Pope John Paul I and Pope John XXIII

I haven’t forgotten my promise to write some more about Pope John Paul I. I wanted first of all to finish this month of June, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, with his memorial to Pope John XXIII, who died 45 years ago this month. Of all the Popes in modern times (at least since Pius VIII died in 1830), the Pope with the shortest reign next to John Paul I was John XXIII. And though his reign was one of the shortest, it was also perhaps the most important, because of his work for peace and justice and the calling of the Second Vatican Council.

He certainly has much in common with his successor John Paul I, whose “humble service” as Pope was also brief, and also very important for the world. Papa Luciani was defined by one of his friends, Cardinal Hyancinthe Thiandoum, the Archbishop of Dakar, as a “spiritual son of Pope John XXIII” because of his capacity to see far and look to the future of the Church. Certainly he was just as beloved as Pope John for his smile and his simplicity of manner. Luciani closely followed every aspect of Angelo Roncalli’s life, as his writings show. He was consecrated a bishop by Pope John on December 27, 1958, and entered his new diocese of Vittorio Veneto on January 11, 1959, just two weeks before Pope John called the Second Vatican Council. Luciani spent the whole of his life as a bishop affected by this Council. and deeply loved the Pope who had called it. He succeeded Roncalli as Patriarch of Venice in December 1969, and then followed him into the See of St. Peter on August 26, 1978. Like Pope John, he is on his way to sainthood.

Their spiritual kinship is very obvious from these excepts from Luciani’s writings about Pope John from 1963. The first is the letter to his diocese of Vittorio Veneto, announcing the Pope’s death. In them, writing about the Pope as “his son,” Luciani seems to be giving, without realizing it, a spiritual portrait of himself, especially when he described the late Pope as someone who “in his simplicity and without trying to . . . made an extraordinary impression on every kind of person” and as someone of “goodness, humility and a robust faith in God.”

June 3, 1963

My esteemed priests and beloved faithful, today at 7:49 p.m., Pope John XXIII died piously and serenely after 81 and a half years of life and 4 years, 7 months and 6 days of “humble service” as Pope.

This “service,” in a very brief space of time, was in reality very dense with generous works for the benefit of both the Church and the whole world. “Humble” on the other hand, was the attitude of his spirit. Placed on a high cathedra, he presented himself to the world, saying, “I am one of you, I am your brother Joseph!” While working, teaching or approaching people in small groups or vast crowds, he repeated without every becoming tired: “Let us seek what unites us!” “Let’s have faith in God and mankind!” Let’s love one another!”

Simple, abandoned to the “good providence” of God, smiling and full of sensitive kindness to everyone, but resolute and tireless, right at the dawn of his pontificate he launched the daring idea of an ecumenical Council, which he patiently prepared for and courageously initiated, and for the success of which he repeatedly offered his life.

Never, perhaps, has a Pope been so loved as has John XXIII, by the whole world, even non-Catholics, and it is surprising to observe how, in his simplicity and without trying to, he made an extraordinary impression on every kind of person. This leads us to mediate on and imitate his example of goodness, humility and robust faith in God.

In the meantime, however, we have the filial duty of supporting his pious soul with prayer, all the more so since, before becoming Pope, he was for five years our most beloved and venerated metropolitan Patriarch (1). I myself cannot forget that I was consecrated a bishop by his august hands. And therefore with the soul of his son and your brother, at his moment I invite you all to pay him your respects and offer prayers for his soul. (Albino Luciani / John Paul I, Opera Omnia, vol. 3, p. 43.)

The second is the homily Luciani gave in the cathedral in Vittorio Veneto, three days later, on June 6. It contains a very moving reminiscence of the talk that he had with Pope John shortly before his consecration as a bishop.

The idea of Pope John that has made the greatest impression on my soul is this: Ecclesia Christi, lumen gentium! [The Church of Christ is the light of nations]. (2) The Church must shine not only on Catholics, but on everyone; it belongs to everyone, we must try to help everyone get to know it better.

When the Apostolic Delegate Angelo Roncalli arrived in Turkey at the beginning of 1935, he felt a pang in his heart: there were dozens of priests and thousands of faithful there, but almost none of them had bothered to learn the national language of Turkey; the Catholics were somewhat closed within themselves, they formed an island. He tried to remedy the situation as best he could: he ordered that the official acts of the Delegation be written in Turkish, before each of his sermons he had the Gospel passage read in Turkish and ordered that the “Blessed be God” be recited in Turkish at the end of Mass. There was amazement and criticism and some people asked: “What are these novelties for?” He answered, “They are for both the Catholics and the Turks. To the Catholics I would like to say: ‘Come on, come out of your isolation! Give up the French and the other things that hinder you, and get to know these people who are your hosts and who are also made for the truth!` To the Turks, I want to say, ‘Dear Turks! We cannot give away a single point of our creed, but we want to let you know that the creed itself obliges us to show you our liking for you, our sincere esteem for the good you have been able to create, and our desire to walk together with you when it comes to things that are good by their nature.’”

It was, on a small scale, the program that he applied on a large scale as Pope: to build bridges towards the world.

The Council is one of these bridges. In an audience for us bishops of the Veneto, he told how the idea had come to him. “One morning Tardini (3) came here with his usual stack of papers. We reviewed them, then we examined the world situation. So many problems, so many difficulties! We said, ‘What can the Church do to help?’ I had not thought about it before, but at that moment a word flashed into my mind, and I said, ‘It would take an Ecumenical Council!’ When the word was said, I almost surprised at having pronounced it and I looked at Tardini. Right away, he placed the papers on the table; I saw his eyes shine behind his glasses, and I heard him say, ‘Holiness, that is a great idea! Yes, it would take a Council!’ I am accustomed to following with simplicity what seem to me to be inspirations from the Lord. I did so then, and you know the rest.”

And you, my faithful, know it too. You have heard John XXIII speak on every occasion about the Council. He saw it as an examination, a self-criticism by the Church in order to improve itself, to beautify and renew itself and in this way to present itself as more attractive, convincing and welcoming to the separated brothers and to the rest of the world. No sermons would even be necessary, he said once, quoting St. John Chrysostom, if our faith really shone in our lives!

And in his famous speech at the opening of the Council, he was also thinking of the world. “Don’t forget!” he seemed to be saying in his precise Latin, “I don’t want a Council-museum, that limits itself to gathering and cataloging antiques; the Council must be instead a forge that brings forth doctrines that are unchanged, but in new forms, with a new spirit, in view of new needs. Today the Church must be a mother to everyone, kind, patient, and full of mercy, even towards the separated brothers; the great medicine of today must be mercy.”

Mater et Magistra can also be considered a bridge towards the world. The problems treated in it are of interest to everyone: it speaks, among other things, of the imbalances between advanced and under-developed nations, it deals with de- colonialization, with world population, which is growing in the face of meager means of sustenance. And it concludes: we are responsible for the under-developed countries, we must help, both as private individuals, and as nations!

In the encyclical, the principles remain firm: the well-known unfortunate ideologies are called “incomplete and erroneous,” it speaks of Christians who “have been savagely persecuted for a number of years” in many countries, and of the “refined cruelty of their persecutors;” Catholics are warned “not to compromise” when “the integrity of religion or morals would suffer harm.” Once this had been said, however, “a spirit of understanding” is recommended, Catholics are invited to “join sincerely in doing whatever is naturally good or conducive to good,” and for the first time, in an encyclical, there is explicit praise for secular Institutions like the International Labor Organization and the FAO. (4)

Pacem in Terris, on the other hand, is the first encyclical in which a Pope addresses not only the bishops and the faithful, but “all men of good will” on whatever side of the boundaries of the Catholic Church. Even here a single iota of doctrine does not fall. The peace of which it speaks is Christian peace, founded solely on the fear of God, love for mankind, and on liberty. Considering the phenomenon of refugees, it says clearly that “there are some political regimes that do not guarantee for individual citizens a sufficient sphere of freedom . . . in fact, under those regimes even the lawful existence of such a sphere of freedom . . . is denied.” (5) But then it observes: we must not “confuse error with the person who errs; the person who errs is always and above all a human being, and he retains in any case his dignity as a human person; and he should always be regarded and treated in accordance with that lofty dignity.” (6) Absolutely nothing is conceded to error, but a step is taken towards those who are in error. Meetings between Catholics and non-Catholics on questions of a practical order are possible under certain conditions, and those are: that we be watchful in avoiding illicit compromises, that we be prudent, that there be an accordance with natural law, with the social doctrine of the Church and with the directives of ecclesiastical authority.

This is not the place to enumerate all that Pope John has done for the good, not only of the Church, but of humanity: I would only like to stress the spirit in which he has done it.

I learned about this spirit from his august lips, seated in front of his desk, in a private audience that I will never forget, five days before he consecrated me a bishop.

He confided to me that a page from the Imitation of Christ that he had meditated on in 1904 in the fervor of the very beginning of his priesthood had been providential for him and had served as an orientation for the whole course of his life. “Go and look at it for yourself,” he said to me, “It’s in Book 3, Chapter 23.” But meanwhile he recited it for me from memory. “There are four things that will bring great peace. First: seek to do the will of others rather than your own. Second: always prefer to possess less rather than much. Third: always seek the last place. Fourth: desire always, and pray that the will of God be accomplished perfectly in you.” I have always tried to put these four points into practice,” he concluded, “and I have always been content, in joys as well as in sorrows; the Lord has helped me and blessed me.”

During these sad days, thinking again about his life, and re-reading his letters and discourses, I have found that he told me the truth. He truly let himself be guided by the will of God, he did not seek success or greatness, he possessed great gentleness and patience. When he was named an archbishop in 1925, he wrote to his friends: “I feel nothing but shame and confusion, my spirit, however, is calm, and my soul is at peace. I obey, though overcoming strong repugnance at leaving certain things behind, and at venturing to do certain others, and I am putting aside all anxiety. Yes, ‘obedience and peace’: this is my episcopal motto. May it always be so.”

As apostolic visitor and then apostolic delegate in Bulgaria for nine years, he encountered trials that were neither small nor of short duration. The Catholic community there, which is in dire straits, has enormous needs and places great hopes in the delegate, but he is forced to admit his own inability to provide for everything, and to fulfill the hopes that had been cherished. Then comes the unfortunate affair of King Boris’ marriage with Giovanna of Savoy; the delegate carries on the negotiations, he assures Rome that the august groom appears sincere and willing to fulfill his obligations, but instead Boris repeats the wedding ceremony, which has already been celebrated in Assisi in the Catholic rite, in the Orthodox rite, in a way designed to cause a sensation, and later has his daughter baptized by the Orthodox.

The delegate hears that he is being criticized in the Secretariat of State, where his nomination, due solely to the Pope, is already not liked; he sees his faithful humiliated, the Orthodox exultant, the royal court irritated by the loud and clear public allusions of Pius XI; he must take difficult steps, he confesses that the affair has caused him “more troubles than there are hours in the day.” But he writes: “I hope the Lord will help me and not allow the desire for a change to issue, even once, from my lips or from my heart.” And later: “I am in the condition that St. Francis de Sales calls the state of perfection: that is, I ask for nothing, and I refuse nothing. The Lord knows that I am here. That is enough for me.” And still later: “We often suffer from impatience for great and sensational successes. We want to see and experience them every day . . . we are deceiving ourselves.” And again: “I pay no attention to what the world says of me, the testimony of my good conscience and the knowledge that the Holy Father is happy with my modest work is enough for me.”

From Bulgaria, he is transferred to Turkey and to Greece. It is anything but a great promotion, all the more so because the newspapers had spoken of him as nuncio to Romania. But he writes: “Many people on both the European and Asian shores sympathize with me and call me unfortunate. I don’t know why. I carry out the obedience that is asked of me and nothing else . . . Perhaps there are some bad days and painful situations in store for me. But I do not cease to look above and to look far.”

Here is a phrase that becomes familiar to him: “To look above and to look far.” Along with this one, he likes to repeat others. For example: “Gutta cavat lapidem [The drop of water wears away the stone]” Or: “Dabo frontem mean percutientibus [I gave my back to those who beat me]” (Is. 50:6). Or: “Omnia videre, multam dissumulare, pauca corrigere [See everything, overlook much, correct little]” (7) Imbued with this spirit of patience, detachment from the things of the world, and faith in God alone, he faces the difficulties of the nunciature in France and the diocese of Venice and also the great problems of his pontificate. After being named to Venice, he writes from Paris to the vicar of the cathedral chapter: “. . .in this nomination of mine, there is nothing of my own; therefore I will be very glad to come.” In Venice, again, facing some lively reactions to his project of removing the screens in front of the altar of the basilica of San Marco, he wrote: “If they told me that to succeed in my intention I would only have to kill one ant, I would not kill it.” It is impossible to explain his strong and gentle patience in his very long death agony without the patience that he exercised through his whole life. “There are four things that bring peace,” the Imitation of Christ had said. He constantly tried to put them into practice, and experienced for himself the truth of what the Imitation adds: Ecce, talis uomo ingreditur fines pacis et quietis — “The man who does these things enters the kingdom of tranquility and peace” (8).

Now that his mission has been completed, he has gone to the Lord. Down here there remains the good that he has done, there remains, as a stimulus and a consoler, his luminous example. There also remains his exalted teaching, and it is this: Extend the area of the Church! Truth alone is not enough, we need love too! Look above and look far! Walk on the paths of obedience to arrive at the kingdom of peace!

Let’s welcome the warning, and let’s translate his example into firm convictions and solid virtues! Let it not be said of us that the passing of Pope John has only lightly touched our hearts. Let it be said: “That great and good Pope has impressed them, convinced them, and has transformed their ideas and their lives!” (Opera Omnia 3:44-48).


(1) Vittorio Veneto was one of the suffragan sees of Venice, where Angelo Roncalli was patriarch before becoming Pope, from 1953-1958. – Trans.

(2) Lumen Gentium (the light of nations) was also the title of the Council’s Constitution on the Church. — Trans.

(3) Domenico Cardinal Tardini was Pope John’s Secretary of State. — Trans.

(4) Mater et Magistra, nos. 212, 216, 239, 103. — Trans.

(5) Pacem in Terris, no. 104. — Trans.

(6) Pacem in Terris, no. 158. — Trans.

(7) St. Gregory the Great.

(8) Imitation of Christ, 1,3, Ch. 23, v. 7.


Pope John Paul I and Pope John XXIII — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Sainthood Watch: John Paul II and John XXIII to be Canonized! | On Pilgrimage

Join the conversation!