Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in Bergamo, Italy, in November 1881. Ordained to the priesthood on August 10, 1904. Consecrated Bishop, March 1925, titular Archbishop of Areopolis. November 1934 transferred to the Apostolic Delegation to Turkey and Greece, and appointed Apostolic Administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of Istanbul.
Mgr. Roncalli, far right, Papal Nuncio to Istanbul, with some of the clergy. (c. late 1930s early 1940s)
The following notes were recorded by Mgr Roncalli who was on Retreat between 25 November - 1 December 1940, at Terapia on the Bosporus, at the Villa of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion.
Monday evening, 25 November, 1940.
Yesterday our Holy Father Pius XII invited the whole world to join him in the sorrowful singing of the Litany of the Saints and the penitential psalms, the Miserere.
We all from the West and from the East, joined with him in his petition.
In my solitary retreat I am making the Spiritual Exercises, as the Holy Father himself is doing just now in the Vatican, and in this way I begin the sixtieth year of my humble life. For myself and for the good of all, I think I cannot do better than return to the penitential psalm (Psalm 50/51) dividing the twenty verses into four for each day and making them the subject of religious meditation.
As a starting point I am using Father Segneri’s exposition of the Miserere, but with considerable freedom of inspiration and applications.
To understand the profound meaning of the Psalm, I find it a great help to bear in mind the figure of the royal prophet himself and the circumstances of his repentance and grief. It is a king who has fallen; it is a king who rises again.
First day, Tuesday, 26 November.
VERSE 1: ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.’
1.. The mourning of the nations. This cry reaches my ears from every part of Europe and beyond. The murderous war which is being waged on the ground, on the seas and in the air, is truly a vindication of divine justice because the sacred laws governing human society have been have been transgressed and violated. It has been asserted, and is still being asserted, that God is bound to preserve this or that country, or grant it invulnerability and final victory, because of the righteous people who live there or because of the good that they do. We forget that although in a certain sense God has made the nations, he has left the constitution of states to the free decisions of men. To all He has made clear the rules which govern human society; they are all to be found in the Gospel. But He has not given any guarantee of special and privileged assistance, except to the race of believers, that is, to Holy Church as such. And even His assistance to His Church, although it preserves her from final defeat, does not guarantee her immunity from trials and persecutions.
The law of life, alike for the souls of men and for nations, lays down principles of justice and universal harmony and the limits to be set to the use of wealth, enjoyments and worldly power. When this law is violated, terrible and merciless sanctions come automatically into action. No state can escape. To each its hour. War is one of the most tremendous sanctions. It is willed not by God but by men, nations and states, through their representatives. Earthquakes, floods, famines, and pestilences are applications of the blind laws of nature, blind because nature herself has neither intelligence nor freedom. War instead is desired by men, deliberately, in defiance of the most sacred laws. That is what makes it so evil. He who instigates war and foments it is always the ‘Prince of this world’, who has nothing to do with Christ, the ‘Prince of peace’.
And while the war rages, the people can only turn to the Miserere and beg for the Lord’s mercy, that it may outweigh his justice and with a great outpouring of grace bring the powerful men of this world to their senses and persuade them to make peace.
2. The mourning of my own soul. What is happening in the world on a grand scale is reproduced on a small scale in every man’s soul, is reproduced in mine. Only the grace of God has prevented me being eaten up with malice. There are certain sins which may be called typical; this sin of David’s, the sins of St Peter and St Augustine. But what might I not have done myself, if the Lord's hand had not held me back? For small failings the most perfect saints underwent long and harsh penances. So many, even in our own times, have lived only to make atonement; and there are souls whose lives, even today, are one long expiation of their own sins, of the sins of the world. And I, in all ages of my life more or less a sinner, should I not spend my time mourning? Cardinal Federico’s famous reply is still so eloquent and moving: ‘I did not ask for praises, which make me tremble: what I know of myself is enough to confound me.’
Far from seeking consolation by comparing myself with others, I should make the Miserere for my own sins my most familiar prayer. The thought that I am a priest and Bishop and therefore especially dedicated to the conversion of sinners and the remission of sins should add all the more anguish to my feelings of grief, sadness and tears, as St Ignatius says. What is the meaning of all these flagellations, or having oneself set on the bare ground, or on ashes, to die, if not the priestly soul’s continual plea for mercy, and his constant longing to be a sacrificial victim for his own sins and the sins of the world?
3. The great mercy. It is not just ordinary mercy that is needed here. The burden of social and personal wickedness is so grave that an ordinary gesture of love does not suffice for forgiveness. So we invoke the great mercy. This is proportionate to the greatness of God.
4. ‘For according to His greatness, so also is His mercy’(Eccles. 2:23) It is well said that our sins are the seat of divine mercy. It is even better said that God’s most beautiful name and title is this: mercy. This must inspire us with a great hope amidst our tears. ‘Yet mercy triumphs over judgement.’(James 2:13) This seems too much to hope for. But it cannot be too much if the whole mystery of the Redemption hinges on this: the exercise of mercy is to be a portent of predestination and of salvation, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.’
VERSE II: ‘And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity.’
The Lord is said to be 'merciful and gracious’. His mercy is not simply a feeling of the heart; it is an abundance of gifts.
When we consider how many graces are poured into the sinner’s soul along with God’s forgiveness, we feel ashamed. These are: the loving remission of our offence; the new infusion of sanctifying grace, given as to a friend, as to a son: the reintegration of the gifts, habits and virtues associated with the grace; the restitution of our right to heaven; the restoration of the merits we had earned before our sin; the increase of grace which this forgiveness adds to former graces; the increase of gifts which grow in proportion to the growth of grace just as the rays of the sun increase as it rises, and the rivulets are wider as the fountain overflows.
VERSE III: ‘Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin’: holy confession.
Three verbs: to blot out, to wash and to cleanse, in this order. First the iniquity must be blotted out, then well washed, that is, every slightest attachment to it is removed; finally the cleansing, which means conceiving an implacable hatred for sin and doing things which are contrary to it, that is making acts of humility, meekness, mortification, etc., according to the diversity of the sins These three operations follow one another but to God alone belongs the first. To God, in cooperation with the soul, the second and the third: the washing and the cleansing. Let us, poor sinners, do our duty: repent, and with the Lord’s help, wash and cleanse ourselves. We are sure that the Lord will do the first, the blotting out; this is prompt and immediate. And so we must believe it to be, without doubts or hesitations. ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins.’ The two processes which depend on our cooperation need time, progress, effort. Therefore we say: ‘Wash me yet more ……. And cleanse me.’
This mysterious process of our purification is perfectly accomplished in holy confession, through the intervention of the blood of Christ which washes and cleanses us. The power of the divine blood, applied to the soul, acts progressively, from one confession to another. ‘Yet more’ and ever more. Hence the importance of confession in itself, with the words of absolution, and of the custom of frequent confession for persons of a spiritual profession, such as priests and Bishops. How easy it is for mere routine to take the place of true devotion in our weekly confessions! Here is a good way of drawing the best out of this precious and divine exercise: to think of Christ, who, according to St Paul, was created by God to be ‘our wisdom, our righteousness, sanctification and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30)
So, when I confess, I must beg Jesus first of all to be my wisdom, helping me to make a calm, precise, detailed examination of my sins and of their gravity, so that I may feel sincere sorrow for them. Then, that he may be my justice, so that I may present myself to my confessor as to my judge and accuse myself sincerely and sorrowfully. May he be also my perfect sanctification when I bow my head to receive absolution from the hand of the priest, by whose gesture is restored or increased sanctifying grace. Finally, that he may be my redemption as I perform that meagre penance which is set me instead of the great penalty I deserve: a meagre penance indeed, but a rich atonement because it is united with the sacrament to the blood of Christ, which intercedes and atones and washes and cleanses, for me and with me.
This ‘wash me yet more’ must remain the sacred motto of my ordinary confessions. These confessions are the surest criteria by which to judge my spiritual progress.
VERSE IV: ‘For I know my iniquity and my sin is ever before me.’
The advice of the ancient philosopher: ‘know thyself’, was already a good foundation for an honest and worthy life. It served for the ordinary exercise of humility, which is the prime virtue of great men. For the Christian, for the ecclesiastic, the thought of being a sinner, does not by any means signify that we must lose heart, but it must mean confident and habitual trust in the Lord Jesus who has redeemed and forgiven us; it means a keen sense of respect for our fellow men and for all men’s souls and a safeguard against the danger of becoming proud of our achievements. If we stay in the cell of the penitent sinner, deep in our heart, it will be not only a refuge for the soul which has found its own true self, and with its true self calm in decision and action, but also a fire by which zeal for the souls of men is kept more brightly lit, with pure intentions and a mind free from pre-occupations about success, which is extraneous to our apostolate.
David needed the shock of the prophet’s voice saying: ‘You are the man.’ But afterwards his sin is always there, always before his eyes, an ever-present warning: ‘My sin is always before me.’
Father Segneri wisely points out that it is not necessary to remember the exact form of every single sin, which would be neither profitable nor edifying, but it is well to bear in mind the memory of past failings as a warning, as an incitement to holy fear and zeal for souls. How often the thought of sins and sinners recurs in the liturgy! This is even more true of the Eastern than of the Latin liturgy: but it is well expressed in both: ‘My sin is always before me’, just as the sins of men were before Jesus in his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, as they were before Peter at the height of his authority as Supreme Pontiff; before Paul in the glory of his apostolate, and before Augustine in the splendour of his great learning and episcopal sanctity.
I pity those unhappy men who, instead of keeping their sin before them, hide it behind their backs! They will never be free from past or future sins. (to be continued)
Ack. ‘Pope John XXIII - Journal of a Soul’ – translated by Dorothy White. Published by Four Square Books, New English Library, 1966.