On September 3, John Paul II will beatify
John XXIII. Archbishop Loris Capovilla, Pope John XXIII's private
secretary, at present Pontifical Delegate Bishop for the Loreto Shrine,
worked alongside the pontificate that marked a decisive change for the
Church in the 20th century. The following is an interview with
Archbishop Capovilla on the "Good Pope," which was published in the
Italian magazine, "Jesus."
-- When did you learn that the Pope decided to convoke the Council?
-- Archbishop Capovilla: I must first state a premise. One morning in
January of 1963, he was already close to the end of his life, when I was
going to call him to celebrate Mass, he said: "This is a letter for
you." It was a sort of testament. In that letter, which I have not
published until now, he asked me to talk about everything that referred
to the preparation of the Council, considering me a faithful witness of
the preparation of that great ecclesial event and the development of the
first session. The letter is dated January 28, 1963. Among other things,
it states: "Now I think that the most indicated witness and faithful
exponent of this 'Vatican II' is precisely you, dear Monsignor, and that
you must consider yourself authorized to accept this commitment and to
honor it, which will honor the Church, and entitle you to blessings and
beautiful recompense on earth and in Heaven."
Feeling that I am authorized, I answer your questions with great
pleasure. I learned the decision to convoke a Council for the first time
on November 2, 1958. John XXIII had been Pope for five days. He spoke to
me about it for the second time on November 21, during the first trip
outside the Vatican, on the way to Castel Gandolfo. The third time was
in the days immediately preceding
Christmas of that year.
-- He was to be a transition Pope. Did you think this as well?
-- Archbishop Capovilla: Yes, I also thought this. It seemed natural to
me, from an all too human point of view, that a man elected Pope at 77,
against all expectations of those in the know, should not have to plan
extraordinary undertakings. Everyone expected his quick pass through the
See of Peter and, above all, a broad testimony of charity. Moreover,
what do we ordinarily expect from an elderly man? If he is a priest, a
blessing, word and good works, and a sense of mercy toward all is
enough. Humanity would have been equally grateful to John XXIII if he
had been happy to remain faithful to the introduction he made of himself
on the day of his enthronement: "Here is your new Pope, I am John, your
-- It is said that the Church's patience is like that of the seed under
the earth. In the end, the Christian is someone who waits. Was Pope
John's patience like this or was he eager to see his hopes realized?
-- Archbishop Capovilla: Suffice it to think of the afternoon of October
11. When I went to tell him that the Square was crowded with faithful
because of that famous smoke, Pope John said to me: "Enough has been
done for today with the address opening the Council. I have no intention
of saying anything more. I will go to the window and give the blessing."
However, later came his brief but moving and memorable address, known
for mentioning the moon and patting of children. He came back in and,
sitting down in an armchair, ended simply: "I did not expect so much. It
would have been enough to announce the Council. God has already allowed
me to get it underway." This shows that Pope John was anything but
impatient. There is a social suffering that does not ennoble
man, but profanes him, Angelo Roncalli used to say; justice and joy are
-- Was this Pope John XXIII's optimism?
-- Archbishop Capolvilla: He often repeated an aphorism attributed to
St. Bernard: "See everything, endure much, correct only one thing at a
time." He added: "However, work always, and do not turn the pillow over
to sleep." Yes, Pope John was an optimist. "I have never known a
pessimist who finished something well. As we have been called to do
good, more than to destroy evil, to build more than to demolish, that is
why I think I have everything in order and must continue on my way
seeking the good, without giving any more than due importance to the
different ways of conceiving life and playing it," he said.
-- He made us understand that it was not enough to combat sufferings in
face of a freer future society and future happiness, rather it is
necessary to free ourselves from suffering today, day by day. Was this
Pope John XXIII's Catholic realism?
-- Archbishop Capovilla: Yes, but a realism that above all wanted to be
witness and presence, courageous action and tireless dynamism. I could
tell you an expression he liked very much. He repeated it to Jean
Guitton one day on the terrace of Castel Gandolfo: "Do you see these
wise men of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory? They have complicated
instruments to look at the moon and the stars. I am happy to walk with
me eyes open in the light of the stars, like the Patriarch Abraham."
-- Was he aware that he was liked by secularized society and the
indifferent, and of the suspicion that these fondnesses occasioned?
-- Archbishop Capovilla: Yes, there is also a note in his personal
diary: "Sometimes the fact of enjoying such high esteem and of being
praised by people who do not have faith, or have little, humbles me,
because it exposes me to the danger of being considered by many as being
too condescending. However, I think I can say that I do not deny the
truth, nor diminish it before anyone. I try to combine motives of truth
and charity. That is why all doors are open to me."
-- Did he have an affliction, especially at the end of his pontificate?
-- Archbishop Capovilla: Not one affliction, but many afflictions. I
remember how much was said then about his gestures, actions, writings;
how the encyclical "Pacem in Terris" itself was the object of
controversy. I saw him many times not just suffering but crying.
However, this did not rob him of interior peace.
-- Did he die peacefully?
-- Archbishop Capovilla: Yes. At the end of his life, his collaborators
wept around his bed. He never cried a single tear.
-- How was your farewell?
-- Archbishop Capovilla: I said my farewell to Pope John on May 31,
1963, when I told him his life was ending. I went up to his bed and I
said: "Holy Father, I fulfill my duty, as we agreed. I will do to you
what you did with your Bishop, Monsignor Radini. I come to tell you that
the hour of the end has arrived. You can imagine my feelings. He took me
by the hand, he said words to me that I keep as an indelible memory of
my service by his side and, afterwards, with calmness and delicacy, he
concluded: "We have worked, we have served the Church. We have not
stopped to pick up the stones that were thrown at us from different
parts, and we haven't thrown them back at anyone."
-- Why has this simple and open dialogue been possible between me, a
member of secularized society, and you, an Archbishop?
-- Archbishop Capovilla: It has been possible because you and I are
"prisoners." Remember the words of Pope John on December 26, 1958, when
he visited the "Regina Coeli" prison, and he came out with that
certainly new expression: "Here we are in the Father's house." What? The
prison, the Father's house? "I have placed my eyes in your eyes, my
heart in your heart," were words that were said rapidly, but those
prisoners believed the one who said them. Then, without dividing bars,
prisoners on one side, and the Pope on the other, they became a family.
You and I are also prisoners because at times something hinders us from
seeing our brothers. We are hindered by our limitations, our passions,
our weaknesses. If, however, through those bars the light of two good
eyes passes, the warmth of sincere witness, then we feel like brothers.
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