well offer to the Supreme Judge enough spiritual twists to enable the wave of saving grace penetrate them” (19 October 1938). The image is truly beautiful: even a Turkish layman and a stubborn Orthodox might have an opening in their souls through which the beneficent action of the Holy Spirit may enter. There is something good in every man, even in the one who seems worst.

The diaries also give extremely valuable indications on the delicate issue of the “worker priests” that Roncalli encountered as he was beginning his diplomatic service in France. That experience originated in the generous desire of several priests and bishops, including the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Emanuel Suhard, to address in a new way the evangelization of the working class world, which had steadily distanced itself from the Church. As soon as he arrived in Paris — although, due to his education and sensitivity, he felt these new forms of ministry somewhat foreign to him — Roncalli spoke of his admiration for this experience: “There are 12 priests who have become genuine workers in order to draw near to the working-class environment; I admire, encourage and bless them” (11 April 1946). Soon, however, several priests became involved in industrial disputes, strikes and demonstrations that had strong ideological undertones. As they had to be at the factory at dawn, they could not always celebrate Mass, respect the Eucharistic fast or pray the Breviary. Often they adapted their behaviour, dress and language, to models far removed from traditional priests. Several lived alone in small apartments and were not faithful to their vow of celibacy.

As a Nuncio, Roncalli increasingly shared the perplexities and criticism coming from Rome: “More than ever, the ‘worker priests’ seem to contradict the priestly spirit. Now the Holy See shall provide proper norms” (28 June 1951).

L’Osservatore Romano (Apr. 25, 2014)