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John XXIII, Minus the Myths (Part 1)

11/25/2006 - 6:30 AM PST

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Interview With Pope's Great-Nephew Marco Roncalli

ROME, NOV. 25, 2006 (Zenit) - The life of Pope Blessed John XXIII is still the focus of intense debate and numerous clichés which distort his intellectual and spiritual figure.

To clarify the matter, a book has just been published in Italian by Marco Roncalli, entitled "Giovanni XXIII -- Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Una vita nella storia" (John XXIII -- Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: A Life in History), published by Mondadori.

The author is John XXIII's great-nephew, who, among other things, has been the editor of the correspondence (1933-1962) between Loris Francesco Capovilla, Giuseppe De Luca and Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, published this year by Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

The new biography of John XXIII was to be presented today in Bergamo, Italy, by Archbishop Loris Capovilla, who was John XXIII's secretary, and by Monsignor Gianni Carzaniga, president of the Giovanni XXIII Foundation.

To understand better the figure of John XXIII, we interviewed his great-nephew, Marco Roncalli.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Sunday.

Q: What are the clichés that you hope to refute on the human and spiritual history of the beloved Pope John XXIII?

Roncalli: I would say they are many. They stand out clearly if one revises carefully all the Roncalli sources, especially those that are unpublished.

I am thinking of certain youthful notebooks, agendas or diaries, some collected letters and collections of homilies. But I'm also referring to documentation relative to his figure, which has appeared in several archives and was known by few specialists in the most recent congresses.

And we can start with those of long ago. Let us think of the spent cliché of a peasant Roncalli, virtually the receiver of an ancestral wisdom. It is true that his roots are important, also his family.

But let's not forget that he entered the seminary while still a child and that was his new family. The seminary formed the man, and the man of the Church.

In sum, Roncalli's social extraction is not a secondary fact -- though common to most of the Italian northern clergy at the beginning of the 20th century: From this extraction a certain tenacity and constancy are derived, joined to a strong practical sense and respect for the times necessary in each cycle […], all elements of his character.

And from this stems also a certain harmony between nature and the supernatural, a way of living in the present, looking at the future with unconditional confidence in God's providence.

However, I repeat, the cliché of Roncalli as an exclusive product of a peasant culture -- or of the country boy who became Pope who does not forget the "least," as if Roncalli's roots alone "sic et simpliciter" could explain everything to us -- does not stand on its own.

Instead, beginning with the years of the seminary, without breaking or attenuating the bond with his own and his land, the awareness soon matures in him of being a member of the universal Church. Once elected Pope, he said immediately that the world was his family.

Another cliché is that of a simple Roncalli, whereas whoever studies his life has before him a complex figure -- but a figure in which culture has had an important role: studies, meetings with writers, philosophers, theologians, etc., in the course of his life.

Thus, exploring the archives, we come across a very young Roncalli who is, yes, the one known until now for the "Diary of a Soul," his spiritual compendium, but also a very sensitive seminarian, attentive to the widest cultural horizons of his time.

We see him at the dawn of the 20th century, very aware of the problematic relationship between tradition and renewal, of the need for the Church's progressive attention to new cultural realities.

Whoever, for example, leafs through one of his unpublished notebooks entitled "Ad Omnia," sees him wondering not only about the phenomenon of Modernism, a storm through which he also goes through, but also about Americanism: ecclesiological theories, his idea of the unavoidable confrontation between Christianity and modernity.

Another point: Pope John has often been depicted as a weak Pope, who suffered. Instead, if one wishes to weigh up his gestures in a correct manner, suffice it to read his agendas or diaries to realize how well he was able to move decisively.

Some biographers have said that John XXIII read at the last minute texts prepared by others. Nothing could be further from the truth. Several journal notes document whole days spent preparing an address in his own handwriting.

On June 28, 1962, for example, he wrote: "Day of the vigil of St. Peter: occupied entirely in preparing an address in St. Peter's after Vespers. It was a bit of an effort for ...

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