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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 874

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...

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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 ideals by which he would seek to live, young Roncalli began to write his own observations of how well or poorly he lived up to them. His entries were made on an almost daily basis and frequently revealed a level of self-criticism that is quite startling to a modern reader. He often chastised himself for permitting his mind to become distracted during prayers or for indulging in frivolity, flaws that seem almost trivial, even perfectionistic. Yet to the young Roncalli, who believed very deeply that a priest is called to a level of spiritual excellence that will serve as an example to all who see him, even shortcomings that would be minor in a layperson were greatly magnified when they occurred in a cleric. As a result, he put a great deal of effort into uprooting those weaknesses before he received Holy Orders, lest they prove a stumbling block to others.

In the chapter devoted to his ordination as a priest, the Journal of a Soul moves beyond the usual topics of personal self-examination to undertake more of what many readers would expect in an autobiography, in particular vivid descriptions of events and people with whom he was working. Roncalli recounts an audience with Pope Pius X and various ceremonies and celebrations that took place in Rome during that period.

After his ordination, as increasing responsibilities take up the larger portion of his time, the almost daily personal observations give way to mere annual ones. Generally they are made after periods of spiritual retreat at a monastery or a house for priests. During these periods Roncalli would frequently examine the previous year and seek to assess how well or poorly he had lived up to his ideals for the spiritual life. Although he never ceased to hold himself to strict standards, as they became second nature to him, he paid more attention to God’s graces, particularly in the trying times of World War II, when he was posted in Turkey, and in the postwar period when he was nuncio to France and had to deal with the delicate problems arising from the Nazi occupation.

Once he left the papal diplomatic corps for the pastoral work of the cardinal patriarch of Venice, the tone of his entries changes to concern for how he might improve the spiritual life of his diocese. These entries increase after his election to the see of Peter, and as pope he gains the time to make more frequent entries than had been the case in previous years. However, these entries dealing with the pastoral needs of others are never allowed to entirely crowd out those dealing with his own personal walk with Christ.

As he grew increasingly aware of his own mortality after the diagnosis of inoperable stomach cancer, Pope John set his affairs in order. In addition to the diary, Journal of a Soul includes his Spiritual Testament, setting forth various bequests, particularly small mementos that were to go to various persons close to him. At the end there are a number of appendices containing his thoughts on various subjects.

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