August 21, 2009

A journey touched by God: Roncalli principal follows in the footsteps of school’s namesake

To mark his 25 years at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, principal Chuck Weisenbach traveled to Italy this summer to learn more about the life of Angelo Roncalli—the peasant boy who grew up to become Pope John XXIII. Weisenbach stands near a bronzed statue of Pope John XXIII that was erected in front of the home where Angelo Roncalli was born. (Submitted photo)

To mark his 25 years at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, principal Chuck Weisenbach traveled to Italy this summer to learn more about the life of Angelo Roncalli—the peasant boy who grew up to become Pope John XXIII. Weisenbach stands near a bronzed statue of Pope John XXIII that was erected in front of the home where Angelo Roncalli was born. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Thousands of miles from his Indiana home on a recent summer day, Chuck Weisenbach sat in an outdoor café in a small Italian village, marveling at how his journey had once again been “touched by God.”

Part of that feeling came from sharing the trip to Italy with his wife of 25 years, Jane, who sat across the table from him.

And part of it came from having spent the morning visiting the humble home of one of the great heroes of his life—a peasant boy who grew up to become one of the most loved and influential leaders that the world and the Church has known.

For three weeks this summer, Weisenbach and his wife traveled through France and Italy, following part of the life journey of Blessed Pope John XXIII, a man whose concern for and constant outreach to all people is captured in one of Weisenbach’s favorite stories.

The story takes place long before he became pope, when he was Msgr. Angelo Roncalli serving as a papal diplomat in Turkey in the 1930s and ’40s. In the incident, Weisenbach says, a number of Jewish people had been detained by the Germans, who wanted the Jews to be transferred to a concentration camp.

“Roncalli fought desperately for that not to happen,” says Weisenbach, a 1979 graduate of Roncalli High School. “He eventually won that diplomatic tug of war.”

A blend of pride and humility resonates in Weisenbach’s voice as he shares that story. It’s the pride and humility of a person who has worked at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis for 25 years, a person who has been its principal for the past 15 years.

Two journeys touched by God

For years, Weisenbach has longed to travel to Italy to follow in the footsteps of the man whose name graces the archdiocesan high school on the south side of Indianapolis.

The dream became a reality this summer thanks to an $8,000 creativity grant that Lilly Endowment Inc. provides for teachers and school administrators. Weisenbach applied for the grant in 2008, 50 years after Cardinal Roncalli became pope in 1958.

“I had always been impressed when I read about his life,” Weisenbach says. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to go to the places where he lived and try to find out as much as we could about the man?’ ”

The trip into Pope John XXIII’s past led Weisenbach and his wife back to the beginning, to the small Italian village of Sotto il Monte where he was born in 1881, the third of 13 children in a family of sharecroppers.

The couple visited the home where Angelo Roncalli lived, and the church where he was baptized, became an altar boy and first thought of becoming a priest.

“The simplicity of his life comes through in that church,” Weisenbach says. “If you read about him, all he wanted to be was a simple country priest. That’s the way he defined himself. But God had different plans for him.

“I am fascinated that God put his hand on a little boy from a small, remote village who came from a peasant family to become one of the most revered, loved and respected persons of his time and in our Church’s entire modern history.”

While Weisenbach believes that Pope John’s life was touched by God, he had the same feeling about his journey, especially when he and his wife traveled to Venice where then-Cardinal Roncalli served as cardinal-patriarch.

“We were in Venice on a Saturday night and we stopped to visit St. Stefano Church,” Weisenbach recalls. “Mass had just ended. There were just three or four people in the church. We went up to the priest and his English was pretty good. He recalled that Roncalli enjoyed coming to St. Stefano. I told him what we were doing, and he was fascinated.

“The next day, we were deciding where to go to Mass. We ended up back at St. Stefano. After Mass, I left a book in the church and went back to get it. I came out and my wife is talking to this fellow in English. He grew up there. He said he was a freshman in high school when Roncalli was assigned to Venice. He also told us that Roncalli had selected Msgr. [Loris] Capovilla as his secretary, and that Msgr. Capovilla ended up being the instructor for this gentleman’s confirmation class.

“Once a month, Roncalli would come over and teach the class. He said that even as a teen, he was awestruck by Roncalli’s faith and how well he connected with teenagers. He said, ‘I was just a typical teenager, and I would have run through a wall for my faith after knowing him.’ ”

Weisenbach’s journey would also lead to a meeting with now-Archbishop Capovilla, who also served as secretary for Pope John XXIII from 1958 to his death in 1963.

“He is in his 90s but is still full of zest, life and love,” Weisenbach notes. “He was thrilled to know of our travels, and was touched that a high school would have been named in honor of him.”

A legacy of love for God’s children

From his journey and his readings, Weisenbach knows that Pope John XXII’s most lasting impact on the Church—the Second Vatican Council—is viewed by many Catholics as a beautiful legacy and other Catholics as a misguided effort.

Weisenbach focuses on how Pope John XXIII strived to make the Church more universal, and how he reached out to people of all faiths.

“He named the first African-American cardinal, the first Mexican cardinal and the first Filipino cardinal,” he says. “He allowed the College of Cardinals to reflect the universal Church.”

For Roncalli’s principal, the journey from June 24 to July 16 confirmed the special bond that he believes connects an Indianapolis school and the man for whom it is named.

“I have always felt our school has been divinely touched by God in that it seems to permeate the love, care and spirit that were so much a part of Angelo Roncalli’s life,” Weisenbach says. “”I believe he would be thrilled with our school, our ministry and the way we represent his name.”

He hopes to make the values and wisdom of Blessed John XXIII an even greater emphasis at Roncalli.

He shares a message from his school’s namesake that he plans to give to his teachers.

“Love one another, my dear children!
Seek rather what unites,
Not what may separate you from one another.
As I take leave, or better still, as I say, ‘Till we meet again,’ let me remind you of the most important thing in life:
Our blessed Savior Jesus Christ,
His good news, his holy Church,
Truth and kindness.
I shall remember you all,
And pray for you.”

“What I will continue to keep in front of the kids is how much he loved people,” Weisenbach says. “I think he converted people to Christianity because he always welcomed people of non-Christian faith. He would constantly use the statement, ‘These, too, are children of God.’

“That’s a message that I’ll try to help our folks at Roncalli remember. Our country is so divisive today. His theme was to celebrate what unites us as children of God. I think it was his desire to build up the Church to represent that approach.”

(Weisenbach will make presentations on his journey, “Walking in the Footsteps of Pope John XXIII,” at Roncalli High School on Sept. 15 and Sept. 28. Both presentations will begin at 7 p.m. and are scheduled to end at 8:30 p.m.)

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