An Interview with Archbishop Loris Capovilla, former secretary to John XXIII
Just one verse each day.
Each year during his pontificate, Pope Paul VI would personally write to Monsignor Loris Capovilla, the former secretary to John XXIII. The exchanges would always occur at Christmas, Easter, and on June 3 – the day of Roncalli’s death in 1963, which occurred shortly after he had inaugurated that monumental event in the history of the Church known as the Second Vatican Council. Monsignor Capovilla, now Archbishop Emeritus of Chieti-Vasto, became secretary to Roncalli in 1953, when he was still Patriarch of Venice. Today, Capovilla is the living memory of the thought and voice of John XXIII. He is also responsible for a museum dedicated to John XXIII in Sotto il Monte, the late Pope’s birthplace. On Easter Monday, Pope Francis telephoned him personally, as Capovilla explains in this interview in which he agreed to share his memory of Angelo Roncalli with Aleteia.
Aleteia: Many people point out the analogies between Pope John and Pope Francis.
Capovilla: At the end of my life, I have seen for myself that some of Pope John’s intuitions have been taken up by Pope Francis. In his speech a few days ago to the ambassadors who presented their credentials, he said that the Church must concern itself in a special way with those who are last. He repeated the very phrase of Pope John spoken in a radio address on September 11, a month before the opening of the Council: “The Church is everyone’s and no one is excluded, but she is especially the Church of the poor.” Someone said that this is demagoguery, but where is the demagoguery if your brother dies of hunger? It is an important issue that those who wish to call themselves Christian must make their own: it is not enough to simply applaud the Pope.
Aleteia: The two pontiffs seem similar even in their attitudes…
Capovilla: Francis too, when he approaches people, does not give the impression of asking himself whether the person is Catholic or goes to Mass every Sunday, but first of all sees in the person a creature of God, a man, a person with inalienable rights – the right to be heard and to be respected – in every instance a right to a good relationship, to the possibility of friendship. I was struck by the images of the Pope in the Casal del Marmo prison for minors on Holy Thursday: an old priest on his knees washing the feet of those kids – not sprinkling a little water, but really washing them, kissing them, and looking each kid in the face. One of them asked him, “What have you come to do?” “I have come because I have been sent by love,” Francis answered, “because I must concern myself with you too.” But is this not what the world is longing for? Is this not that to which we have committed ourselves?
Aleteia: Is it true that Pope Francis telephoned you?
Capovilla: I thought that it might be a joke because it was April 1. It was “Angel Monday” [the name given to Easter Monday in Italy]. The telephone rang around 7:30 in the evening. I answered, and heard someone on the other end say: “Monsignor Capovilla, this is Pope Francis.” He dialed the number himself without going through the operator because [Cardinal] Comastri had given him my brochure for the Year of Faith, in which it says: “With Pope Francis we celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Pacem in terris” (April 11, 2013) and of the death of John XXIII (June 3, 2013).” “You invite me to this memorial celebration,” Francis said to me, “and I thank you.” “Since we are talking,” he added, “I want to ask you a favor: pray to Pope John for me so that I become better.” Simple, like the prayer of a child.
The memory of Roncalli in the words of his secretary
The Council and the peace of the “Good Pope”
Aleteia: You were Roncalli’s secretary for 10 years…
Capovilla: First of all, I don’t think of myself as Pope John’s secretary, even less his confidante or friend. I would not be so bold as to use such a term. I use a term that he used, calling me “contubernale,” a Latin word meaning the person who eats a piece of bread at the table of his master, and if he is a priest, an ecclesiastic, he prays, celebrates Mass with him, he listens to him and only if asked does he reply. The Roncalli-Capovilla relationship, beginning in Venice, was always this: I speak to you in confidence as though I were speaking to myself; if you like what I say, then say “very good, your eminence”; if you have some doubts, you must not say “Oh, no, that doesn’t work.” I myself will pose the question to you.
Do you understand the pedagogy? By your silence, he knows that you do not agree. Then he questions you and you can say whatever is in your heart, on your mind. When you have finished offering your advice, he says “Fine, now I will listen to others, too.” Pope John loved to listen to those who thought differently than he did, who expressed themselves freely. Beyond traditionalists and conservatives, first of all there was respect for the man and his opinions: that does not mean that afterwards he might be obliged to adopt them himself, but it was very important that the person be able to express himself. Is this not how the work of the Second Vatican Council began? A letter, open, respectful, sent to all the bishops so that they might express their opinion about what they thought was most urgent for the Church.
Aleteia: What qualities characterized Pope Roncalli?
Capovilla: The evening of his election, October 28, 1958 – when Roncalli returned from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square – he said that he was unable to see the people who were there because the lights from the piazza and the television cameras blinded him. But coming back inside, he found himself face to face with the cross that proceeded him at the moment of the benediction, and said: “It seemed to me that Jesus looked at me and said, ‘Angelino, you changed your name and your clothes; remember that if you do not remain meek and humble of heart, you will not see anything, neither the life of the Church nor the history of the world.’” Meek and humble of heart: these were his characteristics. The continual immersion in eternity, not in the ephemeral, the things that pass. But like all people who are meek, he would also be immovable.
When I said to him that evening, “Holy Father, what a great day today!” he answered me, “Yes, but what a great humiliation.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Seeing me on the chair in the Sistine Chapel and cardinals even older than me kissing my feet… I don’t want this!” Gingerly, I advised him to leave things as they are for a little while, but he repeated, “I don’t want this!” and he immediately abolished that practice. He was the “good” Pope, but when he said “no,” he meant “no.” It was a little like what Pope Francis did with the cross and the ermine mozzetta.
Aleteia: 50 years after “Pacem in terris,” are we better off?
Capovilla: Unfortunately, we are still proudly armed and the war industry marches forward, but Christians must try to dream that peace is not a utopia; that peace can become incarnate in the great human family. After the First World War, there was the Kellogg-Briand Pact on the eliminability of war. It was a little-known agreement, but Italy also signed on to it. The thesis upon which it was based was this: If a juridical institution comes to lack reasons to exist, can it die? Today slavery no longer exists legally, nor do serfs or duels. Do you think that war must continue to exist because it has always existed? We must educate ourselves about this. When Roncalli was sent to Paris as the Apostolic Nuncio in 1944, the first person to meet him at Orly was the Turkish ambassador. And yet the whole time that he was in Turkey as Apostolic Administrator, he had to renew his visa every six months because he was not recognized as the Pope’s representative. What is more, upon being elected Pope, secular Turkey asked to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See. This is owed to the fact that Roncalli had good relations with everyone and an in every country to which he was sent. To a journalist he once said: “By my upbringing and my vocation, wherever I set my feet, there I also put my heart.” And this is what the Gospel teaches us.
Aleteia: The “transitional Pope” first surprised the curia and then the world with the announcement of an ecumenical council. Why did he think it urgent for the life of the Church?
Capovilla: Pope John was aware – and this is the sense of collegiality that Francis made visible with the institution of the commission of nine cardinals – that one man by himself is not enough to understand the complexity of the time and of cultures. He had great collaborators that he esteemed but, he said, “We are not sufficient for this great undertaking.” The Council was born because of this, to understand together how the Church must respond to the expectations of her time. “It is not a human project,” Roncalli said, “but it is God who will guide us.” He was aware that he probably would not see it through to the end: “I began it,” he said. “It is already a great honor that God gave me this inspiration. Answering ‘yes’ to an inspiration, getting it going is already a lot.”
Aleteia: 50 years after the Council, is there something in its implementation that John XXIII would not like?
Capovilla: He said, “let’s start together,” and “when we all become like Christ [“cristificati”], everything will go much easier.” How? There are a few examples.
As a young priest, I never would have imagined the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and yet this happened a few days ago. I see confirmed again and again what François Mauriac, who was in St. Peter’s Square on October 11, had said. When I heard the words of John XXIII – “My person counts for nothing; it is a brother who has become father by the will of the Lord, but fraternity and paternity are one, all of it, all of it is a grace of God” – Mauriac wrote, “It seemed to me that I saw him come down among us, and I understood that with that gesture and those words, he had opened not a breach but a fissure in the often thick wall of separation. Through the fissure passed the Spirit, and now I understand the truth behind those words once spoken by Jesus: ‘There will be one family, one fold, one shepherd.’”
“Tantum aurora est,” John XXIII said in his speech at the opening of the Council. “It is only the dawn.” We are at the beginning.