Saints John XXIII and John Paul II: A Roman Seminarian Recounts

3 September 2000, the day that John XXIII (and Pius IX) were beatified, was also the day that I entered the seminary.  That might not seem of much significance to my reader, but it was to me.  Il papa buono was the last Pope alumnus in a long line of saints, popes and prelates to be ordained from the Pontifical Roman Major Seminary, the house of formation where my Bishop sent me.  As an American in an overwhelmingly Italian house, I was caught up into the euphoria that marked the event.  As Providence would have it, I was finishing up my time in the seminary just as John Paul II “returned to the house of the Father” as it was said, and Josef Ratzinger became his successor as Benedict XVI.  My seminary career began with a papal beatification and ended with a papal funeral, election and inauguration, and my time there would be significantly marked by all three men.
Before I went off to the seminary, I had read just about everything I could get my hands on, written by anybody who had never had an unpublished thought, on Vatican II.  The John XXIII that I carried into the seminary with me was a split one: the enfant terrible who sang a new Church into being and became the icon of progressive Catholics in saecula saeculorum; and the eminence grise who betrayed the true tradition of the Church and ushered the Trojan Horse into the City of God.  You can imagine how perplexed I was when I carried these two ideologized portraits of the Bergamasch pontiff into the seminary, and there encountered a very different John XXIII.
My first days in the seminary were a profound introduction to how the Roman clergy saw their Papa Giovanni.  Even though he was not a native Roman, when he went to the papal seminary, he underwent a thorough Romanization.  He might not have been un romano di Roma, but he certainly became a Roman di core.
As we left the beatification for the summer villa of Roccantica, where I used the same shower that legend said John XIII had used as a seminarian (and to my horror, it wasn’t all that different than it would have been 100 years before), I started to read his Journal of a Soul.  As I read it, and through the years that I talked with so many cardinals, bishops, priests, religious and laypeople who knew him, I came across a very different man that what I had read about in those conservative vs. liberal English books about him and the conciliar period.
The first thing that struck me was that John XXIII had a deep devotion to the patroness of the seminary, Our Lady under the title of the Madonna della Fiducia, Our Lady of Confidence.  The original image of Our Lady, which had painted by a Poor Clare nun and made its way into the seminary in the 17th century, was in a small chapel, where seminarians consecrate themselves to her, to be her priests in the world.  We alumni take holy cards and immaginette of her wherever we go, and the first thing we do in going back to visit alma mater is to visit her image and sing the seminary hymn composed by the man later known as Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, O Maria, quant’é felice, chi ti sceglie a tua regina!  John XXIII had this image on his bedside, at his desk, and it always accompanied him.

So why is this image so important?  In it, the Child Jesus with a chubby little finger points to Mary: if He can have confidence in her, so can we.  And so the pious aspiration that all of us alumni say repeatedly throughout the day and at the end of the Divine Office, made sense: Mater mea, fiducia mea.  The lessons of the Fiducia are simple, but guided John XXIII as he guided the Church: remain faithful priests to the Eucharistic King, Our Lady and the Holy Father, and have confidence that all will be well.
For some people, John XXIII was a naïve optimist who did not know what he was doing opening the windows of the Church to the world.  But for the Romans formed so close to the heart of the Church, and to the throne of the Fisherman, the idea was that all of us, from Pope to lowliest curate, had to be good solid priests and love our people, and Our Lady would make sure that all would be well. 
The Romanità that John XXIII showed extended to everything.  He remained first and foremost a priest, even despite his career as a diplomat.  He cared about people, real people, and wanted to bring them to Our Lord.  For him, that meant that he was just as willing to dialogue with the enemies of the Church as Don Camillo was with Peppone, all the while sure that Our Lady would win the conversion of their hearts.  There was no need to hurl denunciations at people, because he had confidence that just being a good Christian and a good priest, and the intercession of Confidence, could win hearts over to Truth.
That Romanità also formed the young Angelo Roncalli in his attitude towards the sacred litiurgy and popular piety.  I have yet to come across any indications that he was a liturgical revolutionary.  He could not have helped but be schooled as a seminarian in the Roman basilica tradition à façon de Carlo Respighi.  He loved the ceremonies and the prayers of the Church, and for him, all of the pomp and circumstance of the papal liturgy was not dead vestiges of an imperial past, but the continuation of a glorious Roman tradition.  Roma felix had no need of puritanical iconoclasm to shed the papal liturgy of its “imperial trappings” because by John XXIII, they had already been transformed interiorly into pomp and splendor of the King of Kings.  Even the changes that happened under his reign, such as the new Good Friday prayer for the Jews and the 1960 breviary, were motivated less from new ideas about liturgics than his desire to be nice to people and not burden them.  And he still lengthened the cappa magna back from the attenuated length that the author of Mediator Deihad cut it, a factoid that the propagandists of “John XXIII: Liturgical Revolutionary” are at sixes and sevens to explain.
All of this Johannine spirit was part of the received tradition of priestly formation in my seminary, and the powerful example of John Paul II, who was such an example of courage, faithfulness and Marian devotion, made it all very contemporary.  Every year John Paull II came for the celebrations of the Fiducia.  Evey year he stayed to hear the seminary and the diocesan choir under the direction of Msgr Marco Frisina sing a newly composed oratorio.  We all gathered in the sala del trono and one by one each year, were introduced to the Holy Father.  We served his Masses frequently, and I admit I was always rendered speechless in his presence, as holiness radiated from him.  We watched as John Paul II battled illness, and declined, giving an incomparable witness to the Gospel of Life. 

I know that there are those who question the prudence of canonizing these two popes so close after their death, and there are indeed those who are convinced this is all about canonizing Vatican II (or a certain hermeneutic of Vatican II) more than anything else.  But these two Popes had a strong influence on me personally.  Their witness gave me a love for the Roman Church and a burning desire for evangelization and mission.  In their way, they prepared me also for being a priest under the reigns of Benedict XVI and Francis.  Although by temperament and interest I am much closer to the Bavarian Pope than any of the rest of them, and I am always proud to be considered a priest of the Benedict XVI generation, I also welcome Francis’ desire to bring the Faith to those in the margins.  Now, how I may do so, it might be clothed in the glorious raiment of Romanità, with the piety of John, the courage of John Paul and the precision and sensitivity of Benedict, or at least I would hope for it to be.  But either way, the Church rejoices that John XXIII and John Paul II are models of virtue and sanctity.  And in a world in which there is such a lack of goodness and faithfulness, I for one rejoice that, in my life, I have had such models in these men.  May I, and all of my brother priests today, have a portion of their spirit.  Mater mea, fiducia mea! 

4 Replies to “Saints John XXIII and John Paul II: A Roman Seminarian Recounts”

  1. In light of all the noise about the canonizations from every direction, this was such a refreshing and enlightening recollection. I now have a different take on both of these pontiff saints. Many thanks.

  2. I always enjoy reading Father Smith. I kind of chuckled that some folks (mostly media lefties) believe Pope John XXIII was a liberal. I guess they weren't aware of Veterum Sapientia and a lof of his other writings. Just because he was a warm and engaging man, they automatically assume he was liberal.

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