Blessed John XXIII (1881-1963) kept a spiritual diary throughout his years as a fourteen year-old minor seminarian in Bergamo, major seminarian in Rome, young priest, apostolic delegate to Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and France, patriarch of Venice and, finally, as pope. The texts were gathered and published shortly after his death under the title Journal of a Soul (1964). An English translation by Dorothy White is still available by Image Books Doubleday. Now that we are on the brink of his canonization, let us hear from him the program of life and spiritual insights by which he was able to let the grace of God be fruitful in his soul.
Below is a passage from his journal in 1903 written as a twenty-two year-old seminarian studying in Rome (editorial paragraph breaks and bold accents of the text have been added here to accommodate reading in a digital format):
Practical experience has now convinced me of this: the concept of holiness which I had formed and applied to myself was mistaken. In every one of my actions, and in the little failings of which I was immediately aware, I used to call to mind the image of some saint whom I had set before myself to imitate down to the smallest particular, as a painter makes an exact copy of a picture by Raphael. I used to say to myself: in this case St. Aloysius could have done so and so, or: he would not have done this or that.
However, it turned out that I was never able to achieve what I had thought I could do, and this worried me. The method was wrong. From the saints I must take the substance, not the accidents, of their virtues. I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character, and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect.
God desires us to follow the example of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances. If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way.
Another passage captures the mature man, now forty-nine year old Bishop Angelo Roncalli serving as the papal representative in Bulgaria in 1930. His tone and description of his spiritual goals match very beautifully with the warm character he was known for as pontiff twenty-eight years later, Il Papa Buono, “Good Pope John.”
April 28 – May 4, 1930
Retreat at Rustchuk, in the house of the Passionist Fathers
…One of the similes used by St. Francis de Sales, which I love to repeat is: ‘I am like a bird singing in a thicket of thorns’; this must be a continual inspiration to me. So, I must say very little to anyone about the things that hurt me. Great discretion and forbearance in my judgments of men and situations: willingness to pray particularly for those who may cause me suffering, and in everything great kindness and endless patience, remembering that any other sentiment or mixture of sentiments, á la Macédoine, as they say here, is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and of evangelic perfection.
So long as charity may triumph, at all costs, I would choose to be considered as of little worth. I will be patient and good to a heroic degree, even if I am crushed. Only in this way shall I deserve to be called a true Bishop and be worthy to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his compliance, humiliation and suffering was the real and only physician and Savior of all mankind, by whose wounds we are healed….
Blessed John XXIII, as we approach the day of your canonization, teach us how to “absorb the vital sap” of your great virtues, especially “in everything great kindness and endless patience.” Pray for us!