Blessed John XXIII is pictured in the Vatican Gardens with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the background in this undated photo. CNS photo/Catholic Press Photo

Pope John XXIII often skirted protocol

By  Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
  • April 25, 2014

VATICAN CITY - Blessed John XXIII struggled to shake off many formalities that came with the papacy and often conspired with his valet to sneak out of the Vatican.

One covert road trip in the Alban Hills outside of Rome got Guido Gusso, the Pope’s valet, in trouble with the Italian police responsible for the Pope’s safety. But the security breach just made the Pope chuckle, Gusso said.

Gusso said that a week after his election, Pope John was already bored with taking the same daily walk in the Vatican Gardens.

“The route is always the same one!” the Pope complained. “Take me to the Janiculum Hill. Take me to Villa Borghese!”

When Gusso said it wouldn’t be allowed, the new Pope said, “How come it’s not possible? It’s easy. You’ve got the car, let’s go!”

“It was also dangerous because we’d have to stop at the red lights,” he laughed, which gave passersby the chance to identify his passenger since “he didn’t wear a black overcoat” to cover up his white papal cassock.

Gusso said the Pope made two secret outings in Rome, but Pope John was much bolder at the summer residence Castel Gandolfo. One day he hatched a plot to escape out the back gate. He said the Pope told him, “Get the keys to the gate. Unlock it and let’s leave it open for about 10 days so nobody will get what’s going on.”

Several days later, they opened the unlocked gate and drove off on an excursion, Gusso said. Passing through the town of Marino, the narrow streets were full of people taking an afternoon stroll and “we couldn’t get through,” Gusso said. The crowds realized the Pope was in the car and started shouting, “‘Long live the Pope!’ And there’d be someone else saying, ‘Yo, Jo! Yo, Johnny, our boy!’ ”

When they returned to Castel Gandolfo, Gusso said “the gendarmes were freaked out, the Italian police — I can’t tell you. It was amazing.” The head of the Italian police sent a formal letter of complaint against Gusso to the Vatican Secretariat of State.

The Pope read the letter aloud in front of Gusso and Cardinal Angelo Dell’Acqua, a top Vatican official. “The Pope started to laugh, happy, because we had succeeded in getting away with it, in defiance of everyone,” Gusso said.

Gusso, the son of a fisherman and a native of Venice, worked for five years for then-Cardinal Angelo Roncalli when he was patriarch of Venice. He followed the cardinal to Rome for the conclave in 1958 and remained in the Pope’s service for another five years until the Pope’s death, after which he was promoted to running the papal household. Gusso said they’d either take the huge Chrysler that had been given to Pope Pius XII or the valet’s own Opel Record, which, the Pope said, reminded him of the car he had in Venice.

The transition to the Vatican from his independent life in Venice was hard for Pope John, Gusso said. The first night in the papal apartments, they looked out onto St. Peter’s Square “and it was all dark, so dark,” and completely empty of people.

“It was a disappointment for him” because he had been used to music, lights and nightlife going on past midnight in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square.

When the Pope’s personal belongings arrived from Venice, the Pope was unable to put up with the Vatican workmen deciding where all the pictures and paintings should be hung.

“The Pope told me, ‘Tomorrow, don’t call anyone (to help). Have them leave the nails, hammer and ladder. And we’ll do it.’ ”

And they did.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.