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VATICAN LETTER Jun-8-2012 (690 words) Backgrounder. With photos posted June 8 and May 4. xxxi
Blessed John XXIII's hometown was a school of humility and hard work
By Francis X. Rocca
Catholic News Service
SOTTO IL MONTE GIOVANNI XXIII, Italy (CNS) -- When Blessed John XXIII met Queen Elizabeth II of England at the Vatican in 1961, the pope departed from Apostolic Palace protocol by inviting the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, inside his library for an unplanned chat.
"When I was a boy, in the courtyard of my house, we poor peasants would speak of your ancestor, the Queen-Empress Victoria," the pope told his guest. "Yesterday evening I thought, 'Tomorrow the son of peasants receives her descendant.'"
As recalled by the late pontiff's personal secretary, Archbishop Loris F. Capovilla, Blessed John's remark epitomizes the disarmingly humble yet charismatic personal style he brought to papacy. The comment also reflects the importance he placed throughout his life on his modest upbringing in a village about 25 miles northeast of Milan.
Archbishop Loris Capovilla, 96, personal secretary of Blessed John XXIII, holds his rosary during an interview at his residence in Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII. The archbishop pursues a highly active retirement that includes running a museum dedicated to the small town's most famous native son. (CNS/Paul Haring)
"I come from the country, from poverty," said Blessed John. "Happy and blessed poverty -- not cursed, not endured -- happy and blessed."
The fourth of 13 children in a family of sharecroppers, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born on Nov. 25, 1881. That same day, he was taken to be baptized in nearby St. Mary's Church, where almost 23 years later, the newly ordained Father Angelo said his first Mass.
"St. Mary's has been the place where we grew in the love of the Lord," he later recalled. "In this church, we laid the foundation that led us to the highest ministry."
The house where Blessed John was born, preserved today as a pilgrimage site and museum, was shared with other families and built around a common courtyard, which served as a storage area for farm tools, hay and corn. The dwellings doubled as stables, and the bedroom where his mother gave birth was sometimes used for raising silkworms.
"The people here give the impression of being a bit rough," says Archbishop Capovilla, who has lived in Sotto il Monte for 23 years. "They aren't ceremonious; they are industrious."
Local members of the Roncalli clan today number more than 200, the archbishop says, including his personal physician and the town's mayor, both grand-nephews of the late pope.
Blessed John remained devoted to his family as he progressed through a distinguished career as a Vatican diplomat. While serving as papal nuncio to France in the 1940s and early 1950s, he wrote to his younger brother Giuseppe, a father of 10 children, to console him on the accidental death of his wife.
"Here I am in this great Paris, where everything astonishes, everything is great and beautiful," the future pope wrote, "but every day I think of my brothers or nephews, with their backs bared, bent over the furrows, to water the soil with their sweat."
After more than five years as patriarch of Venice, then-Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope on Oct. 28, 1958. He never visited his hometown again but willed that his birthplace become the site of a seminary for missionaries.
Today, the seminary complex includes a chapel with relics of the late pope, who was beatified in the year 2000, and rooms full of votive offerings from those who have had prayers answered thanks to his intercession. An entire room is dedicated to a display of pink and blue ribbons and baby pictures, brought by once-infertile couples who had children after praying to Blessed John.
Pilgrims and tourists can also visit a museum housed in a mansion on property once belonging to the Roncalli family. The curator of the collection is Archbishop Capovilla, who at the age of 96 continues to serve as chief custodian of Blessed John's legacy.
Among the museum's exhibits are personal objects and vestments of Blessed John, and the bed where he died at the Vatican on June 3, 1963. Gifts from world leaders and documents from the Second Vatican Council attest to the late pope's momentous role in 20th-century history. Yet none of this display detracts from the holy simplicity that he continues to embody for millions.
"Remember, it's not nobility of birth -- being a count or marquis -- or wealth that benefits a person," Blessed John once wrote, "but industry, honesty and the Gospel, learned and lived.
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