Xavier Magazine

Negative to Positive: An Encounter with Pope John XXIII

I arose early on March 19, 1963, and downed a quick cup of cappuccino and breakfast roll in anticipation of attending the Beatification of Luigi Maria Palazzolo later that afternoon at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But first I had a full day of classes to attend.

About 100 students were studying at Loyola University’s new Rome Center from various U.S. universities including two of us from Xavier. John Felice, S.J., Director of the Rome Center, acquired some front row seats for the Beatification, which promised the likelihood of close proximity to Pope John XXIII. Fr. Felice had a knack for getting things done that seemed out of reach to most people. Perhaps it was his distinguished service with British intelligence during WWII that gave him the tools. He was especially effective in navigating Vatican politics.

Armed with my Kodak box camera, I was a young man on a mission to get a good picture of the Pope. But St. Peter’s is big and dark, and I was down to my last flashbulb. Not certain from which direction the Pope would arrive, I planted myself where no columns would interfere with my line of sight. Suddenly loud cheering and clapping arose from those attending as they spotted the Pope. He was in red and white vestments being carried on a black and gold throne through the congregation. And he was headed right at me. I peered down into the viewfinder as the Pope’s image danced around in it. The flashbulb winked in the dim light and I wasn’t sure if my mission was accomplished.

Several days later I walked briskly from our campus in northwest Rome excited to retrieve the negatives I dropped off at a small photo lab nearby. In those days, to save money, we would select which negatives we wanted to be developed. One negative appeared to have captured the Pope’s image very well but I wouldn’t know for sure until it was printed. Not trusting such an important matter to this local lab, I decided to take the negative home with me and have it printed in the U.S. Three months later, upon my return home, I eagerly searched through my clothes, souvenirs and books, but couldn’t find the negative. And then I searched again and again. It was lost.

I was angry with myself for being so careless. And I have periodically scolded myself ever since, especially when drinking a cup of cappuccino.

Pope John XXIII was affectionately known as “Good Pope John” and may be the most beloved in history, although his reign was less than five years. To great excitement he called an ecumenical council, The Second Vatican Council, which lasted from 1962-1965. This electrified the church and made Rome seem again like the center of the world. But it was on a much smaller scale where Good Pope John made his mark on the people. For example, he visited sick children and stopped by the prisons. He told the inmates, “You could not come to me, so I came to you.” And he was known to sneak out at night to walk the streets of Rome earning him the nickname, “Johnny Walker.”

In mid-May 1963, two months after the Beatification ceremony, Fr. Felice once again worked his magic and arranged for Rome Center students to attend a private audience with the Pope. No cameras were allowed other than a professional photographer from a news service. We had heard the Pope was quite ill and were not sure he would join us until almost the last minute. We waited in one of the Vatican’s ornate reception rooms. A door opened and a smiling but frail Pope John walked in. He wanted to know where we were from and what we were studying.

He seemed to grow in strength as he engaged with us. He blessed us, turned to leave, paused and then looked back at us and said, “Most of you will return to America and begin your careers and earn a living. You will need to use your head to put to work the knowledge you have acquired.” As he placed his hand on his heart he continued, “But remember to also use your heart with all those with whom you come in contact.” These words stayed with me over the years of my imperfect life and helped me sort through some of the challenges we all face.

Pope John XXIII died two weeks later on June 3, 1963, and the bells of Rome tolled sadly. We later learned that our private audience was Pope John’s last one. The newswire photographer’s picture of our private audience found it’s way to the front page of newspapers around the world as this was his last public appearance.

In preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Rome Center in September 2012, a call has come out for mementos and pictures from that time so many years ago. I recently searched through our basement and discovered a “Rome” box containing letters, pictures and postcards I had sent to my parents during this time, as well as various papers, train and airline tickets, and a host of other material that brought back many fond memories. There was even the empty PanAm ticket jacket. I was in the midst of tossing it out when I was possessed to stop and pull back the inside flap. A two-inch square negative was tucked in the corner. Could this be the lost negative? Yes.

I took the negative to the local pharmacy and the photo technician advised me to take it to a lab with a darkroom. And he added his concern about the deterioration of the negative. Anxious but undaunted, I finally located a darkroom lab about 20 miles away. I may have set a new land speed record en route to the lab. The technician, Rachael, and I stood in the darkroom heavy with the smell of chemicals and waited for the fragile, orange colored negative to develop. I shared with her the background of the negative and our tension was palpable as we waited. Slowly his image began to emerge, the colors grew stronger and a magnificent picture of the now Beatified Pope John XXIII came to life before our eyes. We both whooped with joy. Other employees and customers came running to see what the fuss was all about. I ordered several more prints of the picture and returned a couple of days later to pick them up. The clerk shouted to the back of the store, “Hey Rachael, the Pope picture guy is here for his prints.”

Frankly, I didn’t mind at all having my identity distilled down to these three words. So the mystery of the lost negative is solved and a bit of my self-esteem is restored. And I can now drink my cappuccino in peace.

Reflecting about this time so many years ago illuminates how much the world has changed. The American dollar was king in 1963 and went far in Europe. As an example, room, board and tuition in Rome per semester was $780. Transatlantic and overland transportation from Chicago to Rome and back was $400, and this included a two week tour of Europe on our way home. But for a casual conversation I had one day in 1962 with one of our Jesuit instructors at Xavier I never would have been alerted to the new Rome Center.

This incredible learning experience broadened my perspective and prepared me to function in various settings, both domestic and international, throughout my career. And although it took almost 50 years, this is one instance where a negative truly turned into a positive. Since that first class of 100 students, more than 15,000 have attended the school.

(John Poynton is a member of the Xavier Class of 1964.)

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