(CNS) When the freshly named patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angelo G. Roncalli, chose 37-year old Father Loris F. Capovilla as his personal secretary in 1953, a skeptical adviser told the cardinal that the priest looked too sickly to bear the strain of his new job.
"Then he'll die as my secretary," replied the future pope, now known as Blessed John XXIII.
Today, at age 96, now-Archbishop Capovilla has outlived his employer by nearly half a century, but remains an indefatigable custodian of his legacy. Here in Blessed John's birthplace, about 25 miles northeast of Milan, the archbishop pursues a highly active retirement that includes running a museum dedicated to the small town's most famous native son.
While keeping up with current events, Archbishop Capovilla draws on his remarkable memory to recount vividly detailed and revealing stories of his years with one of the most consequential figures in modern Catholic history.
The archbishop was privy to some of the pope's first remarks, only a few days after his election in 1958, about what would become the Second Vatican Council.
Cardinals and bishops had presented the new pontiff with a litany of challenges before the church -- "not doctrinal but pastoral problems," the archbishop notes -- in areas that included the liturgy, diplomacy, and the education and discipline of priests.
"My desk is piling up with problems, questions, requests, hopes," Blessed John told his secretary. "What's really necessary is a council."
Though the pope mentioned the idea more than once, his secretary refused to comment. Finally the pope gave his interpretation of the priest's silence.
"You think I am old," Blessed John told him. "You think I'll make a mess out of this enormous task, that I don't have time. ... But that's not how you think with faith. ... If one can only begin with the preparatory commission, that will be of great merit. If one dies, another will come. It is a great honor even to begin."
Whatever doubts he may have had at the outset, Archbishop Capovilla came to appreciate the council's historic importance and to play a part in it behind the scenes.
It was the archbishop, in his own telling, who persuaded a reluctant and tired Blessed John to step to a window and bless the crowd in St. Peter's Square on the night of Oct. 11, 1962, following the council's first day. In now-famous remarks, the pope went on to bid the people: "Now go back home and give your little children a kiss -- tell them it is from Pope John."
Blessed John, who had earlier represented the Holy See as a diplomat in both Orthodox and Muslim lands, had a special appreciation of the church's global character and responsibilities, Archbishop Capovilla says.
The pope greatly admired the United States, especially for its racial and cultural diversity, and explicitly looked to the American-sponsored United Nations as a source of inspiration for Vatican II, Archbishop Capovilla says.
The archbishop also recalls that Blessed John received a letter from the Anglo-American poet Thomas Merton, then a Trappist monk in Kentucky, urging the pope to include an ecumenical dimension in the council. In fact, Vatican II would be the first council of the church to include Protestants as guests.
The pope was a master of modern communication in a personal, popular style that broke with papal tradition just in time for the television age.
When a cardinal complained that due to a recent rise in Vatican salaries a mere usher earned as much as he did, Blessed John remarked: "That usher has 10 children; I hope the cardinal doesn't."
The pope's ebullience was evident even in moments ordinarily governed by the strictest protocol. Receiving Queen Elizabeth II of England, with whom he conversed in French, the pope asked her to say her children's names aloud, "because children's names acquire a particular sweetness on a mother's lips."
The pope gave his secretary a lesson in communication when commenting on a speech by then-Cardinal Giovanni Montini of Milan, who would eventually succeed him as Pope Paul VI.
"He's used to speaking to intellectuals, he doesn't look at who's in front of him," the pope said. "Remember when you speak, if there are children present, as soon as you see the children start to swing their legs, it means they're tired. And adults are children, too; they listen for a quarter-hour or 20 minutes, that's it."
For all the changes that Blessed John ushered into the church, and notwithstanding arguments that his reign marked a radical break with the past, Archbishop Capovilla says that the pope saw himself as acting in full continuity with Catholicism's millennial teachings and traditions.
"Precisely because he was a great conservative," the archbishop says, "he was able to bring the world a message of love, of hope and of faith.