Remembering Cardinal Capovilla, Pope St. John XXIII’s Friend and Secretary

Pope Francis called the cardinal, who died at age 100 on May 26, ‘a zealous guardian and sound interpreter’ of St. John XXIII’s memory.

Pope John XXIII with then-Msgr. Loris Capovilla, who died May 26.
Pope John XXIII with then-Msgr. Loris Capovilla, who died May 26. (photo: John XXIII Foundation via CNA)

BERGAMO, Italy — Cardinal Loris Capovilla, St. John XXIII’s personal secretary, died May 26 at the age of 100. He had been the closest collaborator of the sainted “Good Pope John” for 10 years.

Pope Francis sent his condolences in a telegram to Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo. He said that Cardinal Capovilla “witnessed the Gospel with joy and served the Gospel with docility, first in the Diocese of Venice and later with careful affection at the end of John XXIII’s life.” He called the cardinal “a zealous guardian and sound interpreter” of St. John XXIII’s memory.

Capovilla’s long-term service turned into a lifelong commitment when John XXIII left all of his papers to his faithful secretary. Pope Francis named Archbishop Capovilla a cardinal during the Feb. 22, 2014, consistory on the eve of John XXIII’s canonization.

The cardinal lived in the Diocese of Bergamo. Cardinal Capovilla recently became sick due to age and had to be transferred to the Beato Palazzolo Clinic of Bergamo. When Pope Francis heard this, he made a May 16 phone call to the hospital to speak with his predecessor’s secretary.
Sen. Marco Beato, an Italian minister of parliament who was a very good friend of the cardinal, was present with the ailing Churchman.

“Father Loris could not talk anymore, but when he recognized the voice of the Pope, his face brightened. He had just enough strength to thank the Pope,” Beato told L’Eco di Bergamo, the Bergamo Diocese’s newspaper.
Cardinal Capovilla’s story at the side of John XXIII starts in 1953.
Since 1940, he had been a priest of the Patriarchate of Venice and editor in chief of its magazine, La Voce di San Marco. When he was appointed patriarch of Venice, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli chose the priest as his personal secretary.
Cardinal Capovilla recounted how he was chosen for the position in a conversation with Father Ezio Bolis, director of the John XXIII Foundation, published in the book Loris F. Capovilla: I miei anni con Papa Giovanni XXIII.

Cardinal Roncalli’s choice of personal secretary drew concern from Msgr. Erminio Macacek, the vicar of Venice. He told the future Pope: “Your eminence, he is a good priest, he is good, but he is not very healthy. He will not live for long.” And Cardinal Roncalli immediately replied: “Well, if he is not healthy, he will come with me and will die with me.”
These concerns for his health proved unfounded. Cardinal Capovilla died five months shy of his 101st birthday.

He was born Oct. 14, 1915, in Pontelongo, in the province of Padua. After the death of his father, Capovilla moved to the Mestre municipality of Venice in 1929. He was ordained a priest in Venice on May 23, 1940, which fell on the feast of Corpus Christi. By coincidence, the cardinal passed away on the same feast.
After his ordination, the cardinal worked in various positions in the diocese: in parishes, in the Curia, at schools and in hospitals. He worked with Catholic Action as an assistant for minor inmates in prison. During the Second World War, he saved the lives of 10 Italian pilots who were chased by the Germans. For this reason, he was awarded the Italian War Merit Cross.
He would spend 10 years as Cardinal Roncalli’s personal secretary.

Cardinal Capovilla is considered to be behind some of the most groundbreaking episodes of St. John XXIII’s life. He encouraged the Pope’s meeting with Jules Isaac, a French historian and Jew whose family was taken to Auschwitz. The meeting provided an example of Catholic-Jewish friendship. The encounter between Isaac and John XXIII is the seed which blossomed into the Second Vatican Council declaration Nostra Aetate on the relations of the Church with non-Christian religions.
Then a Nov. 23, 1962, letter to then-Msgr. Capovilla from Cardinal Pietro Pavan suggested that an encyclical be drafted. This encyclical would be published in April 1963 as Pacem in Terris.
After St. John XXIII’s death on June 3, 1963, Msgr. Capovilla stayed in the Vatican for four more years in the service of Blessed Paul VI. He was then appointed archbishop of Chieti in 1967, and, in 1971, was made prelate of the Pontifical Shrine of Loreto.
In 1989, he retired in Sotto il Monte, John XXIII’s hometown, where he kept the late Pope’s memory alive. Cardinal Capovilla curated many of St. John XXIII’s writings. These include his memoir and diaries titled: “The Heart and Mind of John XXIII.”