On this anniversary of Saint John XXIII’s death, I took the opportunity to re-read Hannah Arendt’s chapter, “Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: A Christian on St. Peter’s Chair from 1958 to 1963” in her book Men in Dark Times.
It is an amusing title for the German Jewish political theorists reflections on his pontificate and, more broadly, his whole life and death.
By calling him “A Christian” in this emphatic sense, she intended to convey the remarkable extent to which Pope John XXIII wanted to follow Christ, “to suffer and be despised for Christ and with Christ”, and to “care nothing for the judgments of the world, even the ecclesiastical world.”
The chapter is filled with lesser known anecdotes, including several quick-witted responses that demonstrated John XXIII’s deeply rooted self-confidence combined with a thorough sense of detachment from the opinions of others.
Without detailing all of those stories here, I will instead identify just a couple quotations that speak to the main thrust of what we may take away from his character and witness.
The editor of the Journal [referring to the pope’s spiritual memoirs], Pope John’s former secretary, Mgr. Loris Capovilla, mentions in his introduction what must have been highly irritating to many and puzzling to most: “his habitual humility before God and his clear consciousness of his own worth before men—so clear as to be disconcerting.” But though absolutely sure of himself and seeking the advice of no one, he did not make the mistake of pretending to know the future or the ultimate consequences of what he was trying to do. He had always been content to “live from day to day,” even “from hour to hour” like the lilies in the field, and he now set down the “basic rule of conduct” for his new state—to “have no concern for the future,” to make no “human provision for it,” and to take care “not to speak of it confidently and casually to anyone,” It was faith and not theory, theological or political, that guarded him against “in any way conniving with evil in the hope that by so doing [he] may be useful to someone.”
This complete freedom from cares and worries was his form of humility; what set him free was that he could say without any reservation, mental or emotional: “Thy will be done.” In the Journal, it is not easy to discover, under the layers and layers of pious language which has become for us, but never for him, platitudinous, this simple basic chord to which his life was tuned. Even less would we expect from it the laughing wit he derived from it. But what else except humility did he preach when he told his friends how the new awesome responsibilities of the pontificate had at first worried him greatly and even caused him sleepless nights—until one morning he said to himself: “Giovanni, don’t take yourself that seriously!” and slept well ever after.
What inspired me to return to this chapter and to the anecdotes it contains was my memory of the quotation with which she concludes it which, she says, were his greatest words when he lay dying: “Every day is a good day to be born, every day is a good day to die.”