PETER NOLAN reviews 'I will be called John' by Lawrence Elliott, published by Collins at £3.50 — Sergeant Roncalli, called up when the Italian Army fought Austria in 1915, noticed that one of his men still remained in camp on a free day, "Why didn't you go into town with the others?" he asked. The man replied: "But, sergeant, you gave me three days confinement to barracks," "Yes, yes," said the future Pope John, "but I only meant at night. In the daytime you are free to go."
This story is one of -the many told about the Pope in the latest biography by the American author Lawrence Elliott, "I Will' be Called John" (Collins, £3.50) commissioned by thc Reader's Digest, to be published this week.
Mr. Elliott has managed to add much [sew fascinating detail in describing the life of the Pope in his book, deservedly praised in a foreword by Senator Edward Kennedy as "a sensitive and affectionate study."
It is clear from the account of the Conclave that chose him, which lasted more than three days, that Cardinal Roncalli was by no means the first choice of his peers gathered in the Sistine. Chapel. Nor did he expect to be chosen. Leaving Venice, of which he was Patriarch, for the Conclave, he had to pass through his concierge's flat. This was because the main entrance of his palace was closed For renovation work.
"Perhaps this is the last time I shall have to disturb you," he remarked to the concierge. But suddenly aware of the significance of these words, he quickly added: "No, no — it is that the repairs will be finished when I return,"
Not only did Pope John have the appearance of a peasant (he once observed of himself, looking in a mirror: "Oh Lord, this man is going to be a disaster on television,"). he came of truly peasant stock.
John was the first son after three daughters. His father worked an eight-acre farm with four cows as a tenant farmer under Count Morlani. John later acted as one of the guarantors for hi a father's mortgage when he bought the land.
Years later, as Pope, he recalled his father, "with a flash of that tender humour that linked him to all men and all faiths." He said: "There are three ways of ruining oneself — women, gambling and farming. Mv father chose the most baring." , The intelligence which was first noticed by his parish priest, who arranged further education for him, was not always so admired by his schoolmates. A visiting inspector asked the class which weighed more, a ton of iron or a ton of straw.
After his classmates had finished yelling "the iron," John replied: "They weigh the same, a ton is a ton," A school friend later recalled: "The inspector praised him, But we beat him up."
Bergamo, in Lombardy, where John entered a junior seminary, has been called "the most Catholic city in Italy." In some respects it may have differed little from home, where the day began with his mother leading the Angelus at 5 a.m.
The year he was ordained, Fr. Roncalli became secretary to Bishop Radini-Tedeschi of Bergamo, one of the originators of Catholic Social Action in Italy, who was to have a profound influence_on him and whom he described as "the polar star of my priesthood."
His new superior backed a strike by underpaid metalworkers, seeing they did not starve — a very courageous action for that period. Travelling with his bishop to the Holy Land, then under the Turks, Fr. Roncalli showed his talent for journalism and human perception when he described the trip for a Bergamo paper. "The road between Nazareth and Cana is something horrible," he wrote. "For us Italians it would harally be acceptable as a rural path, and to think that the poor people here pay ten times what it is worth.
"But we are under the Turks here, don't forget, and the Turkish government knows all about extortion and incredible injustice, but nothing about roads."
In Bergamo, Fr. Roncalli opened a cheap hostel for students. He placed a full-length mirror on the stairway and above it the injunction: "Know Thyself."
A story is told that once a rather unkempt student squinted at the sign and asked: "What does that mean?" From behind him came Roncalli's brisk reply: "You need a haircut.
Later Fr. Roncalli was asked to help make Propaganda Fide a Vatican-centred organisation, a task calling for much tact in dealings with ,national mis
sionary societies, which he successfully accomplished.
Named Domestic Prelate to the Pope for the purpose, his new purple impressed those in his native village Of Sotto II Monte.
His sister Marianna, asked if he was a bishop, and not really knowing what his new garb meant, told inquirers: "Oh, you know how it is. Priests arrange these things among themselves," Mgr. Roncalli all his life set
time aside to receive Bergamo priests — often unworldly men who felt themselves lost in a backwater and forgotten.. To one who was unshaven, he handed a razor. remarking: "It's an extra one — I just happen to have come across it. Perhaps you can use it, Reverendo."
To another "whose collar was nearly as dark as his habit," he gave some collars. "They've got too tight for me Reverend°, but ought to fit you nicely." His biographer observes: "Rarely was the unspoken message lost."
Mussolini went to much trouble coming to terms with the Church in his early years, and official Vatican policy did not condemn him.
But in a letter to his tainily, Mgr. Roncalli wrote: "I cannot find it in my conscience as a Christian and a priest to vote for the F,ds.cists. Everyone has the right to vote as he thinks hest.
"in the end we shall see who was right. You must do as you wish. My advice would be as follows: to vote for the Popular list if there is a free vote. If instead there is a risk of' reprisals, then stay at home and leave things alone."
The head of the "Popular" list. Alcide de Gasperi, was later imprisoned by Mussolini. Released and hunted again, he found shelter in. the Vatican, later to emerge as leader of the Christian Democrats.
(al further article appears next week.)