Victor Gaetan is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Register, focusing on international issues. He also writes for Foreign Affairs magazine, The American Spectator and the Washington Examiner. He contributed to Catholic News Service for several years. The Catholic Press Association of North America has given his articles four first place awards, including Individual Excellence, over the last five years. Gaetan received a license (B.A.) in Ottoman and Byzantine Studies from Sorbonne University in Paris, an M.A. from the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy, and a Ph.D. in Ideology in Literature from Tufts University.
Imagine a village of 3,500 people getting together to plan a low-cost, high-impact celebration.
Solution: sturdy crepe paper ribbons and banners — on every house!
Two months after his canonization, St John XXIII’s hometown of Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII (yes, the government changed the town’s name) in northern Italy, is still covered in yellow and white crepe flowers, sashes, and Maypole-style ribbons paired with Vatican flags and “Santo” banners featuring an outline of the saint’s robust figure.
About 40 minutes northwest of Bergamo by bus, with the Alps in sight, this modest community is naturally motivated by deep pride in Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, one of 13 children, born into a family of sharecroppers farming eight acres.
The Roncalli family has lived in Sotto il Monte for centuries. Across the street from the house where the saint was born, most of the mailboxes bear the family name.
Almost every place in town has a Giovanni connection.
The sturdy stone church, Santa Maria, where he was baptized the day he was born, in 1881, is a stone’s throw from the family’s front gate. It’s where, 22 years later, Father Roncalli celebrated his first Mass.
An ecclesiastic wunderkind, the saint entered minor seminary at age 11 in Bergamo after being tutored in Latin by a local priest. Just a few months before ordination, he received his doctorate in theology in Rome.
But he remained grounded in the nourishing fields of Lombardy.
For over 30 years, he returned every summer to Sotto il Monte, staying in a house behind St John the Baptist parish church, where he taught catechism class to adults.
Bishop Roncalli consecrated the church in 1927 — on leave from his diplomatic post in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Introducing himself as the new Patriarch of Venice in 1953, Cardinal Roncalli explained, “I come from humility and was educated in a happy and blessed poverty which has no pretenses…and which prepares to the ascensions of life.”
Two months before being elected pope, the saint gave his last hometown Mass in a small shrine, Madonna delle Caneve, which stands among beech trees where farmers would break from work to pray — where his Mother had dedicated her oldest son’s life to the Virgin Mary.
Today, the shrine’s frescos have been beautifully restored, as Pope John XXIII requested in his last will and testament.
Sotto il Monte’s most ethereal sacred space, though, is in his summer house, called Ca Maitino, now a museum maintained by St John XXIII’s personal secretary, Cardinal Loris Francesco Capovilla, age 98, and a group of Sisters of the Poor from Bergamo.
Between 1953 and 1963, the cardinal was with the saint almost every day. He was given the red hat this year by Pope Francis, in honor of lifelong effort to preserve the saint’s memory.
According to the Cardinal, while the pope was on his deathbed in 1963, he pointed Capovilla toward Sotto il Monte.
“When I am no longer here, you will go to Sotto il Monte, won’t you? To see my dear ones. They are simple humble people, but their friendship is true,” recounted the Cardinal in the introduction to a volume of letters sent by St John to his family over the course of 60 years.
Not only did Cardinal Capovilla settle in Sotto il Monte after his retirement, he brought the saint’s personal artifacts from the Vatican.
The altar where the pope prayed, the bed (everything: mattress, covers) in which he died, vestments he wore, gifts he received — even the typewriter on which his will was composed, the words still imprinted on the ribbon—are all there.
Last Sunday morning at 7am, Cardinal Capovilla celebrated a powerful Mass for the resident Sisters and a few visitors. Articulating every prayer as though it is new revelation, explicating Pope Francis’ Corpus Christi homily, and giving the Holy Eucharist to the faithful by name — the Holy Spirit works through this man.
“I’ll say Mass every day until I die,” the Cardinal told me after, sending me off to Bergamo to see the archives at the Giovanni XXIII foundation, which he founded in 1994.
Among the treasures, tucked in a standard office cabinet, is the gift given to St John XXIII by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy when she visited the Vatican in March 1962—a compilation of presidential statements titled “To Turn the Tide” with the dedication:
To His Holines
Pope John XXIII
With filial respect and affection.
John F Kennedy
The book, bound in red, should probably make the journey to the museum at Sotto il Monte.