John XXIII has already become part of history with the nickname of “The Pope of Goodness”. Walter Lippman wrote of him in the New York Herald four days after his death: “The reign of Pope John has been a wonder, even more amazing when one thinks how he managed to be so deeply loved in the midst of the bitter enmity of our time. It is a modern miracle that one person was able to overcome all the barriers of class, of caste, colour and race to touch the hearts of all peoples. Nothing similar has ever happened before, at least in this modern era. The fact that people have reciprocated his love, demonstrated that enmity and disagreement in the human race does not make up the complete reality of the human condition”.
Endorsing these words I am also convinced, along with the same columnist, of this following affirmation: “Pope John has declared that the movement to coincide the Church’s teachings with the process of radical change in the political and economic situation was begun by Leo XIII with the Rerum Novarum. Pope John has followed it, not only with two great encyclicals but above all with the proclamation of the Council”.
But let us return to the giving of that nickname: “Pope of Goodness”. I well remember that it exploded on 7th March 1963, Palm Sunday, in the Roman parish of San Tarcizio at Quarto Miglio, when the pontiff visited that community during the electoral campaign. For that occasion, the secretaries of the parties running for office, the Dc and the Pci at the head, decided unanimously to eliminate propaganda bills and banners and substitute them with many white banners on which were written the words: “Long live the Pope of Goodness”.
The episode rendered honour and justice to them all for the example given on knowing how to unite and offer honour and affection to the Father of them all. That “Long live” did not institute a paragon and neither constrict the pontiff within a restricted framework of goodness “just as it is”. It translated in some way the compliment that, in the name of his colleagues of the Diplomatic Corps, Georges Vanier, Ambassador of Canada in Paris, had given ten years earlier to the new cardinal Patriarch of Venice when he called to take his leave: “I have read that the great part of Bergamo’s fame was at one time based principally on three activities: the production of wines, the working of silk, the extraction of iron. The wines of Bergamo, Eminence, are a little like the richness of your heart and the liveliness of your spirit. Silk recalls the fineness of your diplomatic temperament, the glow of your sense of shading.
Being yourself a product of the town of silk, you certainly do not take after one of those severe cardinals of Goya; no, you have strength tempered with sweetness that is more likely found in a Raffaello picture. In regard to the iron of Bergamo, that evokes the solidity of principles which inspire your life and the strength of character that does not comprise about the truth. (…) You are in full vigour of life, Eminence, and surely have many years before you, during which you will happily carry out the works of a good Pastor” (A.G. Roncalli, Souvenirs d’un Nonce, History and Literature edition, Rome, 1963).
He loved children, he prayed for all those newly born during the last 24 hours, not only for those who were Catholic but also for those who weren’t. Pope of Goodness! Amusing and symptomatic episodes, amazing declarations by representatives of culture and religion who are convinced that John XXIII’s appearance on the world scene confirms the value attracted by evangelical goodness, that “keeps for ever a place of honour for the sermon on the Mount: blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, those who hunger for justice, the pure in heart, those who suffer, those who are persecuted”, this is read in the “Diary of a soul”, the Roncalli journal which reflects his soul. A fact. And the secret – to call it that – of Roncalli’s “success”?
Many have asked me that question. I reply by saying it is in the traditional matrix, nonetheless dynamic, of his ecclesiastic training and culture, in the apparent paradox between severe conservatism and human and evangelical openness. Pupils of the Bergamo seminary graft his sensitiveness onto the trunk of severe ecclesiastical bearings of patristics inspiration; seminarists of just fourteen years of age begin to write the above mentioned “Diary of a soul” and continue until 81 years of age. Over the long arch of his existence, he remained always a priest for the young, without ever losing coherence of thought and action, which can be found in all the variations of ministry or office, within limits, with the defects and deficiencies of nature, of environment and the historic moment in which it has to operate. He was, as well, a priest in the ancient manner, deeply rooted in the solid ground of Christian revelation, which gives tone and enthusiasm to his service.
He wished to be a priest marked by fire through his intimacy with Christ and to be concerned with nothing else but his name, the reign and will of God. He touched on it in a speech to the Roman clergy. It was the 25th January 1960, and he said: “The persona of a priest is sacred (…). The good nature, the hard studies, the propriety of the word and debate are like a mantle which surrounds the humanity of a priest: but the divine lifeblood of his application to divine mysteries and apostolic work, he continues to draw upon at the altar. That is his place as it ought to be above all else. From there he speaks to the faithful and in turning to them, with a language elaborated in meditation on his own, he appears to be at home in the temple of the Lord, and the sacred words of the missal, of the breviary, of ritual must sound first in the mysterious intimacy of his soul under the sanctuary vaults”.
Pope John, “the good”, does not arouse nostalgia, which would be the same as looking backwards; but more likely he stimulates an attempt at the adventure of testimony and he invites us to open again the divine Book to discover the inspiration of faith and renewal, a couple of words coined by him as a guiding thread in the Vatican II, and the fulfilment of his faith. This Angel Joseph, the angel of the Lord, renews now the warning to be attentive when night looms near; to keep alert, to not surrender to fashions and glitter; and it is done with the authority of charisma received, the eloquence of example, the force of good and holiness.
Translation by Antoinette Canini
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di Loris Francesco Capovilla
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