November 26, 2001

The Legacy of John XXIII


A reddish sun was setting over the waters that washed the glittering coasts of Istanbul. From an elevated viewpoint, not far from Palace Topkapi, a man of strong complexion looked fascinated by the wonder of dusk. There was no sign of pleasure in his heart, but anguish instead. He half-closed his eyes to see the remoteness and send his blessing to a fragile ship of Jewish refugees that at that moment was escaping from Nazi persecution and pretended to enter Palestine that was closed by the United Kingdom. Humanity had increased its monstrous practices, by persecuting and killing with abominable speed.

He remembered that, when he had arrived to Turkey in 1934 as apostolic delegate, he did not even imagined that he was to become an engine of rescue, that would be seen as the last hope of thousands, that would bombard Nuncios from other countries and overwhelm the Vatican’s Secretary of State and even the Holy Father himself with his help demands.

Monsignor Angello Giuseppe Roncalli had been born on November, 1881, near Bergamo, yesterday it was exactly 120 years, in a family of rustic farmworkers. He entered the seminar during his puberty, and in 1904 he had a Ph.D. in Theology and became a priest. He continued his studies with great determination and worked for nine years at the secretariat of the episcopacy in Bergamo, where he acquired a vast experience of social miseries. During the First World War he was chaplain. Later he was called to Rome and after that he was sent to Bulgaria as an apostolic representative. There, he had an interest in knowing deeply the oriental churches; his remarkable activity promoted him to Nuncio to Greece and Turkey, where he spent the years of the Second World War.

In 1944 he was transferred to Paris, after that he acted as first permanent observer of the Holy See to UNESCO and in 1953 he was appointed Cardinal and Patriarch of Venice, a title with which he was hoping would put an end to his career. But in 1958 the most unexpected event took place: he was chosen Pope. He adopted the name of John XXIII in homage to the youngest and most appreciated of the apostles, and because the Popes with that name had had short periods; he was already 76 years old. But a short period of five years was enough to prove wrong those who considered him a transition character.

In his first speech he showed a deep interest in Christians separated and world peace. In less than three months he put into practice the works of the transcendental Second Vatican Council. He signed two encyclicals that made history: Mater et Magistra and Pacem in terris. He changed the aggiornamento and created in church a renovation and exemplifying atmosphere which astonished everyone.

The hero’s works

He was called the Good Pope, but more than good he was coherent and possessor of an impressive courage. When I had the luck to be at his side in Castelgandolfo, as a member of a medical delegation, I could perceive his simplicity, resolution and kindheartedness, things that I will never forget.

He is admired by how much he did as a Pope, but little is known about his previous merits. In those secret and risky works his heart was on fire. He went through gloomy corridors that taught him to be expedite and convincing. He met the separated brothers and knew the persecuted Jews closely. He knew them so well, and understood the tragedy of their millenary story in such a vibrating way, that he wrote a poem in which he accused anti-Semites of carrying the infamous sign of Cain. It was him who abolished the absurd accusation of the killing of god and inaugurated a dialogue that does not stop growing.

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation inaugurated a campaign for the acknowledgement of the humanitarian actions carried out by Nuncio Roncalli during the Second World War. The launching of this action took place at the Permanente Mission of the Holy See to the UN, with the attendance of Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

The historic research of the actions he put into practice during the sinister years of the Holocaust had already began. It is the less known part of his biography. He kept close contact with the Zionists’ leaders in Palestine and intervened to diverse personalities expressing that he considered fair the right of the Jews to return to the Holy Land in order to get his independence in their ancestral native soil.

Dark times

Although he was Nuncio to the governments of Greece and Turkey, he took care of the victims who appeared everywhere. Hannah Arendt, in her book Men in dark times tells that when the war started the German ambassador Franz von Pappen asked him to intervene to Rome so that the Holy See could provide an explicit support to Hitler. His answer was: ”And what am I supposed to say about the millions of Jews that your fellow countrymen are killing in Poland and Germany?”

In 1940 he received Polish refugees who told him about what was going on in his fatherland; he took note of what they told him and then he helped them travel to the Holy Land. He became interested in the Jews of France and asked for the intervention of that country’s Nuncio. He did his best to rescue 20,000 Jews from Slovakia in danger to be deported to the death fields. He intervened in Croatia. He begged King Boris of Bulgaria to grant clemency to the threatened Jews. In 1943 he took care of the Jews from northern Italy, whom he considered his fellow countrymen. He asked the commitment of Rumania’s Nuncio to prevent the tragedy of the Jews settled there and, personally, rescued hundreds of orphans. He also achieved that the Rumanian government allowed the departure of a ship chartered by Turkey to the Holy Land with 1,500 persecuted people. He got involved in Hungary when the Nazi occupation had just started.

Two extraordinary initiatives have to be added to that feverished activity. One of them is the delivery to the Archbishop of Budapest, Angelo Rotta, by means of the Vatican’s secret mail, of thousands of ”immigration certificates” to Palestine. With this instrument he could save countless lives. They were passports or nationality certificates issued by neutral countries, often Latin American countries, which were delivered at no charge by diplomats of noble spirit or were bought to corrupt consular officials.

The second initiative were the ”convenience baptism” certificates. It was an audacious invention of Roncalli which was in the limit of being illegal to Cannon Law. But there were no limits due to the urgency of helping crowds condemned to the gas chambers. Thousands of children, women and men who went through baptism ceremonies which did not bind them definitively, but that Nazis, in their arbitrary theoretic constructions, recognized as a credential which allowed them to leave the country.

Years later, when he was a Pope, he received representatives of Jewish communities from all over the world. He descended from the throne, arms open, and he reproduced one the most touching scenes from the bible. With tears running down his cheeks he exclaimed: ”I am Joseph, your brother!” when inaugurating the Second Vatican Council, though there were no diplomatic relations with Israel, he asked that the flag of that country were present at Saint Peter’s Square.

His tenacious and determined commitment with those suffering, his broadmindedness and his prophetic vision explain the coherence of a life and a work. Humanity still has a lot to learn from that marvelous apostolate.

LA NACION | Copyright 2001 | All rights reserved