Feast Day, October 11
On April 16, 1959, just a few months after his election as Pope, John XXIII presided over the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the oral approval of the Franciscan Rule by Pope Innocent III. He did this in the very place where this historic meeting between the Pope and St. Francis and his friars took place: the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Toward the close of his homily, Pope John said:
“Beloved sons! Allow us to add a special word from the heart to all those here who belong to the peaceful army of the lay Tertiaries of St. Francis: I am your brother Joseph. With tenderness we love to tell you this. This is what we have been since, as a young boy, just fourteen, in March 1, 1896, we were enrolled in [the Third Order] according to the rule by the ministry of Canon Luigi Isacchi, our spiritual father, as he was the director in the Seminary of Bergamo; and we love to bless the Lord for this grace that he granted to us with happy synchrony with the act of initiating us, just that year and in those months, into the ecclesiastical life with the Sacred Tonsure.
“Oh! The serene and innocent joy of that coincidence: A Franciscan Tertiary and cleric on his way to the priesthood, drawn in, therefore by the same cords of simplicity, still unconscious and happy, that was to accompany us up to the blessed altar that was later to give us everything in life.
“Our eyes, moreover, from childhood, were familiar with the very simple sight of the little convent of the rule of the Friars Minor in Baccanello, which in the broad expanse of the Lombard countryside where we were born and where we grew up, was the first completely religious building that we encountered: church, modest hermitage, bell tower, and all around, humble friars who scattered among the fields and the modest farmhouses seeking alms, spreading that atmosphere of completely ingenuous simplicity that makes St. Francis and his sons so attractive.” (1)
Pope John, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, loved to celebrate St. Francis as “poor and rich humble and exalted, similar to Christ as no other.” (2) He retained this love for the Franciscans all his life, just as he cherished his membership as a secular or diocesan priest in the Franciscan Tertiaries, now known as the Secular Franciscans. In fact, the cause for his canonization was undertaken by the Order of Friars Minor – a cause that was brought to a successful close on April 27, 2014, in St. Peter’s Square, when Pope Francis raised him to the honors of the altar together with Pope John Paul II. Here I would like to record some of the Franciscan aspects of his life.
Roncalli always looked at life with Franciscan eyes. Not long after becoming Patriarch of Venice, he said: “One of my dearest comforts at the beginning of pastoral ministry in my beloved Venice. . . has been encountering the devotion, so lively and familiar, to the holy Poverello, engraved in marble, and more vibrant in hearts, down there in that enchantment of nature and art, near the monuments of the magnificent opulence and the ancient glory of the Queen of the Seas. And it is no small delight of my spirit as a humble Franciscan tertiary,” ab adolescentia mea” [from my youth], to seek some gleam of the Fioretti under that sky and on that lagoon covered with glory” (3)
As Patriarch of Venice, he said in a talk to the Capuchins: “I spent ten years in the Balkans: the Capuchins were there . . . In the East, however, there were also the Friars Minor, there were the Conventuals; but it is always St. Francis, whether dressed in black, dressed in white or dressed in brown . . . everywhere we turn, we find this dear Saint, who is the reflection and image of Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . we Franciscan tertiaries try to draw near to his spirit and want to remain there.” (4)
In his Journal of a Soul, Roncalli often reflected on the spiritual experience of St. Francis. As Apostolic Delegate to Greece and Turkey, on retreat in 1940, he wrote: “I want to be ever vigilant about interior sacrifice, borne with humility, with a spirit of penitence, with a contrite heart – Cor contritum quas cinis [A heart crushed like ashes – the Dies Irae], as was said by all the most important figures of the Old Testament, as we read in the most popular saints of the New Testament. It is enough to recall St. Francis of Assisi, whose prayer was always the same “O Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (5)
For all the glory of Venice as a city, it was not a particularly rich diocese; when Patriarch Roncalli arrived there, he was surprised to see how inadequate the allotment for food was in the Patriarch’s household budget; small, that is, in view of the fact that the Patriarch was expected both to entertain a great deal and be generous to the poor. Roncalli wrote: “For the table allowance, I am not impeded from bettering conditions, both for myself and to be of service to my successors. But I prefer to bless the Lord for this povery, which is often humiliating and a little embarrassing. It gives me a greater resemblance to Jesus, the poor man, and to St. Francis, quite sure as I am that I will not starve to death. O blessed poverty that assures me of a greater blessing for the rest and for what is most important in my pastoral ministry!” (6)
In his writings, we find many passages of this type, including reflection on one of the most important points of Franciscan spirituality, the emphasis on the cross. Fr. Simpliciano Olgiati, OFM, writes: “He had discovered the mystery of the cross as the key to Francis’ whole experience,” and quotes from his writings: “Above all, I prefer the cross” and “The whole of Francis’ life is an intense reflection on the Passion of the Lord” (7)
As Apostolic Nuncio in France, Roncalli once came to visit the Franciscans for dinner on a Friday, the day on which while eating in the refectory, the friars were accustomed to each read and comment on a passage of the Rule. Roncalli took his turn reading and commenting with the others, a true confrere of the Franciscan brothers. He also stayed from time to time in the convent, and the way upstairs to his cell was by a tiny narrow stone staircase. Several times, when climbing it, pausing on the landing, he would say to the Franciscan accompanying him: “Father, I have climbed some famous and artistic staircases, but the most beautiful and the dearest is always this one.” (8)
I could go on at much greater length, but I will conclude with one other important point: John XXIII did not have time during his short pontificate for many trips, but he was the first Pope to travel outside of Rome in modern times, and his one trip was on October 4, 1962, on the eve of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. It was a pilgrimage to Loreto and Assisi, during which he prayed to the Blessed Virgin and St. Francis for the success of the Council. So we have Pope John to thank in large part for the Council’s renewal of the Church – but in addition, we must thank Pope John’s love for St. Francis, and St. Francis himself.
(1) Acta Apostolica Sedis, vol. LI, 1959, pp. 307-313; available on the Vatican web site (www.vatican.va) in Italian; the translation, as with all the others, is mine.
(2) Fr. Biagio Zanoni, in Sant’Antonio: Bollettino mensile della Basilica Santuario di S. Antonio di Padova, Milan (1959), n. 5, p. 5; cited in P. Simpliciano Olgiati OFM, “‘Sono il vostro fratello Giuseppe”: Giovanni XXIII nella famiglia francescana,” L’Osservatore Romano, September 3, 2000. Also at http://www.ofm.org/3/post/JNxxiii10.html
(3) Olgiati, op cit.
(4) Talk given in Lendinara on March 17, 1954 and recorded by the Capuchin Fathers; quoted in Olgiato, op. cit.
(5) From the Fioretti; Pope John XXIII, Giornale dell’anima, retreat of 1940.
(6) Giornale dell’anima, retreat for 1953.
(7) Olgiati, op. cit.
(8) Olgiati, op cit.