(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

John Paul XXIII was plain and came from peasant stock. However, there were depths to Pope John XXIII that many never noticed, even after he announced a council to bring together all the world’s bishops to determine how the Roman Catholic Church might best carry out its pastoral mission in the modern world. The homespun peasant joviality was balanced by years of experience in the Vatican diplomatic corps, including postings in some of the most trying embassies the Holy See maintained during a turbulent and often horrific period of history. His fondness for good food and drink was balanced by a deep spirituality that involved not only the overt forms of Catholic piety—the Mass, the rosary, the visiting of shrines and other holy places—but also a powerful tendency to soul searching and self-examination.

This tendency can be traced to the beginning of his spiritual diary, which Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli took up as a young seminarian in his native Bergamo in Italy. The earliest volumes often seem as much a copybook as a journal, filled with maxims gleaned from various sources. His very first act as a diarist was to copy a Latin motto that describes the ideal character of a man of the cloth. Throughout his life, as priest, bishop, cardinal, and pope, he frequently commented and expanded on that ideal. He then transcribed the Little Rule, a list of precepts for the behavior of an ascetic that were observed by the Sodality of the Annunciation of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic organization active in Italian seminaries at the end of the nineteenth century. The Little Rule covered every aspect of life, prescribing not only spiritual disciplines but also the means of remaining pure while working in the world as the secular clergy must.

After transcribing some additional precepts of holiness and two prayers, the future pontiff began his personal thoughts with a list of fourteen resolutions for the improvement of his spiritual life. This is followed by a lengthy essay on purity, including ten further resolutions for how to best guard one’s spiritual purity from the temptations of the world.

Having set forth the...

(The entire section is 874 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bonnot, Bernard R. Pope John XXIII: Model and Mentor for Leaders. Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 2003. A study of the leadership techniques of John XXIII, particularly his oft-quoted method of observing much and correcting just a little and his use of humor to bring attention to problems.

Elliott, Lawrence. I Will Be Called John: A Biography of Pope John XXIII. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973. A biography written by a non-Catholic author, attempting to capture Pope John’s appeal to the “separated brethren.”

Hebblethwaite, Peter. Pope John XXIII: Shepherd of the Modern World. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. A comprehensive biography by a former Jesuit; includes extensive bibliography.

Hebblethwaite, Peter, and Martha Hebblethwaite. John XXIII: Pope of the Century. London: Continuum, 2005. A reflection on the pivotal role of John XXIII and Vatican II, including his beatification by John Paul II.

Packard, Gerrold M. Peter’s Kingdom: Inside the Papal City. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985. An overview of the Vatican and the papacy in the governance of the Catholic Church in the post-Vatican II era.

Wynn, Wilton. Keepers of the Keys: John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II—Three Who Changed the Church. New York: Random House, 1988. Collective biography that focuses on how these three popes managed the change brought about by Vatican II.