"Jesus, here I am once more. … The Church has called me; you invite me: Lo, I come. I have no pretensions; I have no preconceived plans; I am trying to strip myself of all that is self; I am no longer my own. My soul is open before you, like a blank sheet of paper. Write on it what you will, O Lord: I am yours," wrote seminarian Angelo Roncalli in 1903, as published in John XXIII’s autobiography, Journal of a Soul (McGraw Hill: 1965).
These words capture John XXIII’s attitude of generous service and trusting faith, an attitude that is consistent with the 66 years of reflection that he provided in this one book.
He began his journal in 1895, when he was a 14-year-old seminarian, and he completed it in 1962, when he was an 81-year-old pope.
Edited by his secretary, Msgr. Loris Capovilla, and first published in 1964, the work also contains some letters, a spiritual testament, the pope’s apostolic letter on the Rosary, an appendix of other prayers and, finally, biographical notes leading up to his death in 1963.
The work would be published just after his death, with his prior permission and encouragement. In lieu of an apostolic letter to priests encouraging them to live lives of holiness that he wanted to write before his death, he thought these personal reflections would also provide Church historians some interesting material about his life and times.
Fifty years later, the work continues to deserve acclaim as a reference for understanding the spiritual landscape of our own time and the secret for navigating it.
His pontificate was brief — and anticipated to be so by many of his contemporaries; John XXIII thought the same thing.
On the surface, he appeared as a jovial and rather simple man, perhaps too simple to effectively address the grave problems hanging over the Church. Yet the surface of a river does not always betray the strong currents that flow beneath it.
John XXIII’s jovial charm and gentle paternity disguised his intensely lived interior life. His spiritual journal witnesses to a life of interior renunciation, mindfulness of death and discipline that would help give birth to a new era of apostolic fruitfulness, heroic missionary efforts and courageous martyrdom throughout the world.
John was elected in 1958, at the threshold of 77 years of age. Journal of a Soul gives us a glimpse into John XXIII’s firsthand knowledge and intense introspection regarding being a Catholic in the face of human suffering and growth of atheism in post-war Europe. His involvement early on in his priesthood with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith inspired in him missionary zeal and a dynamic vision. His diplomatic assignments placed him at the forefront of ecumenical efforts with the Eastern Churches. He was also aware that the whole Church was in need of renewed vitality if she was to be faithful to her mission. In an understated way, he marched toward the announcement of the Second Vatican Council, even as he made his way in service of the Church with "no preconceived plans."
Those familiar with the spiritual tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola will appreciate some of his daily practices. For example, each morning he would begin his day by calling to mind a virtue he discerned the Lord was calling him to work on. Then, throughout the day, he would stop to prayerfully scrutinize his efforts to this end through making a conscious examen. He would also make an examination of conscience at the end of the day. Similarly, at his annual retreats, he would prepare himself for death by pondering his readiness to stand before the Lord.
His journal also helps us see how John combined this intense introspection with his practice of lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture). When we review the fruits of more than 60 years of reading the Bible, one appreciates his consistent openness to God. He read and listened to preaching with the conviction that this was truly the word of God for him personally.
It was not merely an intellectual engagement with ideas, but personal appropriation — a conversation with God about his whole way of life.
Along with the Bible, he also read other spiritual works from both patristic and medieval sources: for example, Thomas à Kempis, St. Isidore of Seville, St. Gregory the Great and St. John Chrysostom.
His reading was thematic and disciplined, even under difficult administrative burdens. Ten years before becoming pope, with a sense of personal inadequacy in the face of old age, he describes how much spiritual benefit he received from reading the Letter of James regarding the wisdom from above. This reflection comes only after he chastises himself for not having enough time for reading the Bible.
His passion was guided by the wisdom of God. His journal witnesses to the difficult struggle this wisdom requires. His motto, Obedientia et Pax (Obedience and Peace), became the program of his life: "All this is a good reason for mortifying myself and seeking a more profound humility and trustful confidence" (Journal of a Soul, p. 264).
In 1947, as papal nuncio to Paris, in light of this passion for wisdom from above, we find him agonizing about his own staff and their indifference to those most in need. Working to provide priestly formation for seminarians who were prisoners of war in Chartres, picking up the broken pieces of peoples’ lives after the war and wondering how to be a more effective witness to the Gospel, he resolved to be patient with the small-mindedness around him, but also wondered whether his silence implicated him in their abuse of power:
"My own temperament inclines me towards compliance and a readiness to appreciate the good side of people and things, rather than to criticize and pronounce harsh judgments. This … often makes me feel painfully out of sympathy with my entourage. Any kind of distrust or discourtesy shown to anyone, especially the humble, poor or socially inferior, every destructive or thoughtless criticism, makes me writhe with pain. I say nothing, but my heart bleeds. … Could this be weakness on my part? I must — I will — continue to bear this light cross serenely, together with a mortifying sense of my own worthlessness, and I will leave everything else to God, who sees into all hearts and shows them the refinements of his love" (page 271).
One finds in Journal of a Soul a well-examined life, a life of a saint.
Anthony Lilles is a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, where he served as academic dean for nine years and is a scholar and author in the field of spiritual theology. Anthony also teaches at the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation.