SEVEN LAST WORDS OF CHRIST: Fourth Word, Witness—Blessed John XXIII by Charles M. Murphy

Holy Hour Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ

Fourth Word, Witness—Blessed John XXIII by Charles M. Murphy

From Eucharistic Adoration

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46)

Behind the genial smile and peasant simplicity of Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, was a closely guarded secret, his soul and the constant soul work in which he was so seriously engaged all his life.  From 1895, when he was fourteen, until 1962, a few months before his death at eighty-one – a span of almost seventy years – he kept a daily journal to which he later gave the title Il Giornale dell’ Anima (The Journal of a Soul).  In it he was constantly talking with God and placing himself at God’s disposal.

His life was a public one and far removed from the contemplative sphere: secretary to his bishop in Bergamo, spiritual director at the local seminary, president for Italy of missionary societies, apostolic delegate in the Near East, papal nuncio to France, patriarch of Venice, and Pope.

Upon becoming a bishop, he took special thought in selecting his episcopal motto.  “Insert in my coat of arms,” he writes in the journal, “the words Oboedientia et pax (Obedience and peace).  These words are in a way my own history and my life.”

In 1959, during a retreat at the Vatican after his election as pope, John XXIII expanded upon his vision of his life as one of obedience to God in all things.

Since the Lord chose me, unworthy as I am, for this great service, I feel I have no longer any special ties in this life, no family, no Earthly country or nation, nor any particular preferences with regard to studies or projects, even good ones.  Now, more than ever, I see myself only as the humble and unworthy “servant of God and servant of the servants of God.”  The whole world is my family.  This sense of belonging to everyone must give character and vigor to my mind, my heart, and my actions.

This vision, this feeling of belonging to the whole world, will give a new impulse to my constant and continual daily prayer: the Breviary, Holy Mass, the whole rosary, and my faithful visits to Jesus in the tabernacle, all varied and ritual forms of close and trustful union with Jesus.

The experience of this first year gives me light and strength in my efforts to straighten, to reform, and tactfully and patiently to make improvements in everything.  I feel I am under obedience in all things and I have noticed that this disposition, in great things and in small, gives me, unworthy as I am, a strength of daring simplicity.

Above all one must always be ready for the Lord’s surprise moves, for although he treats his loved ones well, he generally likes to test them with all sorts of trials such as bodily infirmities, bitterness of soul, and sometimes opposition so powerful as to transform and wear out the life of the servant of God, making it a real martyrdom.

Pope John loved to repeat what he called “the mystery of my life,” the words of Saint Gregory Nazianzen, “The will of God is our peace.”  In a homily on the feast of Pentecost, 1962, he inserted this prayer: “Let everything in us be on a grand scale: the search for truth and the devotion to it, readiness for self-sacrifice, even to the cross and death.”

The Journal of a Soul is a day-by-day chronicle of someone’s search for holiness in all life’s small details.  There is nothing dramatic and startling to be found in them.  The great spiritual breakthrough for Angelo Roncalli is an entry recorded early on, in 1903, when he was still a seminarian.

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 in mind the image of some saint whom I had set 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 Saint Aloysius would have done so and so, or: he would not do 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 no Saint 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 examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances.  If Saint Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way.

John XXIII, unlike his predecessor Pope Pius XII, was by background a member of the peasantry, not the nobility.  Many had written him off early on as a “chatter-box” and without depth or talent.  He was relegated for years to the hinterlands of papal diplomacy before being summoned to be nuncio to France after World War II.  Charles De Gaulle had demanded that Pope Pius XII purge the hierarchy of all the bishops who had collaborated with the Vichy regime.  Roncalli, who was very much on the sidelines during World War II, seemed a good choice to do the job and his appointment might even have been the Vatican’s reprimand of De Gaulle by sending him this unknown diplomat.  John knew his election as Pope at the age of seventy-seven made it appear the cardinals wanted only a transitional figure after the long pontificate of Pius XII.  He confided to his journal:

When on 28 October, 1958, the cardinals of the Holy Roman Church chose me to assume the supreme responsibility of ruling the universal flock of Jesus Christ, at seventy-seven years of age, everyone was convinced that I would be a provisional and transitional pope.  Yet, here I am already on the eve of the fourth year of my pontificate, with an immense program of work in front of me to be carried out before the eyes of the whole world, which is watching and waiting.

John’s spirituality of obedience to the will of God as the grounding for our peace is very much in keeping with Jesus’s words from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”


God our Father, the contradiction of the cross proclaims your infinite wisdom.  Help us to see that the glory of your Son is revealed in the suffering he freely accepted.  Give us faith to claim as our only glory the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, you gave us the Eucharist as a memorial of your suffering and death.  May our worship of this sacrament of your body and blood help us experience the salvation you have won for us and the peace of the Kingdom where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

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