Pope St John XXIII (b.1881 d.1963)
‘Journal of a Soul’, published eight months after the death of Pope John XXIII, comprises the diaries, notes, and spiritual thoughts and prayers, recorded by the Pope himself from the age of fourteen until a few months before he died. These notes were 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. Over a period of nearly seventy years this accumulated collection represented a vast and unique history of his life and thoughts, reflecting his deep love for his family and friends, and above all for Jesus Christ and His Church. His humility, humanity, deep spirituality and holy simplicity, are reflected in his writings and in this ‘Journal’ which he allowed to be published only after his death. The responsibility for this was given to his private secretary, Don Loris Capovilla, who as Cardinal Capovilla, died in May this year aged 100.
We hear much of the so-called ‘rigidity’ of the traditional laws and practices of the Catholic Church, ‘seeing God not as love and fatherhood, from whom all fatherhood derives, but only as the Judge who pronounces eternal judgments on the frailty of the creature, a breath of wind that passes and comes no more. Yet this kind of spirituality produced Pope John XXIII, and the tree is to be judged by its fruit.’ This rigorously constructed spirituality, recognising and loyal to the letter of the law, is not just this, for within it lives and from it soars a great conception. ‘Every ‘technique’ degenerates if it remains purely mechanical, that is, isolated from all noble inspiration. On the other hand no great conception can be realized without a rule, without a discipline. Now there is evident in Pope John’s ‘Journal’, a powerful and exalted evangelical impulse which dominates his whole existence, and preserves this constant examination of his own life from any puritanical or pharisaical contamination. His confessions are too precise, too detailed, too intent on calling everything by its right name, ever to become a stale habit or, worse still, a mask or a pose. Today, too many rebels publish their confessions, shameless exhibitions before a public greedy for scandal, and destined merely to disguise their shame. Here, instead, all is real: the simplicity, the awareness of being a creature, scrupulous moderation and reserve, extreme human sensibility, above all, the will to aspire to the fullness of Christ.
The ‘Journal’ records constant, one might almost say, obstinate growth, in step with the very slow rhythm of nature and grace. It is a growth in understanding and knowledge of God’s purpose, and an increasing embodiment of this purpose in his personal life and ecclesiastical office. God’s design for us, being eternal, keeps pace with us; it grows with us and we grow with it.’
Ack. Meditation and Introduction to ‘Journal of a Soul’ – written by Giulio Bevilacqua, Cong. Orat. Brescia, January, 1964.’ (Bevilacqua was a life-long friend of Pope John)
The following extracts were taken from a Retreat attended by Mgr Roncalli, titular Archbishop of Mesembria and Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece, between 25 November and 1 December 1940, at Terapia on the Bosporos, the Villa of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion. The Retreat master was Father Paolo Segneri, and the Penitential Psalm, the Miserere, was the source of this particular spiritual exercise.
V2. ‘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 increases as it rises, and the rivulets are wider as the fountain overflows.
V 3. ‘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 co-operation 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 the 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 criterion by which to judge my spiritual progress.
Return of the prodigal son.
V 5. ‘Against thee only have I sinned, and have done evil in thy sight, that thou mayst be justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment’
Sin is an offence against God, and for this alone a grave evil. The other considerations are all secondary in comparison with this: a wife raped and a husband killed are things of small account compared with an outraged God. This is what David understood and what we must understand too. How differently this world thinks! People are sorry, not for having offended the Lord, but because they have suffered disgrace, loss or misfortune.
The saints did not feel that way. ‘I said, “O Lord, be merciful to me, heal my soul for I have sinned against thee.” (Psalm 40 (41):4)
Another thought; ‘I have done evil in thy sight’. Sin, even if directed against one’s neighbour and against oneself, directly violates God’s holy law. But it is graver because it is committed in God’s sight. ‘God sees me’: our humble grandmothers used to work this motto into their samplers of rustic embroidery: it still hangs on the old walls of our houses and it contains a stern reminder which serves to give a character of decency to all our behaviour. What a profound truth this is of the omnipresence of God, of his searching glance which penetrates even the secret recesses of our privacy. A whole treatise of ascetic doctrine could be written about this truth from which is derived the purest beauty of sanctified souls, as clear as crystal, as pure as well-water, using no deceit with others or with themselves (for it happens sometimes that we are insincere even with ourselves, surely the height of folly!) even at the risk of seeming of little worth. ‘The simplicity of the just man is derided.’ What a fine passage this is from St Gregory the Great!
V 7. ‘For behold thou hast loved truth: the uncertain hidden things of thy wisdom thou hast revealed to me.’
First of all, the Psalmist wished to justify the Lord’s words spoken to him by the prophet: ‘that thou mayst be justified in thy sentence’, and to exalt the triumph of his judgment: ‘that thou mayst be blameless in thy judgment’.
Now he proclaims that his God is a lover of truth. In fact truth is in God as in its source and God is all truth; as Jesus, the divine Word, said himself: ‘I am the truth’. A declaration of this sort would seem that of a madman had it not come from the lips of God made man. The Roman governor was much puzzled by this declaration of Christ’s and asked him; ‘What is truth?’
The truth, says Father Segneri, is a transcendent virtue which enters into all well-ordered human affairs and, according to the diversity of these, assumes different names. In the schools it is called science, in speech veracity, in conduct frankness, in conversation sincerity, in actions righteousness, in business dealings honesty, in the keeping of promises loyalty, and in the courts of law it has the noble title of justice. This is the Lord’s truth which ‘abides for ever’.
'What is truth?' by James Seward
The love of truth. On the day of my Episcopal consecration the Church gave me a particular mandate concerning it: ‘Let him choose humility and truth and never forsake them for any flattery or threats. Let him not consider light to be darkness, or darkness light; let him not call evil good, or good evil. Let him learn from wise men and fools, so that he may profit from all.’ I thank the Lord for having given me a natural inclination to tell the truth, always and in all circumstances and before everyone, in a pleasant manner and with courtesy, to be sure, but calmly and fearlessly. Certain small fibs of my childhood have left in my heart a horror of deceit and falsehood. Now, especially as I am growing old, I want to be particularly careful about this: to love the truth, God helping me! I have repeated this many times, swearing it on the Gospel.
The revelation of the uncertain and hidden things of divine wisdom, comes by itself. The love of truth means perpetual childhood, fresh and joyful. And the Lord reveals his most sublime mysteries to children and conceals them from the learned and the so-called wise men of this world.
V 9. ‘To my hearing thou shalt give joy and gladness; and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.’
When we hear that we are forgiven: ‘The Lord has put away your sin’, we are full of joy and gladness. We have felt this so often when after the absolution we rise from kneeling before our confessor, especially when we are in retreat or on some other more solemn occasions in our life. The joy is in our understanding, the gladness in our heart. This two-fold sensation is expressed also in the renewed physical vigour and energy of our bodies: ‘The bones that have been humbled will rejoice.’ There are some most moving references to this in the Bible: Isaiah tells us ‘your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (Isaiah 60:5), and we read in Proverbs: ‘a glad heart makes a cheerful countenance’ Prov.15:13)
The mystery of spiritual joy, which is a characteristic of saintly souls, is seen here in all its beauty and charm. The Lord leaves us uncertain about our eternal salvation but gives us signs which suffice to calm our souls and make us joyful.
‘It is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8:16). I ask you: is this a small thing, to feel we are God’s children? This confidence, which is often in our hearts without our being able to account for it, is the inexhaustible source of our joy, the most solid foundation of true piety, which consists in desiring everything that is full and loving service to the Lord. The essential is that this desire of ours should be prompt and effective. That it should be a source of enjoyment also, that is, of tender affection, sweetness, delight and joy – this is also important, but accidental and secondary. The realization of Our Lord’s goodness to us, and of our worthlessness, makes us happy and sad at the same time. But the sadness is lessened as it becomes an encouragement for our apostolate in the service of all that is sublime and noble, to make Jesus known, loved and served, and to take away the sins of the world.
The thought of holiness, smiling amidst trials and crosses, is always with me. Interior calm, founded on the words and promises of Christ, produces the imperturbable serenity which may be seen in face, words and behaviour, the expression of all-conquering charity. We feel a renewal of energies, physical as well as spiritual: sweetness to the soul and health to the body.(Prov.16:24). To live in peace with the Lord, to hear that we are forgiven, and in our turn to forgive others, gives the soul that feast of ‘marrow and fat’ of which the psalmist sang, and brings the Magnificat constantly to our lips.’
The Visitation, from alterpiece of the Virgin. By Jacques Daret 1434. 'My soul doth magnify the Lord ......'