Journey of a soul: Teachers discover Pope St. John XXIII

Seeking insight into their school’s namesake, educators from Roncalli High School in Indianapolis make an annual pilgrimage to Italy. They spend 10 days following in the footsteps of Angelo Roncalli, better known as Pope St. John XXIII. Each year, they gain insight into the life of the pope who called the Second Vatican Council.

Roncalli educators have had the chance to meet with several people who personally knew Pope John XXIII, to celebrate Mass at his tomb in the Vatican and to visit the tomb of St. Francis, the place Pope John went to pray on the eve of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962. The most recent group made the journey in April.

The idea for the Roncalli pilgrimage was born in 2009 when Roncalli High School’s principal, Chuck Weisenbach, who attends the pilgrimage every year, made his own pilgrimage. It inspired him to bring other Roncalli faculty, and each year since, he has accompanied a small group to Italy. A total of 27 educators have participated over the years.

Drawing inspiration from their namesake

Weisenbach spoke with Our Sunday Visitor at the end of the first day of the current school year.

He said that, as always, the incoming freshman received a short instruction on the life of Pope St. John XXIII. They learned about a man of joy, deep peace and relentless optimism.

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John XXIII’s diary, which would serve as the basis of his memoir, “Journal of a Soul” (Image, $19.95), on display. Courtesy photo

A favorite St. John quote for many Roncalli school educators is, “Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”

The school has outlined nine charisms of St. John — welcoming, simple, kind, peaceful, humble, humorous, servant, holy and inspired change. Those charisms are listed in the hallways, where many portraits of the former pope also hang. Every Friday, they pray to the saint and play the audio of a papal blessing given by him at the Vatican. They celebrate his feast day, Oct. 11, the anniversary of the opening of the first session of Vatican II, with cake.

Salutatorian of the Class of 2016, Emily Barron, wove the nine charisms through her graduation speech. She said the class had already begun displaying eight, and encouraged her classmates to make the final one their next mission.

“Now it is time for us to finish our mission as Roncalli Rebels and make sure to carry out Pope John XXIII’s last charism in the future: inspire change,” she said.

Walking in Roncalli’s footsteps

On the trip, pilgrims travel to St. John’s former residence in Sotto il Monte (which means “under the mountain”), in the Italian province of Bergamo. They tour the home where he was born, the church where he was baptized and the seminary where he was educated as a young boy and later taught as a young priest.

John XXIII
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Born Nov. 25, 1881, Sotto il Monte, Italy

Pilgrims reported feeling humbled while touring the small farmhouse where he and his 13 siblings were raised. Pope John XXIII was known to quip, “Italians come to ruin most generally in three ways: women, gambling and farming. My family chose the slowest one.”

Pope St. John’s former residence holds many artifacts from his life: the journals he began writing at the age of 11, autographed original encyclicals and many photographs. From floor to ceiling, the archive room is stacked with documents from his life that he left in the care of Cardinal Loris Capovilla, Pope St. John’s secretary and confidante, whom pilgrims have had the privilege to meet. A centenarian during the visit this past April, Cardinal Capovilla passed away just eight weeks later on May 26 — the day of Roncalli High School’s graduation.

Weisenbach said of Capovilla, “He had such a love for John XXIII and was able to communicate that not only in his words, but his spirit was filled with it.”

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Capovilla served as Roncalli’s secretary before Roncalli became pope. The cardinal would tell visitors that the first words John XXIII said to him after the election to the papacy were, “Nothing changes.” After recounting the humble statement, Capovilla would point to his heart, as he often did when speaking of Pope St. John. Cardinal Capovilla told them about the evening before the start of Vatican II, saying that Pope John was calm and in constant prayer. He anticipated that the council would cause friction and that many would feel like there had been a huge upheaval in the Church. He asked the Lord for patience for himself, for the cardinals and for all Catholics throughout the world.

“You would be hard pressed to be in that room and not have tears,” Weisenbach said. He and other educators said Cardinal Capovilla possessed many of the same traits St. John is famous for. They called him welcoming, humble, passionate, humorous and remarkably spry for his age.

Bringing the pilgrimage home

Roncalli teachers attest that the pilgrimage changes the way they teach day to day. Michelle Roberts, who teaches special education, said that when she returned from Italy, she wanted to give her senior students the opportunity to experience their faith in a new way.

For years, she had wanted to include them in the intense, three-day overnight senior retreat but was not sure how to incorporate her students without overwhelming them. The trip inspired her to have them participate in the final day of the retreat — sometimes in the planned activities and other times in events organized for them. The students were thrilled to be included, and they wore their retreat crosses at school the next day with a sense of pride, she said.

“They teach me about acceptance and faith. There’s a simplicity that comes with what they have been given,” she said. “They aren’t questioning. They believe.”

Kim Buckley, an English teacher and alumna of Roncalli school, said that the pilgrimage inspired her to incorporate more prayer into her classes.

She spends more time asking her students about their prayer lives, encouraging them to be honest about what their struggles and strengths are. She gives them assignments to write a prayer or journal about their relationship with God. She wants to teach her students that being an active part of a faith community begins when they are young.

She also speaks directly about Angelo Roncalli. She called Pope St. John XXIII an “active member of the school community” who has inspired her. What did she learn?

“He was a real person who lived his faith well,” she said. “Everyone can do that.”

Christine Williams writes from Massachusetts.