Recalling the writings of John XXIII and John Paul II

Peter Costello examines two literary Popes

Already the shops are filling up with publications in anticipation of the canonisation of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II. But it ought to be recalled that they were themselves writers of some distinction, and that their own books are well worth exploring by anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the men, their lives, and their spirituality.

Just as they were very different Pontiffs, so they were each of them distinctive writers in different ways.  For instance, the ecclesiastical writings of John XXIII, important as they are, are not of the same character as the extracts from the journal he kept for many years of his life.

From his teens when he entered the seminary, he maintained a diary of spiritual reflections that was subsequently published as Journal of a Soul(Geoffrey Chapman, 1965). The book charts Roncalli's efforts as a young man to ‘grow in holiness’ and continues after his election to the papacy. When it was published after his death it became a world-wide best seller and was widely read. It is now out of print.

There is also Letters to his Family (Geoffrey Chapman, 1970), though that too is out of print. So too is Mission to France (London Chapman 1966). Aside from these two journals readers can make a good beginning in exploring the new saint’s thought through Jean Maalouf’s Pope John XXXII: The Essential Writings in the ‘Modern Spiritual Masters’ series (Orbis Books, €13.99/£11.99).

Yet oddly though early editions of these are still available on the internet, no new editions seems to be on offer at this moment, which seems strange. But then this is perhaps a reflection of the modern taste not for reading a writer, but merely reading about him.

It is the element of immediate contact with an individual mind and soul, unmediated by any other commentary that readers should try for.


Roncalli was a diplomat, albeit one of a special kind, as his work in Bulgaria, Turkey and France demonstrated. As did his efforts in rescuing imperilled Jews. Odd how we continued to hear of the supposed neglect of this issue by Pacelli, but never of Roncalli’s energetic efforts, which have led to calls for him to be numbered by Israel among the Righteous of the Nations.

John Paul II was a great contrast. It should not be forgotten that he was much involved with the theatre and with acting, Indeed he was the author of some five plays, of which The Jeweler’s Shop  is perhaps the best known. This is essential a dramatic meditation on the nature of married love. The Jeweler’s Shop is not in print, but is available online in the 1992 edition from Ignatius Press.

He also wrote three volumes of poetry, mostly in a meditative mode. It is perhaps significant that his thesis, The Acting Person (more correctly Personality and Action perhaps) is a philosophical examination of what it means to be human. Karol Wojtyla himself saw the book as a contribution to “thedisentangling of the conflicting issues facing man, which are crucial for man’s own clarification of his existence and direction of his conduct”.

These writings, in a more creative realm, though less familiar than his other writings as Pope, are essential to a full understanding of the man’s mind and spirit. They are as worthy of exploration as are the 14 encyclicals he wrote during his pontificate. A striking element in these writings is his attention to the nature and expression of love in its fullness, just as Pope XXIII’s seems to be the search for and preservation of  universal peace as a condition for full human growth.

The ideas of both men need exploring. They should not be reduced to a mere epitome, or even worse to a flaring headline. They were both deeply thoughtful and spiritual men, and they deserve a thoughtful approach on the part of their readers.

But it is a pity that the publishing industry seems content to provide more biographies and commentaries, rather than to reissue their own more personal writings.

(These writings can be consulted or borrowed from the Central Catholic Library, 74 Merrion Square, Dublin 2; tel: 01-676-1264.)