Why Italians don’t go in for ‘fat shaming’

Stt John XXIII was reputed for his love of good food (CNS)

It was the feast day of St John XXIII last Saturday, which rather took me by surprise. He is commemorated on 11th October, because that is the anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. He died on 3rd June 1963, and that date would normally have been his feast day, marking his birth into eternal life, but that it is already bagged by St Charles Lwanga and his companions, the martyrs of Uganda.

St John XXIII remains a fascinating figure and several people I have known have told me about their experience of meeting him. One who knew him quite well was the late Fr Jean-Marie Charles Roux. He once had lunch with him at the Nunciature in Paris, which must have been some time in the period 1944-1953, when Roncalli was Nuncio. The food, it seems, was magnificent, and Roncalli, according to Fr Charles Roux, kept the best table in Paris. (That must have been some table, given that it was Paris!) Moreover, Roncalli took the greatest possible interest in what he was eating, and on one occasion sent a dish back to the kitchen, because it was not quite good enough. Fr Charles Roux (then yet to be ordained, but in the Papal diplomatic service) was a Frenchman, but a very sparing eater: he loathed garlic, onion and anything but the most bland English nursery fare, and was consequently quite surprised by Roncalli’s devotion to food. Fr Charles Roux, as those who remember him will attest, was a bird-like, whereas St John XXIII was anything but.

My French publisher (in the days when I had one) told me a similar story. Her mother was a devotee of the Papal Nuncio, and was often entertained by him, and always found the food magnificent. Moreover, at this wonderful table, Roncalli collected a glittering array of writers, thinkers and intellectuals, so the conversation was every bit as good as the food. These lavish entertainments were in marked contrast to the Pope of the time, Pius XII, who always eat alone.

John XXIII was one of a huge family, thirteen children in all, so doubtless he was used from his childhood to seeing a crowded table at mealtimes. He came from a humble home near Bergamo, a village called Sotto il Monte, which is now a place of pilgrimage, and renamed Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII in his honour. His parents worked the land as sharecroppers, and as such they probably ate rather well, as Italians tend to do. Eating well, and being utterly amazed by the way the English put up with such bad food, Italians are comfortable with a certain paunchiness, and certainly would not have any truck with the modern mania for “fat shaming” people. I would imagine that St John XXIII saw having the best table in Paris as a matter of considerable pride. I can hazard a guess that his mother, la signora Roncalli, prided herself on having the best table in Sotto il Monte, or at least the best possible table she could manage when life was hard.

Our own Pope is quite heavy, and comes from a similar sort of background: his parents were Italians from the North too, though the Bergoglio clan comes from Piedmont, and the Roncalli one from Lombardy. As I pointed out on the night of his election, he even looks like John XXIII, and came to the throne of Peter at a similar age. There are indications that he too likes food. Indeed what Catholic, especially what Italian Catholic, doesn’t like food?

While on the subject of Fr Charles Roux, readers who do not normally read The Tablet may have missed an anecdote that I shared with their acting deputy editor.

Fr Charles-Roux was ordained late in life, and as a student in Rome in the 1950’s, on his way to lectures, often used to pause for prayer at the Jesuit Church of Sant’ Ignazio. Here he used to see Father Felice Cappello SJ celebrating Mass at a side altar. Fr Cappello was a professor of Canon Law, but also had a reputation as a man of prayer, and was much sought after as a confessor. Father Charles Roux averred that Father Cappello would say Mass six inches off the ground, and glide effortlessly from one end of the altar to the other, as the Tridentine usage dictated. I found this very hard to believe, but Fr Charles Roux was insistent that he witnessed this miracle of levitation day in, day out. He added that because Fr Cappello was extremely short, even though he was six inches off the ground, one did not notice it overmuch. And when he finished the Mass with the last Gospel, he would gently come to earth. It was a miracle, Fr Charles Roux averred, but not a showy miracle.

Fr Cappello, now recognised as a Servant of God, died in 1962, in the reign of St John XXIII. His remains lie in a marble tomb in Sant Ignazio, and his confessional is preserved there too. Father Charles Roux’s manner of saying Mass, always in the Old Rite, tended to the mystical; perhaps there was a spiritual kinship between these two holy priests.


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