A few months ago we were experiencing in the Church two important dates connected with blessed pope John XXIII. First it was the 50th anniversary of editing the encyclical ‘Pacem in terris’ (11 April 1963), and then the 50th death anniversary (3 June 1963). Apart from these anniversaries, there is also the recent decision of pope Francis about the canonization of John XXIII, which will take place on 27 April 2014. Many articles and books have already been written about the person, life and pontificate of John XXIII. However, the personality of this pope still fascinates and interests contemporary people. The new light about his life can be found in a long interview given by archbishop Loris Capovilla to the Swiss Television on the occasion of the 50th death anniversary of John XXIII. Archbishop Capovilla, being today at the age of 98, was the papal Secretary and his closest collaborator. At present he lives in Sotto il Monte, in the birthplace of John XXIII. His latest testimony allows us to get to know the Pope of goodness better and answer the question: Who was John XXIII?

A parson of the world

The first question in the interview was: Why was John XXIII called the pope of goodness? Archbishop Capovilla answered that people had started calling him so at the end of his life, and not only in Rome or in Italy but also all over the world. John XXIII was also the pope of faith, hope and love, suffering and ministry. This title was created in Rome, in the parish of St. Tarcisius. The Holy Father paid a pastoral visit there on 7 April 1963. Earlier, a parishioner came to the parson with a particular proposition. ‘Pope is coming to us, but our whole district is plastered with posters and banners of various political parties (which was connected with elections).

All these hoardings and electoral slogans should be removed and the district should be cleaned. In their place we should place one slogan and writing: ‘May the good pope live long’. Representatives of all political parties expressed their consent to this proposition and cleaned the district off the banners. When the pope arrived at this parish, there was only one big writing: ‘Viva il papa buono’in the main square. John XXIII considered himself as a parson and pastor of the whole Church. He visited not only parishes, but also hospitals and prisons.

In the mentioned interview there was also a question about the spiritual heritage of the pope, based on humility, simplicity and a dialogue. Was it accepted and is still being developed? The elderly archbishop answered that it heritage, despite the weakness, was being developed and continued. It is seen, especially in the pope Francis, in his attitude of great simplicity. He undertook an issue of mercifulness in his teaching. The man can go away from Christ, but Christ will never go away from us or condemn us. He shed his blood on the cross in order to redeem us. He wants us to follow Him in this attitude towards people, look for them and want their good.

John XXIII appreciated the French writer George Bernanos, very much, especially his book ‘Diaries of a village parson’. Bernanos asks a question in it: Who is a real hero and who is a saint? According to him, a saint is somebody who never stopped being a child and never came out of childhood. For, only children can be spontaneous and act spontaneously, Childhood is gradually becoming mature to one’s vocation and mission. ‘Pope John XXIII was a permanent child. I speak about it, especially during meetings with children. When he was dying, he was 81. His smile was not similar to the smile of people known from television, he was not fake or deceiving. His smile was full of goodness. One could see his heart on his mouth. His smile was visible on his face even after his death. Once he said: ‘Human body can get older, but not eyes or a smile. A smile is the sun which rises on the mouth’.

When I had talked with him a few days before his death – said the archbishop – I told him that I would also go after him quickly. He answered me, smiling: ‘No, Loris, you are going to have too long life, because you should work. Remember! You will meet with the youth, seminarians. Tell them that the old pope, getting prepared for eternity, to the God’s Judgement, was peaceful and happy because he preserved beauty and chastity of baptismal robe received at the holy baptism’. A few hours before his death, he expressed his farewell with his closest collaborators. Each of them told him a few words of farewell and thanks. When everyone was crying then, I said with a smile: Holy Father, I am a poor priest. You deserved somebody better to be with you, but I was trying to serve you with complete devotion. Please, forgive me that I sometimes failed to meet your expectations and desires’. I put my hands on his hands. He took my hands and said: ‘Loris, let’s leave these apologies now. Listen, please… I was enduring your barges, and you were enduring mine ones. You know what was the most important? That we did not keep the stones which were thrown at us, but we threw them back, we kept silent, we suffered, prayed, acted, loved and forgave’. These were the great words, last words which he deposited into my soul, which gave me hope into my heart. When he was dying on 3 June 1963, St. Peter’s Square was filled with people who were praying at night and day, although it was raining. I had asked John XXIII a few moments before his death how he was feeling. He answered me: ‘I am in God’s hands’. ‘Holy Father, if you could see the square full of people now who are praying’. He looked at me and whispered: ‘It is natural because the pope is dying. I love them and they love me’.

The spirit is young

Pope Francis is often compared to John XXIII. The former personal Secretary of John XXIII perceives some common features between them. He also often suggested that he appreciated his predecessor very much. It is best proved by the fact that he decided about his canonization, although there were no findings about another miracle through the intercession of blessed John XXIII. What is common for these two popes, is, among the others, the ‘mentality of the parson’, characterized by simplicity and straightforwardness in contacts with people. Pope Francis cannot live without this kind of contacts. It was so in Buenos Aires and it is so in Rome now. Pope Francis considers being with people as a pastoral method. Also John XXIII did not always respect rigid rules of the Vatican security. He found it difficult to agree to the role of a ‘prisoner’ in the Apostolic Palace, therefore, he often came out in secret, for walks in the streets of Rome.

A phone call of pope Francis to the Secretary of pope John XXIII

When on 1 April this year, about 6 pm archbishop Capovilla answered the phone, he heard the voice: ‘Hello, archbishop Capovilla? Pope Francis is speaking’, he got speechless with shock for a while. It turned out that the Pope wanted to thank personally for the folder of the archbishop’s authorship, announcing two anniversaries connected with John XXIII. It was written in the folder: ‘We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the encyclical ‘Pacem in terries with the Pope Francis’, on 11 April 2013 and the death of John XXIII on 3 June 2013. There is also a quotation from the Apocalypse in it: ‘The first things passed away. And here I am making everything new now’. ‘Thank you that you invited me for these ceremonies. The pope said to me: ‘Every word which you wrote is like a homily’. And when the elderly hierarch thanked he added: ‘I am old…’, Francis answered: ‘I hear in your voice that your spirit is young and this is what matters’. Finally he added: ‘When you pray to John XXIII, ask also for my intention, so that I would become a better man’.

When there were ceremonies in Vatican, which were connected with the 50th death anniversary, the pope Francis met with pilgrims arriving from the Bergamo diocese, and the pope was praying in front of the relics of blessed John XXIII, exposed in the Vatican Basilica. Next, in the given speech he said: ‘The pope John passed peace to people, because his soul was full of peace. It was the peace which was shown together with his election to the world and which was called goodness’.

Pillars of peace

‘Peace on Earth, which all people of the whole history wanted so much, cannot be built or strengthened in any other way than only by faithful keeping the order established by God’. These first words of the encyclical ‘Pacem in terris’ of pope John XXIII have great and still current meaning. Blessed pope John XXIII reminds the today’s world that peace is mainly conditioned by the orderliness in the human heart, and also in the reality of the social life. If we want peace to exist, we should build it on the four pillars: truth, justice, love and freedom. Building of real peace is based on respecting human dignity, human rights and also fulfilling duties. This moral message has also its significance today. It is a constant commitment in the epoch of European integration and globalization. These indications play an important role towards constant dangers for peace, in building permanent peace and order in the world. The heritage of the encyclical is still waiting for being accepted and read again.

George Weigel says that although it has already been 50 years since the encyclical was announced, questions included in it do not lose their actuality. Its permanent achievement was universal resonance in all communities and countries. It confirmed the fact that the papacy of the end of XX century is the only voice of the moral authority among divided and conflicted inhabitants of the world. This authority is still maintained in the XXI century by the successors of John XXIII, like, for example, thanks to the speeches of John Paul II in the forum of the UNO or a pronouncement of Benedict XVI in Ratyzbona, Paris and Berlin. The pope Francis took over this authority, when just after the election for the office of the Holy See, he spoke to diplomats in the Holy See. He reminded the gathered representatives of the temporal authority, that there cannot be peace without a reference to moral truths rooted in the world and in us, the truths which are available for everybody with the usage of one’s reason.

Another permanent effect of ‘Pacem in terris’ was the voice of the Catholic Church in the contemporary debate about human rights. The document put the Church in the same line with activists for the sake of human rights, who played the key role in demolition of the Berlin wall and finished the communist tyranny in Europe. This historical change made ‘peace on earth’ more actual and also contributed to disarmament. Moreover, basing on this encyclical John Paul II could claim human rights in all political systems. Couldn’t the moral principles included in them be the beginning in arranging the contemporary world and building peace and brotherhood in it?

On the occasion of the approaching canonization of blessed John XXIII, it is worth recalling the words of blessed John Paul II again, said during the beatification: ‘We contemplate John XXIII in the glory of the blessed, who astonished the world with his straightforwardness and intelligibility, expressing a special goodness of his heart’. We are waiting for the canonization of blessed John XXIII with these words of blessed John Paul II.


"Niedziela" 41/2013

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl