Br Barry Coldrey

The Autobiography of Pope John XXIII
(Image Books, 1980, 453pp, Softcover, $39.95, ISBN: 978-0-385-49754-7)

by Meriol Trevor
(Gracewing, 2000, 329pp, Softcover, $24.95, ISBN: 978-0-85244-480. Books available from Freedom Publishing)

During the 20th century and into the third millennium, the Church has been blessed with a series of exceptional popes, two of whom (John Paul II and John XXIII) have recently been canonised.

Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli), the Pope of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), was unusually well-known to contemporaries, during and after Vatican II, but less well-known at the present time perhaps because he has been overshadowed by his charismatic successors, notably St John Paul II and Pope Francis.

The title, Journal of a Soul is evocative of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the "Little Flower", whose autobiography was entitled The Story of A Soul. It is appropriate Pope John was at the same time such a simple man like Saint Thérèse's "little ones living the little way". In fact this Pope was devoted to Saint Thérèse.

Journal of a Soul makes for inspiring reading, covering as it does the pope's thoughts, tracing his spiritual development through adolescence, the seminary, priesthood, a European papal diplomat, Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, and finally as Pope John XXIII.

This particular edition features a brief but apt biographical sketch of the Pope by his personal secretary, Monsignor Loris Capovilla. It also includes several of his most moving prayers, sixty brief thoughts and aphorisms, his "Rules for the Ascetic Life", many of his letters, and even his last will and testament.

A London reviewer remarked that many Christians – not merely Catholics - will welcome this new edition of "one of the most original, interesting, and inspiring revelations of intimate personal experiences ever written" which "ranks well with the classic spiritual autobiographies".

Pope John was modest and humble. His love for God and concern for people are demonstrated in equal measure. It was often remarked by contemporaries that he "humanised" the papacy and was supportive of the ecumenical movement in its early days and in the context of Vatican II.

His Journal describes how he evolved from a devout religious young man from a peasant background to an ecumenical leader. He served in the Vatican Diplomatic Service in Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece (where there are few Catholics) and this broadened his view of other religious traditions. And, of course, Pope John called the Second Vatican Council and presided over its life-giving transformation of the Church as it faced the modern world.

The Journal and Meriol Trevor's biography are enhanced by a range of black and white photos. Both books, however, were written and published prior to the advent of digital technology and the photos – developed from old originals – are of lesser quality; but the reader benefits in spite of this, in accord with the old adage that "a picture tells more than a thousand words".

The second book reviewed here, a biography of Angelo Roncalli (Pope John XXIII), was written by the late Meriol Trevor.

She received her secondary education at a private school in Cambridge and her university degree at St Hugh's College, Oxford. She emerged from a non-religious background to become a Catholic in 1950 at the age of thirty one.

Over time she developed as a professional and prolific writer and was one of the most prominent English Catholic authors of her generation. This biography was a work of her maturity after she had already written major studies of St Philip Neri and King James II.

Her biography of Pope John XXIII is thoroughly researched and a welcome reprint.

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