WITHIN DAYS of his election, Pope John had impressed everybody with his unusual extrovert personality, his powerful religiosity and his selfless, spontaneous virtue.
Everyone recognised that here was a good Pope, one who held his heart in his hands, and offered it to all.
Since I was lucky enough. by God's grace, to work alongside this Pope. in earlier days, under his gentle leadership, I have found it both a duty and a pleasure to acquaint as many people as possible with his wisdom, his goodness and his benevolence.
These virtues were evident in several ways. The piety he radiated made people feel relaxed in his presence. It was neither oppressive nor demanding.
And so, too, with his age. It is rarely recognised that age is a relative matter. And this applies as much to cardinals as to others. Some have become Princes of the Church by their forties, others even earlier. Roncalli was 72 before he received the purple. Even when he was Papal Nuncio in Paris he would remark: "I am the oldest Nuncio France has ever had. There was a time when anyone who had reached my age was either a Cardinal, or dead and buried. Nowadays, it seems, you get there later, but live a lot longer."
As for his "rotunditas corporis", a lot of people jumped to the conclusion that the new Pope was fond of his food. But his rotundness was not the result of over eating. Rather, it expressed peace of soul. and an unhurried life. In the live years I spent working with him I never saw him angry. impatient or upset. On the contrary, he accepted everything with contentment.
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was horn on November 25, 1881. the eldest of the ten children of Giovanni Battista Roncalli and Maria Anna, nee Mazzola. They were semi peasants who were gradually able to acquire ownership of their land and their house by dint of hard work. After their wedding in Sotto it Monte, they spent their "honeymoon" walking the 10 miles to Bergamo, and returned home the same night.
However, the rustic simplicity of such people was by no means an oppressive, grim state of affairs. Theirs was a cheerful, holy loving simplicity. The Roncalli family was simple. modest — and happy. What a great honour for them that their son, who remained so true to his rural origins, bore the triple crown of the most gloried principality on Earth: the crown which marked him out as "Father of Princes and Kings and Vicar of our Saviour Jesus Christ on Earth".
The Church of Christ might have been spared many problems and sorrows under such Popes as he. The bitter wound of the split in the Church might never have occurred. "I favour all that unites, and I try to fend off all that dividesPope John often emphasised.
All he wanted was to be a simple pastor. Everything else came upon him and he took it upon himself in obedience and peace. He became secretary to Bishop Radini Tedeschi. professor, student chaplain. military chaplain. General Secretary of the Pontifical Mission Aid Society. Apostolic Delegate in Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. and afterwards Nuncio in France.
Only as Patriarch did he return to truly pastoral work. devoting himself to it entirely. Yet he was pastorally inclined by nature. He was a man without the faintest trace of deception or cunning. A few anecdotes will serve better than any expose to illuminate the essence of his personality.
One day he came somewhat later . than usual to table, and a moment's silence sufficed to tell him that we had just been talking about him. "Have you been talking about me?" he asked. "Carry on! Clergymen have little enough in life. they don't marry. they don't know the joys of family life, the joy in children and many other pleasant things in life are more or less forbidden them. Talking and complaining about their superiors is one of the most worthwhile forms of conversation they have. so it shouldn't be denied them."
The years 1 spent with him were undoubtedly the best of my life. This was something I was able to tell him in July 1958 during a visit to Venice. when noone yet knew that within a few months he would be taking the burden of the Papacy on his shoulders.
it was my second visit to him in Venice since his appointment as Patriarch. In 1950 I visited Venice with him to take part in a jubilee celebration of Armenian Mechitarist monks. We talked about that, and then he asked me: "When did you actually come to Paris'?•• "January 194 7!•• "Vediatno aan pohe said. "Let's see what I wrote". He found one of the diaries in which he wrote a few lines each day. and thumbed through it: "Ecai, Here it is, on January the 8th". He read out to me what he had written about my arrival: words full of goodness, an advance deposit of goodwill.
He was little concerned with the impression he made on others as a private individual. so little concerned indeed that with typically Christian disregard for self he took on every task without further thought, was ready to appear at any time in public with little preparation. even speak a foreign language if' need be. Herein lay his strength. He took little heed of himself and com
mitted himself to the care of God.
But he was not only a man for godly speeches. If someone "too clever by half"' ever deceived him. he always had an understanding, reconcilling word for him.
He was kind hearted and generous to everyone but himself, and had no desire for money or possessions. One fine summer day, on the way to a fisherman's festival, another car drove past him. the driver signalling that there was something wrong. The chauffeur emerged to discover that the boot was open. He closed it, and the journey continued. A short while later. the chauffeur decided he ought to check again. He had a feeling that the Cappa Magna was missing, a piece of attire which had cost the Nuncio a considerable sum of money. And indeed it was. They drove back part of the way. The container could not be found, but the Nuncio insisted they simply drive on. The chauffeur sighed: "What a pity it fell out". The Nuncio interrupted him with the words "Sta zitto, io ho gai ii distacci" (Enough! I've already said goodbye to it"). The Cappa Magna was greatly missed at the celebrations. But he did not seem to mind. He made no further reference to it.
Ronealli was inspired in every aspect. It is well known that in his early days as Pope he had a chance encounter with a group of Vatican gardeners. He looked at their work with great interest, asking them about their families and their earnings. These appeared too low to him, and he told them so frankly. promising to have them improved. And sure enough, a little while later their wages went up.
Roncalli could meet rulers and princes with equal poise. He could speak with ease to people of different persuasions. and overcome inhibition with his kindly humour whether he was talking to the Soviet ambassador, an anti clerical politician or a representative of another faith. His hospitality was something very special. He made no demands whatever on his guests except in one respect: he insisted that • his guest have the best bedroom — his own. Meanwhile he would sleep in a little room next to his study.
In his time as Pope he received scholars, artists. men of letters, film-makers and religious leaders. He listened to their plans, and advised them, exercising great influence by his tolerance and gentleness. His ideas. put forward so carefully and unobtrusively, and his tactful criticism. were well received without causing offence.
Despite his part in public life the Nuncio tried to avoid publicity. He was not interested in appearing in the press or in illustrated magazines. He never wore his orders and distinctions.
A well known Capuchin and writer who once accompanied him to a function in Paris at which the Nuncio was greeted with a flattering address of welcome, heard him repeating with his head bowed: "De ,stercore erigit pauperon'' ("From the dunghill he raises the poor") His simple. genuine humility impressed man and attracted them to him. On their journey to faith they became less and less inhibited by secondary considerations Of prestige.