Marco Roncalli is the great-nephew of soon-to-be-canonized Blessed Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli.
He is also the author of Giovanni XXIII — Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: Una Vita Nella Storia (John XXIII — Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: A Life in History) and the editor of correspondence from 1933-1962 between John XXIII, Loris Francesco Capovilla, John XXXIII’s secretary, and Giuseppe De Luca, a close friend of the Pope.
Roncalli shared his views on the life and personality of John XXIII in this email interview with the Register, given in October. He has a new book on his great-uncle coming out next year in time for the April 27 canonization.
What kind of a man was Angelo Roncalli? Was he a simple country priest or someone more complex?
He has certainly been a complex figure, much more complex than the cliché of the “Good Pope.” His path in life was complex, rich and spiritual, like the example he gave through his Christian virtues, delineated in the history of mankind. His complexity was also reflected throughout his life because he was able to talk face-to-face with God in prayer, but also to find him in the work and affairs of mankind. And that complexity also derived from positive influences on him from important figures: I think of the 10 years when he was secretary to a great bishop, Giacomo Maria Radini Tedeschi, as well as complex situations he experienced [as a Vatican diplomat] in Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and France.
Despite this, the complexity never undermined his genuine, authentic simplicity — that he was cloaked in humility, as one reads in his autobiography, Journal of a Soul, his spiritual notebook, and as he expressed in so many words, gestures and actions that shine like stars in his life.
How was his decision to call the Second Vatican Council consistent with his character?
John XXIII knew the history of the Church. He had studied the apostolic visit of St. Charles [Borromeo] to Bergamo [in 1575], knew the synodal instruments, and, during his time in the East, he became familiar with the history of the ecumenical councils, the first eight in particular — the five Lateran Councils and Trent.
He knew, above all, that a council was the instrument for solving problems of which he was aware, as priest and pastor. This was emphasized by the pastoral intention of the [Second Vatican] Council, delineated by three aspects: the opening of the Church to the modern world, the reconstruction of unity among Christians and the theme of justice and peace.
But the seeds of the Council were inside him. His wish for a council was a personal decision, expressed immediately after the papal election. His personal secretary, Msgr. Loris Capovilla, recalled the Pope had told him of the idea: “The first time was on Oct. 30, 1958, 48 hours after his election.”
It’s true that the idea had already been discussed among other Churchmen, cardinals and even popes. But the intention of Pope John was for another council. He wanted to rejuvenate the Church (to him, it was “not a museum, but always a garden”), to be able to respond to the questions piling up on his desk, to start the restoration of Christian unity, to give voice to the universality of the Church, to shore up the exercise of episcopal collegiality, to discern the “signs of the times.”
He didn’t have to invent anything revolutionary. As a student of history, he knew that the most suitable instrument is always present in the dynamics of the history of the Church.
What are the key characteristics of Pope Francis that link him to Pope John XXIII?
I was in St. Peter’s Square when Jorge Bergoglio came out for the first time onto the loggia after the white smoke. And, after his unique blessing addressed to “all men and women of goodwill,” I immediately had the feeling that, in his actions and in his words, there was something to evoke the figure of John XXIII.
After that first assurance that evening, in the embrace of the colonnade, other comparisons would follow, always in greater numbers, including the pronunciations of distinguished cardinals that came thick and fast. There was Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of CEI [the Italian bishops' conference], who said he saw in Francis the “style, simplicity, goodness, but also the ability to govern, of John XXIII.”
There was African Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum: “Pope Francis is a good figure like Pope Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.” There was Cardinal Joseph Zen of China and Hong Kong, who said that “when people know Francis, they will love him as they loved John XXIII.”
Other cardinals have also agreed on the comparison, such as the former secretary of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz. And speaking of secretaries of popes, the key test came from Archbishop Capovilla: He has already been reported as saying several times that Francis reminds him a lot — even in his physical traits — of “his” John XXIII, who, almost at the same moment of the election, also took the key word “mercy” as his point of departure and immediately called his Petrine ministry a service — the two emerging leitmotifs.
What are your views on John XXIII’s canonization? What examples or anecdotes best demonstrate his holiness?
Pope Francis, in his words and deeds, has so far revealed the most creative “reception” of the Council, and not by chance pro gratia did he make further investigation [into miracles] unnecessary, further unlocking a process that [Karol] Wojtyla had already unlocked with John XXIII’s beatification.
For millions of people, this is “good news,” but for those who were close to Angelo Roncalli, or have known the family well, it was “confirmation” of what was seen over time: an everyday holiness lived in normality. If you reread a synthesis of the life of John XXIII, as you will see in my upcoming book that will be published in Italy next year by Edizioni San Paolo, one uncovers not only his experience of holiness, but also the universal virtues that he delineated.
Throughout his whole life, Roncalli tried to become a saint, the leitmotif he constantly returns to in his writings. Year after year, he discovers what matters is the substance needed to become a saint; it’s not about mimicking other figures, but achieving a degree that is possible for him. Also, as Pope, he once wrote: “Since everyone calls me Holy Father, as if this was my first title, well, then I must, and I want to be him for real.”
I also believe that his was primarily a “public holiness,” taking time to help make clear to people the real value of life and what is conducive to their salvation. And this can also be seen in that recognition bestowed on him by Pope Francis, which serves not him [John XXIII], but is inviting us to follow “a shining light for the journey ahead of us,” to live with the goal of reachable holiness, also aware of another thing: That if the virtues are human exercises, the shaping of holiness, including that of Pope John, must be left to God.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.