Visiting Bergamo and Sotto il Monte, the little village where Pope John XXIII was born, one understands deeply the importance of this great man for the citizens who live today in the places of Angelo Roncalli’s childhood.
Talking with the people it was evident from the first moment how they wanted to underline what the Pontiff still represents for them and in particular that John XXIII was much more than a good and affable man, but someone who changed history in just five years, from his election as Pope in 1958 to his death in 1963.
Sotto il Monte, which means under the mountain, is a small village close to Bergamo, one hour’s drive from Milan. It is a little community of 4,300 people and a place where you can find references to the Pope everywhere. It is easy to recognise Sotto il Monte because arriving from the main road there are Vatican flags, images and banners flying from the windows and along the streets.
Santo (Saint) is the word I saw over and over again, waiting for April 27 the town is getting ready to live this extraordinary event. In fact, some 20,000 pilgrims are expected to come to Sotto il Monte to celebrate the canonisation. In the meantime, there will be a special week of prayer, with a vigil on April 26.
Walking through Sotto il Monte I spoke to many people and I have always heard the same words: “John XXIII is one of us, we feel him here and we are proud of our beloved Pontiff.”
Trying to get an authentic profile of Roncalli, I met the parish priest of the village, Msgr Claudio Dolcini who told me his feelings and what it means being priest a in Sotto il Monte in this special moment.
“First of all, I always pray for John XXIII who venerated his priests, but I feel a big responsibility for this role. I have to preserve my parish because I want all the people coming here to live a real experience of faith and not just a touristic visit. I would like pilgrims to live the joy of meeting our Pope”.
Man of learning
Msgr Dolcini said that “Roncalli was a great pontiff for a lot of reasons: he was a man of learning and a wise person, he was a perfect diplomat thanks to his trips and experiences abroad.
“Despite his obligations and tasks, he always loved this village and for this reason every year he used to come back for three weeks, up until 1958 when he became Pope,” Msgr Dolcini said.
La Casa del Pellegrino, the House of Pilgrims, belongs to the John XXII Association. It was built in the 1970s and redeveloped in 2012. It aims to coordinate all activities for devotees, in particular those who decide to go on pilgrimage to Sotto il Monte.
It is the place where it is possible to find all the information and to arrange a tour around the places associated with Roncalli’s life. For many years, it was only John XXIII’s native home that was open to visitors. Now there are other points of interest to see like Cà Maitino, where the Pope spent his summer holiday, or the new Garden of Peace close to the church and the Oboedentia et Pax crypt.
The Mayor of the village is Eugenio Bolognini who is one of the many grandnephews of Angelo Roncalli. He told me that it John XXIII decided his grandnephew’s name and he chose Eugenio in honour of Pope Pius XII who had died few weeks beforehand.
Sotto il Monte’s name was actually changed in 1963 after Roncalli’s death becoming Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII to commemorate their great fellow citizen. In 2010 the village was honoured by being declared a city by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
In the last six years, Sotto il Monte has celebrated the 50th anniversary of Roncalli’s election as Pope in 2008 and in 2013 they commemorated the anniversary of his death. Strengthening the link with the papacy, the village was twinned with the hometown of Benedict XVI, Marktl am Inn, in 2009.
Mr Bolognini told The Irish Catholic he is working hard to ensure that John XXIII continues to be valued in the village: “We are not supported by [government] policy but in spite of this, we want to involve new generations, we want them to appreciate and study Roncalli’s life and for this reason we printed a comic strip which tells the main events and what John XXIII did. In the future we will try to increase the availability of hotels and restaurants to offer a better experience to pilgrims.”
In nearby Bergamo, I visited the John XXIII Foundation where all the Roncalli’s documents are conserved thanks to Cardinal Loris Capovilla who was his long-time secretary. Fr Ezio Bolis, the Foundation director, told me that they want to collect all the Pope’s writings. They also have more than 9,000 pictures of the Pontiff and are working hard to uncover papers that are as yet unpublished.
Fr Bolis explains the link: “I think that Bergamo is known throughout the world for Roncalli and it is natural this type of identification, there is a strong bond between the city and him.
“A new hospital and the seminary are dedicated to John XXIII and all the villages around Bergamo have a street named after him. We are trying to make young people more aware and for this reason we started to work closely with University of Bergamo and Pisa to introduce scholarships for research about John XXIII.”
Throughout Italy, ‘Papa Roncalli’ is still remembered fondly. His achievements in only five years as Pope were remarkable. He was the first to make pastoral visits to the parishes in his Diocese of Rome.
He went to prison to meet those who were incarcerated, and he decided to call the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
He was not, as many had predicted at the time of his election, a caretaker Pope. He continued the gradual reform of the Roman liturgy changing the Church and the history too.
In September 2000 he was declared ‘blessed’ by Pope John Paul II and on Sunday he will be declared a saint with that same John Paul II. For Italians, it is a fitting and natural epilogue for a man who had the courage and strength to change the world.