The last words of John XXIII
Among the admirers of John XXIII is the Father-Moderator who runs a well known, if controversial, website. A reason for this seems to be Pope Roncalli's encyclical Veterum Sapientia defending the use of Latin in the Church. But the late Fr Wathen did mention very briefly in his book Who Shall Ascend, that this same encyclical also makes allowances for the use of the vernacular. Furthermore, Father-Moderator has told his readers, at least once, as far as I am concerned, that Pope Roncalli's last words were: Stop the Council! This doesn't seem to be quite correct if you read this:


Harold Steinberg, reply by Hannah Arendt
September 16, 1965 Issue

In response to:
The Christian Pope from the June 17, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

Before Hannah Arendt’s enthusiasm for Pope John’s last words gains
too much currency, permit me to point out that the quotation she
attributes to his dying breath and bed was actually uttered when he was
quite hale, and getting around in his customary manner. He said, “Any
day is a good day to be born, and any day is a good day to die,” on his
eighty-first birthday, November 25, 1962, during an early morning visit
to the Pontifical College in Rome.

It might have been more fitting for him to have turned this epigram
on his dying day, in keeping with Miss Arendt’s perspective. But it
seems that in Pope John’s view, the celebration of his birthday was a
much more appropriate time.

Harold Steinberg
New York City

Hannah Arendt replies:
Mr. Steinberg is mistaken. Pope John was a sick man on his eighty-first birthday. He himself had noticed in
his “body the beginning of some trouble” as early as November 1961. His secretary gives September 23, 1962 as the date for “first signs of the disease.” In November of the same year when his birthday came along, it was generally known that he suffered from cancer of the intestines.

Hence the word quoted by me, certainly repeated on his death-bed since the whole press reported it as such at the time, was phrased in the anticipation of death. Its biographical significance lies in the
untimely moment of his death. He had prepared himself for it at least since 1948 when he entered his sixty-eighth year, but now with so much work undone he would have preferred to live. In his own eyes, this was
certainly the “great affliction of body and spirit” (my italics) which he had expected.

I thank Dr. ten Kortenaar for his kind words and the clarification of the Joseph story. I think the lack of “marked intellectual or scholarly interest” shows quite clearly in the Journal, and I had noticed
it before I read the various biographies in some of which this is also stressed. But whether or not this is “partly legendary”—I still doubt it—I never meant to say that Pope John was unaware of the issues and it
never occurred to me to settle him with “peasant shrewdness.” On the contrary, I am convinced of the man’s very keen intelligence, functioning on a very high level of thought. Pope John’s intelligence
showed in that he always, unfailingly, went to the heart of the matter under consideration, be it spiritual or practical. And this ability to hit the nail on the head is not very widespread among either scholars or
intellectuals, inside and outside the theological faculty.


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