Journal of a Soul: A Book Review


In honor of Pope St. John XXIII’s recent canonization, Image Books has recently reissued the saint’s spiritual journals under the title Journal of a Soul: the Autobiography of Pope John XXIII.

John XXIII grew up in a poor family of 14 children in rural Italy.  His family was too poor to have even bread (they ate a corn mush instead), yet his mother always offered a place at their dinner table to beggars who came to the door.  He became a priest, served as a chaplain in World War I, and as a bishop in Eastern Europe, which enabled him to help Jews escape the Nazis during World War II.  During and after the war, as a Vatican diplomat, he negotiated the retirement of bishops who had cooperated with the Nazis.

Despite this extraordinary life which gave him a front seat to just about every major event in 20th century European history, when he was elected pope in 1958, his cardinal electors hoped he would be a “transitional pope,” which is Vatican code for “old pope who won’t cause trouble for any of us because he won’t live long enough.”

Image credit: Vatican Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John XXIII didn’t live long as pope (he contracted stomach cancer in 1962), but he did shake things up during his 4 1/2 years in Rome.  Among his accomplishments were removing anti-Semitic language from the liturgy, receiving the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Vatican for the first time since the Protestant Reformation, and initiating the Second Vatican Council, which was one of the most important religious events in modern history.

Journal of a Soul is a marvelous book, but I need to begin my review with a disclaimer.  The title is completely misleading; this book is not an autobiography.  When I requested this book from Blogging for Books, I was expecting something along the lines of Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which was intended for a general audience.

Instead, this book is a compilation of the private journals St. John XXIII began as a teenage seminarian and continued throughout his entire life.  He lived a long and active life and was a very prolific diarist.  The book also contains many of his written prayers, personal letters, notes he made towards an autobiography, several apostolic letters, and his last will and testament.  In other words, this is a tome.  This book would be invaluable to a papal biographer or Vatican historian, but it was next to impossible for me to read it quickly in order to write a review.  This book would be best digested over a long period of time, such as reading one or two entries at night before bed.

That said, as slow, spiritual reading, I highly recommend it.  It’s quite amazing to read this examination of conscience of an earnest 16-year-old seminarian:

I have let my thoughts wander, especially during Vespers; I have given way to the languor that the hot weather brings.  In a word, I find that I am still at the very beginning of the journey which I have undertaken, and this makes me feel ashamed.  I thought I could have been a saint by this time, and instead I am still as miserable as before.

As a 33-year-old military chaplain during World War I:

Tomorrow I leave to take up my military service in the Medical Corps.  Where will they send me?  To the front perhaps?  Shall I ever return to Bergamo, or has the Lord decreed that my last hour shall be on the battlefield?  I know nothing: all I want is the will of God in all things and at all times, and to work for his glory in total self-sacrifice.

As a 58-year-old bishop in Turkey:

Every evening from the window of my room, here in the Residence of the Jesuit Fathers, I seen an assemblage of boats on the Bosporus; they come round from the Golden Horn in tens and hundreds; they gather at a given rendezvous and then they light up…These lights glow all night and one can hear the cheerful voices of the fishermen.


I find the sight very moving.  The other night, towards one o’clock, it was pouring with rain but the fishermen were still there, undeterred from their heavy toil.


Oh how ashamed we should feel, we priests, ‘fishers of men,’ before such an example! …What a vision of work, zeal and labour for the souls of men to set before our eyes! …We must do as the fishermen of the Bosporus do, work night and day with our torches lit, each in his own little boat.

As a 79-year-old pope:

Above all, one must always be ready for the Lord’s surprise moves, for although he treats his loved ones well, he generally likes to test them with all sorts of trials such as bodily infirmities, bitterness of soul and sometimes opposition so powerful as to transform and wear out the life of the servant of God, the life of the servant of the servants of God, making it a real martyrdom.

At age 80, shortly before his cancer diagnosis:

I await the arrival of Sister Death and will welcome her simply and joyfully in whatever circumstances it will please the Lord to send her.

I think this book might be more accessible to us common readers if it were issued in volumes.  For example, the first volume, containing St. John XXIII’s youthful journals could be very inspiring to teens serious about the spiritual life or considering the priesthood.  Later journals would be interesting to anyone studying 20th century European history, and everyone would be inspired by his journals, prayers, and letters written when he was pope.

There are so many gems in this book that I am tempted to go over my 500 word copyright limit on quotes in a blog post!  I’m going to close with one last one, from a farewell letter to his family explaining that he does not have the means to support them financially.

I am well aware that you have to bear certain mortifications from people who like to talk nonsense.  To have a Pope in the family, a Pope regarded with respect by the whole world, who yet permits his relations to go on living so modestly, in the same social condition as before! …At my death I shall not lack the praise which did so much honour to the saintly Pius X: ‘He was born poor and died poor.’ …


I bless you all, remembering with you all the brides who have come to rejoice [in our] family…and oh the children, the children, what a wealth of children and what a blessing!


Thanks to Blogging for Books, which provided a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for this review.