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 — happy with their unauthorized escapade, Gusso told journalists during a news conference at Vatican Radio April 1.
While the conference was designed to unveil the radio’s latest project of digitalizing its complete audio archives from Popes Pius XI to Francis, Gusso was among a number of panelists invited to speak about their memories of Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II, who will be canonized April 27.
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 that a week after his election, Pope John was already bored with taking the same daily walk in the Vatican Gardens, confined within the Vatican City walls.
“The route is always the same one!” he said the pope complained. “Take me to the Janiculum Hill. Take me to Villa Borghese!” a park the pope knew from his days as a student in Rome.
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!” But Gusso said the pope made only two secret outings in Rome: once to visit the British ambassador to the Vatican who was at the hospital, and once to see a journalist.
“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.
However, when they went to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, he said Pope John was much bolder about getting out. One day he hatched a plot to escape out the back gate of the pontifical villa.
He said the pope told him, “Let’s do this…. 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, when they were in the car riding around the villa’s gardens, the pope told his valet to take one extra spin around the property “so we’ll make the gendarmes dizzy” and confused. They got to the unlocked gate, opened it and left for an excursion, he said.
Toward the end of their road trip in the Alban Hills, they passed through the town of Marino. The narrow streets were full of people taking their 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 finally made it back to the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, Gusso said he’ll never forget the look on the Swiss Guard’s face when he saw the pope driving up. “The gendarmes were freaked out, the Italian police – I can’t tell you. It was amazing.”
The head of the Italian police, however, sent a formal letter of complaint against Gusso to the Vatican Secretariat of State.
The pope read aloud the letter from the police in front of Gusso and Cardinal Angelo Dell’Acqua, a top official at the Vatican Secretariat of State. “The pope started to laugh, happy, because we had succeeded in getting away with it, in defiance of everyone.”
Gusso said they’d either take the huge Chrysler that had been given to Pope Pius XII or the valet’s own two-tone – ivory and blue – 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 dozen Vatican workmen deciding where all the pictures and paintings should be hung, Gusso said.
“The pope told me, ‘Tomorrow, don’t call anyone (to help). Have them leave the nails, hammer and ladder. And we’ll do it.’ A few days later I got up the ladder, and he held the foot of the ladder so it wouldn’t slip, and he’d say, ‘Higher, lower!'” indicating where to hang the pictures.
Pope John told his valet it was OK for him to call him, “His Holiness,” but to otherwise pretend they were still in Venice and stop the hand kissing and the kneeling, adding that if the valet felt he needed to kneel, it was better in prayer before the Lord.