‘Journal of a Soul’, published eight months after the death of Pope John XXIII, comprises the notes, spiritual thoughts and prayers, recorded by the Pope himself from the age of fourteen until a few months before he died. These notes, recorded in diaries and on loose notepaper, some hand-written some typed, and kept near at hand by the Pope wherever he happened to be, reflect the thoughts of a most humble priest, bishop, Pope, and saint. After his death they were annotated by his private secretary Don Loris Capovilla and published in book form. Cardinal Capovilla died in May this year, aged 100 years.
Basilica of San Carlo al Corso, Rome. Father Roncalli was consecrated Bishop here in March 1925, with the title of Archbishop of Areopolis (wikipedia commons. ack. Livioandronico2013)
The following extracts from ‘Journal of a Soul’, relate to the years 1945-1952 when Msgr Roncalli was Papal Nuncio in France.
Annual Retreat, 23-27 November, 1948. Held at the Benedictine monastery of the Sacred Heart at En Calcat (Dourgne), and given by the Abbe de Floris.
…………‘I have not been able to read much Holy Scripture during this time. But I have carefully meditated upon the General Epistle of James the Less. Its five chapters are a wonderful summary of Christian life. The teaching about the exercise of charity, the right use of the tongue, the power of the man of faith, collaboration for peace, respect for others, the awful fate awaiting the rich, unjust and hateful man, and finally the appeal for trust, hopefulness and prayer …. All this and more make it an incomparable treasury of directives and exhortations, particularly and alarmingly applicable to those of us who are ecclesiastics, and to lay folk of all times. One should learn it by heart and return to it from time to time to enjoy the heavenly doctrine line by line. At my time of life, on the threshold of my sixty-eighth year, there is nothing but old age before me. But wisdom is there in the divine book. Here is an example:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his good works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, un-spiritual, devilish. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace’ (James 3:13-18)
Benedictine Monastery at En Calcat (Dourgne). (Ack. Wikipedia Commons Licence. Casablanca1950)
Extracts from spiritual notes written during my brief retreat at Oran (Algeria) 6-9April, 1950, Thursday, Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day.
‘The Bishop of Oran, Mgr Lacaste, has welcomed me with brotherly hospitality, for which I am grateful to him. …. It is now a quarter of a century since Holy Church made me, poor and unworthy as I am, a Bishop, and I like to think of my past, my present, and my future.
Holy Thursday: my past.
I have brought with me on this journey the bundles of spiritual reflections made during these years, 1925-1950, to jolt me out of any complacency and inspire me with repentance and an increase of Episcopal fervour, notes written on the various retreats that I was able to make from year to year in Bulgaria, Turkey and France. I have read them all over again, with calm, as if in a confession, and I recite the Miserere, which is all my own, and the Magnificat, which is entirely the Lord’s, as my penance and as an exercise in sincere and trustful humility. At a distance of twenty-five years I have re-read part of the notes I made in March, 1925, while preparing for my impending Episcopal consecration. I then resolved: I will often re-read chapter IX, book III of ‘The Imitation of Jesus Christ’: ‘That all things are to be referred to God as to their final end.’ This has impressed me profoundly in the solitude of these last few days. Indeed, in these few words there is everything! It was on the eve of my new life that I wrote this; I feel the same way now, and so I enjoy returning to that time and reconsidering this teaching of Christ’s after a quarter of a century of trials, weaknesses and recoveries, although, thanks to the Lord, my will has remained firm, faithful and convinced, in spite of all the seductions and temptations of the spirit of this world.
Mgr Roncalli, extreme right, Papal Nuncio to Turkey.
Photograph taken in Istanbul, c. 1929/30
O Jesus, how much I thank you for having kept me faithful to this principle: ‘From me, as from a living fountain, the humble and the great, the poor and the rich draw the water of life.’ Ah, I am numbered among the humble and the poor! In Bulgaria, the difficulties of my circumstances, even more than the difficulties caused by men, and the monotony of that life which was one long sequence of daily pricks and scratches, cost me much in mortification and silence. But your grace preserved my inner joy, which helped me to hide my difficulties and distress. In Turkey the responsibilities of my pastoral work were at once a torment and a joy to me. Could I not, should I not, have done more, have made a more decided effort and gone against the inclination of my nature? Did the search for calm and peace, which I considered to be more in harmony with the Lord’s spirit, not perhaps mask a certain unwillingness to take up the sword, and a preference for what was easiest and most convenient for me, even if gentleness has been defined as the fullness of strength? O my Jesus, you search all hearts: the exact point at which even the striving after virtue may lead to failure or excess is known to you alone.
I feel it is right not to boast of anything but to attribute all to your grace ‘without which man has nothing, and very strictly do you demand my thanks in return’. So my Magnificat is complete, as it should be. I like so much the expression: ‘My merit, your mercy’ and St Augustine’s words: ‘When you crown our merit you are crowning your own gifts.’
My gratitude to you will never cease, Jesus: ‘For divine charity overcomes all and enlarges the powers of the soul. I judge rightly, I rejoice in you alone, in you alone I hope, “for none is good save God alone” (Luke 18:19), who is to be praised above all else, and blessed in all things.’ So, as the conclusion of my twenty-five years as Bishop, I put the last words of the same little chapter of ‘The Imitation’ with which I began them. I still have, to the proper mortification of my spirit, the memory of my faults, ‘in thought, word, and deed’, which are so many, so very many in twenty-five years. But I still have also my unalterable faith in my daily Sacrifice, the divine and immaculate Host, offered ‘for my countless sins, offences, and negligences’. Twenty-five years of Episcopal Masses, offered with all the splendour of good intentions, and all the dust of the road, oh, what a mystery of mingled grace and shame! The grace of Jesus’ tender love given as ‘Bishop and Shepherd’ to his chosen priest, the shame of the priest who finds his consolation only in trustful self-surrender.
Good Friday: my present
Last night I said Matins by myself: this morning in chapel I said the Hours with the Miserere four times and today’s liturgy, uniting myself in spirit as I followed it in my Missal, as if I were attending the ceremony in some great church, or as if I were still presiding over it in Sofia, or in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at Istanbul.
My present: here I am then, still alive, in my sixty-ninth year, prostrate over the crucifix, kissing the face of Christ and his sacred wounds, kissing his heart, laid bare in his pierced side; here I am showing my love and grief. How could I not feel grateful to Jesus, finding myself still young and robust of body, spirit and heart? 'Know thyself’: this keeps me humble and without pretensions. Some people feel admiration and affection for my humble person: but thanks be to God, I still blush for myself, my insufficiencies and my unworthiness in this important position where the Holy Father has placed me, and still keeps me, out of the kindness of his heart. For some time past I have cultivated simplicity, which comes very easily for me, cheerfully defying all those clever people who, looking for the qualities required in a diplomat of the Holy See, prefer the outer covering to the sound, ripe fruit beneath. And I keep true to my principle which seems to me to have a place of honour in the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the suffering and the persecuted. My present, then, is spent in faithful service to Christ, who was obedient and was crucified, words I repeat so often at this season: ‘Christ was made obedient.’ So I must be meek and humble like him, glowing with divine charity, ready for sacrifice or for death, for him or for his Church.
This journey in North Africa has brought home to me more vividly the problem of the conversion of the peoples without the faith. The whole life and purpose of the Church, of the priesthood, of true and good diplomacy is there: ‘Give me souls; take all the rest.’
Chapel in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Istanbul. Dedicated to Pope St John XXIII, who as Msgr Roncalli, was Papal Nuncio to Turkey.
Holy Saturday: my future.
When one is nearly seventy, one cannot be sure of the future. ‘The years of our life are three score and ten, and even if we are strong enough to reach the age of eighty, yet these years are but toil and vanity; they are soon passed and we also pass away’ (Psalm 89:10-11). So it is no use nursing any illusions: I must make myself familiar with the thought of the end, not with dismay which saps the will, but with confidence which preserves our enthusiasm for living, working and serving. Some time ago I resolved to bear constantly in mind this reverent expectation of death, this joy which ought to be my soul’s last happiness when it departs from this life. I need not become wearisome to others by speaking frequently of this; but I must always think of it, because the consideration of death, the judicium mortis, when it has become a familiar thought, is good and useful for the mortification of vanity and for infusing into everything a sense of moderation and calm. As regards temporal matters, I will revise my will once more. I am poor, thank God, and I mean to die poor.
As for my soul, I shall try to make the flame burn more brightly, making the most of the time that remains as it passes more swiftly away. Therefore, total detachment from the things of this world, dignities, honours, things that are precious in themselves or greatly prized. I want to redouble my efforts to complete the publication of the ‘Visita Apostolica di San Carlo Borromeo a Bergamo’, but I am also ready to accept the mortification of having to give this up.
There are some who, to flatter me, speak of the Cardinalate. Nothing here of any interest to me. I repeat what I have already written. Were this not to happen, as is quite possible, I shall think this also was predestined, and thank God for it.
For the rest, on my return to Paris I shall resume my ordinary life without impatience, but with absolute fidelity to my duty and to the service of the Holy See, with care, with charity and patience, and in close union with Jesus, my King, my Master, my God, with Mary, my sweet Mother, and with St. Joseph, my dear friend, model and protector.
Mgr Roncalli - Papal Nuncio to France c.1945
I must comfort myself with the thought that the souls that I have known, loved and still love are now almost all in the other world, waiting and praying for me. Will the Lord call me soon to the heavenly fatherland? Here I am, ready. I beg him to take me only at a good moment. Has he perhaps reserved for me many more years of life? I will be grateful for them, but always implore him not to leave me on this earth when I have become an encumbrance and of no further use to Holy Church. But in this also the Lord’s holy will, that is enough.
I end these notes to the sound of the Easter bells ringing from the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart nearby, and I remember with joy my last Easter homily in Istanbul, when I preached on the words of St Gregory Nazzen, ‘the will of God is our peace’.
Coat of Arms - Pope John XXIII. Motto: Obedientia et Pax
Coat of Arms - Pope John XXIII. Motto: Obedientia et Pax