Portrait of John XXIII by Cardinal Poupard

Source: FSSPX News


For a more objective understanding of the role and person of John XXIII, we recommend to our readers two on-line articles (in French) on our site www.dici.org/thomatique.php

“Throughout this journey towards Easter, we have listened to Christ speaking to us through his disciples (…). This evening, at the end of this journey where many other witnesses could have been invoked, it is Blessed Pope John XXIII, man of peace and unity, who will delight us with the secrets of his Diary, begun at the age of 14 years, and regularly kept up until 1962, a few months before his death at the age of 81.

In handing these old, crumpled notebooks and decayed volumes to his faithful secretary, Mgr. Loris Capovilla, good Pope John confided to him: “My soul is in these pages. I was a good, innocent boy, a little timid. I wanted to love God at all costs and I thought of nothing other than becoming a priest at the service of simple souls in need of patient and diligent care.”

He was a man of unity, in opening the ecumenical council and inviting our separated brethren: Anglicans, Protestants and Orthodox. He was a man of unity, in receiving men of all beliefs. Amongst the most moving of these meetings, was indisputably the one when he welcomed a group of Jews with open arms, saying to them, “I am Joseph, your brother” (his name was Joseph – Giuseppe, in Italian – Roncalli), words from the Bible, with profound resonance. It was the evening of his election. The motley crowd were applauding wildly, when the loggia, which dominates St. Peter’s square, opened for the traditional blessing, urbi et orbi, in other words: “to the city and to the world.”

The new Pope, arrayed, after a fashion, in the largest of the three white cassocks, prepared by people who had not foreseen the election of Cardinal Roncalli, had just said, with humor and gravity: “Here I am, tied up and ready to be delivered!” Later he told how he had experienced the scene. “Imagine, when I had to give my urbi et orbi blessing in St. Peter’s Square, the television and cinema spotlights were so powerful, that I didn’t manage to see the immense crowd, which apparently extended as far as the Tiber! I blessed the world, but as I left the balcony, I thought of all the cameras, which from then on would be pointing at me every minute. And I said to myself “If you don’t stay at the school of the sweet and humble Master, you will no longer see the world as it really is, you will be blind.”

“During the first days of pontifical service, I did not realise everything it meant to be the Bishop of Rome, and hence, pastor of the universal Church. Then, as the weeks went by, the full light appeared. And I felt completely at home, as if I had done nothing else all my life.” (1963)

To Mgr. Martin, a few days before his death, he confided: “Every day is a good day to live and also to die. As for me, my suitcase is packed, but I am equally ready to carry on working.”

Such was the man whom many Parisians had judged superficially, as a well-padded man, of round gesture and easy mind: in short, of a cheerful disposition, an optimistic and smiling prelate, even a diplomat in clogs, the peasant from the Danube of the pontifical diplomacy!

John XXIII was the shepherd of this Church, the good shepherd, as he was declared the day following his election. Very quickly, the Romans, first of all, then all Christians, and eventually the entire world, recognised him as such. Whereas his predecessors stayed inside the Vatican, he very often went out, always warmly greeted as he passed by everyone.

The Romans used to jokingly call him: “Giovanni fuori le mura” (John outside the walls); and the Americans, thinking of whisky called him “Johnny Walker”. For everyone, he remains “Good Pope John”, who did not spend his time weeping over the misfortunes of the day, but spoke to the hearts of men in order to call them to change the world.

John XXIII called the Vatican Council II.

A threefold spirit moved him: the renewal of the Church, the unity of Christians, the opening up to the world. To these intentions, he offered his life and his long agony, followed by all, young and old alike, his ear pressed to his transistor. He would open his arms and say, “I suffer in pain, but with love.” And when he was interviewed at the opening of the council, he said, “My role will be to suffer.”

It was suffering, prayer and daily effective action, without spectacular feats, but by a series of delicate touches, almost imperceptible at first. I remember when I arrived at the Vatican at the beginning of the pontificate of John XXIII, to replace Mgr. Veillot, the future Archbishop of Paris: it was a new image of the papacy which was taking shape, little by little.

He was neither a diplomat, nor a polititian, but a big-hearted man, and a man of God, who rapidly gained an extraordinary confidence and affection of the people. And why? Because, through human contact, man to man, a flame of love shot up, such that every person felt understood and loved in the depth of his soul.

Consequently, his death was felt by everyone, Christians and non-believers, like a personal loss: the death of one’s father. In Moscow, the Patriarch Alexis called the Orthodox to prayer. In Paris, the Rabbi of the Sephardic synagogue introduced an invocation for this intention in the office of the Sabbath, while in Rome, at the Regina Coeli prison, the prisoners cabled the Pope with the message: “With an immense love, we are close to you.”

On March 7, 1963, when he received Adjoubei and his wife, the daughter of Krushchev, at that time ruler of the Soviet Union, this initiative was much criticized. He explained his actions himself to Cardinal Marty at midday on May 9, 1963. “You see,” he said to me, “I know that several people were surprised by this visit; some were even upset. But why? I am obliged to receive everyone who knocks at my door. I saw them and we talked about children; you should always talk about children…. I saw that Mrs. Adjoubei was weeping. I gave her a rosary, suggesting that she might not know what it was for and that she was not obliged to say it, of course! But looking at it, she would simply remember that, long ago, there lived a mother who was perfect.”

If a man knocked at his door, how could he leave it closed? Even at the risk of putting himself in danger, he had to open the door. What else did Christ do? People reproached him, “Be careful, these people are leftists.” “So, what would you have me do? It isn’t my fault, I have to take people as they are, and try to talk to them!”

This liberating intuition (exactly forty years ago, and we celebrate here the anniversary), during the Cuban missile crisis, allowed a bond between Krushchev and Kennedy; and showed by the facts, that even if t ideologies are by their very nature intolerant, men never entirely became alienated and always keep intact this better part of themselves, which allowed them to get along in order to avoid the worst.

For John XXIII, it wasn’t a question of making the Church more palatable for the world, but of restoring a taste for the Gospel to the world. The Romans said he was furbo, which is not double-faced, but subtle, of a refined skill of pleasing guile, and that was a huge compliment coming from them.

You should have seen him on Palm Sunday 1963, a few weeks before his death, making his way with difficulty through the crowd, in a large working-class suburb, towards the parish of St. Tarcisius, near to the Appian Way, with palms thrown in his path, in order to understand the Gospel’s cry: “I want to see Jesus.”

His most unexpected decision to convene the Council came very quickly, like an obvious necessity, but at the same time he didn’t know how it would work out. “As regards councils,” he said, smiling, “we are all novices. The Holy Ghost will be present when all the bishops are assembled. We’ll see.”

The Council was for him, first and foremost, an encounter with God, in prayer, with Mary, like the Apostles in the Upper Room on the eve of Pentecost. An encounter with the Holy Ghost, it was also a meeting together of the bishops, and also a meeting of all the bishops with the Bishop of Rome. But much more than that it was a meeting with separated brethren, invited as observers, and they came from everywhere, even Moscow; and finally it was a meeting with the entire world, through the press, radio and television, their spotlights fixed on St. Peter’s Basilica.

For John XXIII, the Council was to be a contribution to peace among men and also between nations, between religions and social classes, between cultures and ways of thinking.


This is how he welcomed the Protestants and Orthodox to the Council: “Please read my heart; perhaps you may find more there than in my words… I have met many Christians of different denominations…we haven’t had a discussion, but we have talked; we haven’t disputed but we have loved each other.”


Such was John XXIII, a man of unity and peace, a priest of Jesus Christ, deeply and firmly rooted in tradition, joyfully living each day as a gift from God, and open to the hope of a more brotherly world and a Church closer to mankind through being more open to God.

John XXIII was exactly the opposite of a rigid man, whether it was to the right or the left, and no-one was able to pin him down on their side, he was a Catholic in the widest sense of the term. Let us listen to him talking for the feast of Christmas in St.Peter’s Basilica: “Our heart is full of tenderness in giving you our paternal wishes. We would like to be able to linger at the tables of the poor, in workshops, in places of study and of science, close to the beds of the sick and the elderly, in all places where men pray and suffer, work for their needs and for others…

Yes, we would like to place our hands on the heads of little children, to look into the eyes of young people, to encourage mothers and fathers in their daily duties. To everyone, we would like to repeat the message of the angel: “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy: a savior is born to you.”!” With these simple words, John, the successor of Peter, repeated to the world the great, joyful ever new message: Our Lord loves us and we are called to love him, and to love each other. And the voice of the Church, often smothered by the clamor of the world, rang in our ears.

John broke through the wall of sound. His words revived an echo and men recognized his voice, like a call, addressed to their better selves, by someone who loved them as a brother. And that is why everyone wept his loss, as sons would have for their own mother.