The scene is a dark, cold night in 1962. October 11 in St. Peter’s square in Rome. Following the first session of Vatican II, streams of people gather underneath the balcony of St. Peter’s chanting, hoping, that Pope John XXIII will appear and bless them. ‘The Good Pope’ they call their father now, because of his easy and friendly manner. The crowd cheers as he comes out to the balcony and begins to speak. “Dear sons and daughters,” he begins, “I feel your voices! Mine is just one lone voice, but it sums up the voice of the whole world. And here, in fact, all the world is represented here tonight. It could even be said that even the moon hastens close tonight, that from above, it might watch this spectacle that not even St Peter’s Basilica, over its four centuries of history, has ever been able to witness.” Thus, in a word, John XXIII indicates the momentous movement in history that excites the Catholics below. He speaks tenderly: “When you head home, find your children. Hug and kiss your children and tell them: ‘This is the hug and kiss of the Pope.’ And when you find them with tears to dry, give them a good word. Give anyone who suffers a word of comfort. Tell them ‘The Pope is with us especially in our times of sadness and bitterness.’” The people below erupt in cries of affection as John XXIII walks back into the papal apartments.
This man whom the crowd saw was evidently a tender man, freely showing his familial affection for his spiritual children. But when we read, in The Journal of a Soul, that this Pope made a habit of scathing and scrupulous self-examination in seminary, how can we understand the disparity between the two characters? The spiritual journey of Angelo Roncalli is mapped out for us and shows exactly the progress from a loving but fearful seminarian to a tender and fatherly Pope for all of Christendom. In fact, the change that took place helps to explain the spirit of Vatican II, and the ideals which informed it. John XXIII did not wake up one morning and arbitrarily decide to invoke a council.
After Angelo Roncalli’s military service in 1902 (which he terms his ‘Babylonian Captivity’), he performed spiritual exercises from December 10 to 22. His notes display his steady faith accompanied by intense self-doubt, perhaps even self-hatred. He regularly contemplated God’s judgment upon his sins, fearfully writing, “But what if the justice of God were to take precedence over his mercy? […] And what a judgment that will be! The stray words during the time of silence, the rather mischievous expression, […] all will be told against me.” (p. 87-88) To be clear, Angelo Roncalli was fearing eternal damnation because of the sin of a “rather mischievous expression.” That should shock us.
He writes again on December 22, 1902: “Only two days now remain before the festival of your birth, and you are already expecting my gifts. Lord, I have only my contrition and my grief at not being able to content you.” (p. 98) Clearly a deep and pious emotion lies beneath such anxiety, but it seems that he still believes that his pleasing God is dependent upon his action, as if God needed us to content him.
Throughout his journals, from his time in the seminary of Bergamo to Rome, there is the strong belief that God is his “master” and that Angelo owes his duty to Him solely because of that fact. While true, there is a strong emotional volatility that develops from this view of God. “The witticisms prompted only by a secret desire directly or indirectly to show off how much I have studied […] all these will be judged. My God, what terror I feel! What a mounting heap of sins!” (p. 67) For Angelo Roncalli, God is a harsh judge who will exact a severe penalty upon those who show off their learning in their wit. Certainly there is a deep love beneath this! But there is also a great deal of fear. His emotions, his insistence upon adherence to particular and exact rules, are consequences of his austere vision of God.
But Roncalli does not remain with such a view – else how could the moon speech be given? At first small cracks appear in his shell of self-confident piety, letting in trickles of mercy into his soul. The day after Christmas he writes, “I have been thinking too much about myself and my needs, and this is most unmannerly.” (p. 100) “My needs,” he finds, is a spiritually inadequate center. His worry and his anxiety are really masked egotism. Roncalli resolves to “never get worried, as I do when I see I am not achieving anything. Here too it is partly a question of pride. […] And then I have noticed another thing. How is it that after I have been talking to someone for a long time […] I think it over and am depressed and discouraged? It is pride weeping over pride: crocodile tears.” (p. 100)
Personal Anecdote: As a child, I was asked what the worst feeling I had ever had was. I answered: after leaving one’s friends and realizing that you were a social fool. I was mortified that my friends would think poorly of me. What is this but pride? It’s selfishness. Rather than trusting myself to another, which is the summit of faith, I was purely concerned about my own social preening. Granted I was 10 years old, but poor character starts somewhere. When such spirituality is redirected to moral perfection, the focus remains one’s self. Can communion with another happen in such a state?
But then Angelo Roncalli makes a discovery. Who knows what experience prompted this – whether it was a personal sin or his experience of the inadequacy of moralism. On January 16, 1903 (blessed be the day!), Angelo Roncalli abandons his idea of holiness. He tosses it out. The entry is a gorgeous piece of text, one which pulses with affection for Christ. Here is the entirety of the entry:
“Practical experience has now convinced me of this: the concept of holiness which I had formed and applied to myself was mistaken. In every one of my actions, and in the little failings of which I was immediately aware, I used to call to mind the image of some saint whom I had set myself to imitate down to the smallest particular, as a painter makes an exact copy of a picture by Raphael. I used to say to myself: in this case St Aloysius would have done soon so, or: he would not do this or that. However, it turned out that I was never able to achieve what I thought I could do, and this worried me. The method was wrong. From the saints I must take the substance, not the accidents of their virtues. I am not St Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character, and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances. If St Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way.” (p. 107)
The doors of the spiritual life are thrown wide open! Take a moment and reread that. It’s our glorious glimpse into the infinity of God. Do we realize what a grace it is to know that we were mistaken? The ‘method’ that was wrong was Roncalli’s moralism – an attendance to rules alone.
Roncalli reframes his attitude to the Christian vocation. We are not, as Christians, called to make ourselves into the saints of yesteryear – copying their affectations, their habits, styles. We are for this era – 2014 – the “particular circumstances” which present themselves to us. Here is the beginning of the renewed theology of ‘encounter.’ Here is the opening up of a relationship to God, full of “vital sap.”
From this passage onwards there is a subtle shift in Roncalli’s journal. It is more free. Less harsh. He gains a trust which was not present before. There emerges a new abandonment of self to Jesus: “So, blessed Jesus, I cast myself upon you, with all my distractions, acts of pride, and sins. I can do nothing more. I am not making any special resolutions. (!!!)” (p. 112) Considering the number of his resolutions, and the religious fervor with which he held them, this is quite remarkable!
Roncalli’s spirituality has plunged to depths which he had not seen before – dependence on Christ for everything is all that is needed. For faith, virtue, happiness, everything. What is the result? Observe the difference between his earlier passages and his later ones:
Before his ‘change in method’:
“The Rule of the seminary must be the object of my persevering efforts, not only the Rule in general but all the detailed regulations. ‘To know nothing contrary to the Rule is to know all things.’” (p. 94 – 95)
After his ‘change in method’:
“My notes show a gap of ten days. Why is this? I really do not know. Is it my fault? I do not think it is, so I should not feel too distressed about it. If I were to grieve over this it would mean that I set too much store by these scribblings.” (p. 112)
He recognizes that trusting his own efforts is pride! What beauty is in this.
“Am I making any progress? To all appearances, no. I have many distractions, and the very careful control of my thoughts of the earlier days has slackened a little: here and there a quarter of an hour of wasted time and so on. Nevertheless, I feel at peace.” (p. 112)
“In the pure joy which fills my heart to overflowing and in my burning enthusiasm to run the race, to sacrifice myself for Jesus, I cannot formulate any special resolutions.” (p. 137)
When he is contemplating Christ, he cannot turn to himself to formulate rules. So, we well might ask, what replaces scrupulosity to rules? What substitutes for pride in the spiritual life? The striving for union with God:
“Serenity and peace, but perseverance and determination. A total distrust and poor opinion of myself, accompanied by uninterrupted and loving unionwith God. This is my task, this is my labour.” (p. 111)
And Roncalli valiantly strives for this union by attacking his self-love. No longer will he bring himself up in conversation. No longer will he use the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me.’ (He refers to the pronouns as “venomous snakes.”)
But – as we all know – the spiritual life is not linear. We don’t roll up it at a steady pace. January 16, 1903 is not Roncalli’s ‘moment’ of salvation (he is Catholic, after all). He sometimes still conceives of his relationship with Jesus as the paying off of a personal debt. “I must always remember that I am in debt to the Lord; my scrupulous attention to even the least of my duties is therefore a strict obligation in the eyes of justice. […] Until I have cleared my debts I have no right to complain to God because he sends me suffering, desolation of soul and so on.” (p. 130)
However, Angelo Roncalli, in the year of 1903, does make an essential shift in the focus of his spiritual life. One which continues to deepen throughout the years so that 59 years later he could stand above the people and say – as Pope John XXIII – “And then, all together, may we always come alive — whether to sing, to breathe, or to cry, but always full of trust in Christ, who helps us and hears us, let us continue along our path.” This is certainly not post-Tridentine piety.
From laborious introspection to the beginnings of divine abandonment. From attending to the wretchedness of his own soul as the focus of his spirit to eliminating the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’ from his speech. Angelo Roncalli is here beginning a relationship with a Person, not a judge. With a contemporaneous Christ, not an historical savior. Here glimmers of freedom can be seen.
If any part can, this section of John XXIII’s interior life helps us to understand his desired renewal of the Church which led to the Council of Vatican II. Forms are not sufficient unto themselves.
In 2014, I will be blogging through Pope John XXIII’s Journey of a Soul. Each Monday I will post a reflection on the previous weeks selection. Feel free to keep pace reading by picking up a copy here. I am borrowing Leah Libresco’s method of blogging through Pope Francis’ book because I am scared at the prospect of never writing a review until months later, when I finish reading the volume.