As I write this, the city of Rome is gearing up for the canonisations, this coming Sunday, of two of its former bishops, the Blessed Pope John XXIII, and the Blessed Pope John Paul II. Now seems the time to share a few anecdotes about the late saintly Pontiffs.
John XXIII has been dead for just over half a century, but there are still quite a few people around who knew him well. He died before I was born, but I have met several people who knew him. One was a French publisher, whose mother was a close friend of the then Archbishop Roncalli, when he was nuncio in Paris. (He was nuncio from late 1944 to 1952.) Though Roncalli was born in humble circumstances in the province of Bergamo, where his parents had worked the land, and though his appearance was not distinguished, this source said that Roncalli was known for his suavity and his wit, and that he kept an extremely good table, indeed the best table in Paris. This was confirmed by a now very elderly priest I know, who had lunch at the Nunciature in Roncalli’s time and was amazed by the way the Nuncio seemed devoted to food. Roncalli’s girth, about which he made frequent jokes, was another testimony to his love of good cuisine.
At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that as Pope, John XXIII projected the image of being very much a man of the people, even though he had spent his entire priestly career, prior to being made Patriarch of Venice, either in seminaries or in the Papal diplomatic service. He was never a parish priest. Nevertheless, once he was Pope, he created a sensation by visiting the Regina Coeli prison and the Bambino Gesù hospital at Christmas in 1958. This sort of pastoral outreach may well have created a media storm, but it is well worth remembering that pastoral outreach by Popes was something that Pius XII was familiar with as well. Witness his famous visit to the bombed out quarter of San Lorenzo during the War. But Pope John was undoubtedly a man who could ride the media tiger.
This ability to project a warm and personable image makes one forget that John XXIII was in some senses, indeed in many senses, a huge traditionalist. He was crowned with the Papal tiara, and his coronation lasted the usual five hours. Moreover, court ceremonial remained largely unchanged during his four-and-a-half-year reign. And yet, in the time of John XXIII, ordinary people felt a huge personal connection with their Pope.
One last story. When the news spread that John was dead (his last illness had lasted little less than a month), the grief in Rome was palpable. He died at 7.49pm on June 3, 1963. Two nuns, who I am sure are no longer with us, who had known the Pope, on hearing the news, ran out into the street that night and commandeered a taxi, and told the driver to drive to the Vatican because the Pope was dead. The driver was in tears when he heard the news, and the two sisters said to him: “We are going in to pray with the Pope, but you had better come too.” So they walked into the Vatican, right into the Apostolic Palace, all the way to the Papal bedroom where il Papa Buono was lying dead in bed, surrounded by his household, and there they said the usual prayers amid many tears. In death, John XXIII belonged to the people of Rome. That was the sort of man he was: a man of rare gifts.
I spent eight years in Rome, all of it in the reign of Pope John Paul II, and people would often say to me: “Have you met the Pope?” Alas, I never did. I just saw him from a distance, as millions of other people must have done. But like many of those millions, I felt for some reason that there was a deep personal connection between us. He was my Holy Father, and I was his son.
John Paul II’s greatness truly touched me when I went to Krakow, after his death, where he had been Archbishop, and also to Wadowice, where he had been born. There they display the entry into the baptismal register for Karol Wojtyla: baptised, then confirmed, then, underneath those entries, ordained deacon, ordained priest, consecrated Bishop, made Archbishop, created Cardinal, and finally, squeezed into the remaining space, written in by the parish priest, one assumes, the words “elected Pope” and the date of that epoch-changing event.
That baptismal register represents an astonishing trajectory, because none of it should have happened. For a start Poland should have been wiped off the map by the Nazis, but wasn’t. Then Polish Catholicism should have been obliterated by Communism, but wasn’t. Young Karol ought to have been killed either by the Nazis or the Communists, or else should have fled abroad: but instead he was trained in an underground seminary which ought never to have existed. The Wojtyla life represents the defeat of all anti-Catholic (and anti-Polish) ideologies. It is a sort of miracle. How did it happen? No wonder John Paul II is a Polish hero: he represents the survival of national and gospel values in the face of overwhelming odds.
For me, John Paul II is the man who lived the Gospel 100 per cent, without compromises. This makes him a little bit terrifying, because he is the man who said yes to what so many of us fear. Perhaps that’s why his first words on that balcony were: “Do not be afraid!”
We shall have two new saints on Sunday, both of them very different, but both of them represent messages we need to remember. Saints John and John Paul, pray for us!
On Sunday morning The Catholic Herald website will feature a live blog covering the canonisation ceremony
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