Roncalli

The spirit of humanity in the fifties was at a very low ebb. It was still trying to digest the unleashed total evil of the 40’s. Deep in the human psyche, the words of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dresden, Stalingrad etc. were etching their despair on our souls.

This same despair was effecting most of the major religions of our world. How could such evil take over humanity after centuries of religion preaching and teaching love and brotherhood and sisterhood?

This examination in depth was accompanied by another new phenomena that was sweeping the industrial world, the loss of the workers to the faith. Throughout history, there were regular “trahisons des clercs” but the masses had always remained faithful to their faith. Now the masses were walking away.

Very much like most institutions, the churches do not allow the real problems to reach their agendas. These agendas are generally full of institutional problems. This game keeps everyone busily concerned at the periphery of reality.

His game can be examined by the priorities of the Church in the early 50’s. La Civilta Cattolica, a semi-official organ of the Vatican, ran a 36-page article denouncing Jacques Maritain for his position on the separation of church and state.

The efforts of the French church to re-evangelise the workers of France was high on the negative agenda. Relations between the Church of France and Rome were getting close to the breaking point.

Congar along with a good number of theologians had been silenced. And when the real problems were faced, the difficulties were buttered up with “cheap grace.”

To win back the workers, the Catholic Church brought St Joseph out of the fog of history and made him the patron of workers. This was designed to take May First away from the Marxists.

This led to an innate discussion on whether St. Joseph was patron of workers or of artisans. The left wanted the word “worker” while the right insisted on the word “artisan.”

Behind this argument was the fear of the right that word “worker” could lead Catholics to believe in a working class.

All of this was happening when Pius XII was ailing. A sick Pope triggers all types of politics in the Curia in preparation for the next conclave. When the centre weakens, the periphery gets out of control.

Out of nowhere, Msgr Montini, a very close collaborator of Pius XII for years is “promoted” to become Archbishop of Milan. The story was that he had been sent to Milan to gain some experience in the pastoral field to get the inside track in the coming conclave. The missing link was that he was not made a cardinal so not to participate in the election of the next Pope.

Religious politics are much more finally honed than crass civic politics. The battle lines had been drawn between the “feudalists” of the south and the churches of the industrial north. And the battle took place at the 1958 conclave.

The opposing forces could not elect their man and so had to compromise. In this situation, the electors always look for an older cardinal. The conclave elected 76 year old Cardinal Roncalli from Venice. He was dubbed a transitional Pope.

Out of the mountains of Northern Italy and 25 years of service in the Balkans – at best an area of little concern to the Roman Church – came a peasant pope to keep the chair of Peter warm for a few years.

Who would have ever thought that this man in a short few years would put the Church in state of transition out of feudalism and into the modern world?

I remember well my first meeting with Pope John a week after he was elected. A new Pope as part of traditional protocol meets with various government delegations which attended the enthronement ceremonies.

Pope John insisted that he also meet with a delegation of lay leaders in the church as part of this protocol. As the international president of the Young Christian Workers, I was asked to be part of this small delegation.

At that time, I was suffering from a serious attack of sciatica, literally, I was leaning like the Tower of Pisa. As was the custom of the day, one was called to genuflect when introduced to the pope. (This tradition was later abolished).

Because of my back, I told the papal secretary that I could not kneel. When the pope entered, he gave his usual commentary on a gospel passage and then met and had a personal word with each person.

He came to me and moved back looking at my 250 lbs and said: “I suppose that you are the man that can not kneel down, you better not who would be able to pick you up.”

Suddenly, the laughter brought the great virtue of humour into the Vatican.

Humour and humility are words that are like twins coming from the same roots. Pope John XXIII was a master of “one-liners.” The examination of one-liners allows one to see beyond them to a greater reality.

A few months later, I was in Rome for a meeting of the executive of the Catholic International Organisations and we had an audience with Pope John. He moved around the room and talked to each of us.

A woman from France who was international president of Catholic Women organisations, excitedly showed the Pope a relic of Pope John XXII. The new John told her, “take good care of it but I can assure you that I will not die rich like him.”

A few years after, I bought a book entitled the “The Nine Bad Popes” (not a bad “batting” average for nine bad popes out of 264 popes). One of the “baddies” was John XXII, an Avignon Pope who used gold and silver to “munch” his food.

I am sure that this historic knowledge played a role in restoring, after 600 years, the name of John to the Papacy. Roncalli literally pulled the name of John out of the outhouses of history and put him on the seat of Peter.

His surprise election was followed by even more surprises. The very serious problems and divisions in the Church led John to call a Council, organise a synod for Rome etc.

My next audience was when I accompanied Monsignor Joseph Cardijn the founder of the Young Christian Workers. He had developed small groups of young workers to examine the realities of working life, judge these realities allowed young workers to become themselves. This new revolutionary method of education was the clash between reality and the ideal and it was through action that the young worker became oneself.

In 1965, he was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI. Every year since 1925 when he met with Pope Pius XI, he came to Rome to do an annul tour of the Curia. These tours were always well prepared.

This would be his first meeting with John. Everyone he met, he asked about the new pope. Most of our contacts told us that he loves to talk. So get your business done and then talk. The audience was set for noon.

Cardijn like a boxer started to warm up before ring time. He kept muttering, “I never met this man, I wonder if I can convince him.”

Noon came and went, the Belgium time clock ran out of time, the peasant clock of John was based on sun time so had little to do with industrial time. Around 12:45, all I could do was to encourage Cardijn.

All he kept saying was “I don’t know him, all we will get is a quick blessing.”

He was showing his age of 75 years when the pope himself comes into the room (usually it is the secretary who calls us in), embraces Cardijn and says: “You sure an important person, one has to become Pope to be able to meet you.”

He escorted us into his office. Then suddenly he walks down to the end of his office and picks up a rather heavy chair. I run to pick it up and John says: “No, I can carry it, it is much lighter to carry than the Church.”

Cardijn then started on his business agenda. He underlined the need of chaplains to form worker leaders. A new social encyclical was needed etc. The pope with a small pencil took notes and then said: “Now that the business is over we can talk.”

He asked as how the press in Brussels was covering his travels outside the Vatican. “Front page news every time.”

Happily, he said: “Good to hear that,” he continued circling his fingers: “They are not very happy around here, but then all that I am doing is visiting my flock.”

With this one action, the Pope stopped being the “prisoner” of the Vatican.

He then asked us: “Could I ask that you get your vast membership to pray for the Council? It is very important that we bring the Christian churches together. It is a shame that we remain so divided. At our religious services we read the same gospels and when we leave the church we fall into hatred of each other. This must end and we must take the leadership. We always say that we have the fullness of truth. What is truth but love, so if we have the fullness of truth, then we must be the first to put forward our hand in friendship?”

Then, in the same vein, he started to talk about the success of the recent Roman synod.

“I must find someone to organize the council as competent as the person who organised the synod.”

I nearly fell off my chair because all my contacts in Rome had told me that it was a total failure.

It is quite a leap from being an ambassador with a secretary in a small out of place city to suddenly become the CEO of a 900 million institution. Yet, this very weakness allowed good Pope John to allow his brother bishops to re-arrange the very agenda of the Council along with its rules of procedures.

Up to this point, we were speaking in French, then he suddenly asked me; “Maione is an Italian name. Do you speak Italian?”

“Yes but it is a dialect.”

“Speak and let me try to place your dialect.”

So I spoke Italian, after a few moments, he said: “Your parents are from Campobassa.”

I hesitantly answered. How does one tell the Pope that he is wrong: “No they are from the Marches.”

“Well, I was only 100 kms south. In these things I am not exactly infallible!”

“You speak Italian rather well.”

“My mother taught me and I also worked in Rome for a couple of years.”

“What were you doing here in Rome.”

In my best Italian, I answered that I was working with Mr Veronese in the department to Organise International Congresses of the Lay Apostolate.

Laughing the Pope answered: “Now you want to be friends with my friends.”

And I added that Mr Veronese was the godfather of my first son who was born in Rome and baptized in St Peter’s.

“Now you want to become part of the family.”

Like a peasant he loved to talk, like a peasant he was not a prisoner of time, like a peasant he went to the heart of things, “the fullness of truth is love.” like a peasant he was fearless.

He represented the great values of peasant culture even as it was dying. He spread its wholeness and holiness to all of the world.

The last words I heard from John was at a sunset ceremony on St Peter’s Square on May 1, 1961. He was launching his social encyclical Mater et Magistra for the 70th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s letter titled Rerum Novarum.

Again I was part of a worker delegation and he talked to each one of us.

He told me: “Life is difficult but it can be won.”

One can only wonder what would have happened if he had lived longer.

He brought the Church into the modern world. He freed the Papacy to travel and I think that he was well on the way to developing a new “job description” for the Pope, that of being the Bishop of Rome whose major task would be, less to govern and more to be the point of unity of all Christians.

It is said that he was ready to move out of the Vatican to the Lateran edifice, which is the residence of the Bishop of Rome.

But then one has to trust the future to accomplish one’s plans. Although some bishops at the council tried and failed to have John canonized spontaneously like in the early history of the church, the people have already canonized him in their hearts. On the day that he died, I was using an electric mower.

My wife came to the door and told me: “Pope John has just died.”

I shut off the mower and said a prayer. Suddenly other lawnmowers around me were silenced. This silence was part of a universal silence that gripped the world for a split second in memory of a great human being.

“Life can be won” and he sure won his life.

Romeo Maione


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