In a volume to be published in 2011 a professor at the Gregorian, in an article on ecclesiology, describes how difficult and ultimately impossible it was to account for this quote. The pope did not give interviews, and the widely circulated account of the episode (including in the Wikipedia article on John XXIII*) seems to have no solid foundation. The professor in question even went to talk to Archbishop Loris Capovilla, John XXIII's personal secretary, now 95, and asked what the origin of the Pope's statement might be. According to Archbishop Capovilla the Holy Father never said it. He explained that being of good Italian peasant stock, the Pope never would have said such a thing: he, like most Italians, had a horror of drafts. Air movement is believed to bring illness and perhaps even bad luck.
To confirm this for the incredulous who have never lived in Italy (I survived 5 years in Rome myself) the following is enlightening.
'There are also medical superstitions. The colpo d’aria (“punch of air” – a draft) is considered extremely dangerous, causing anything from a cold to paralysis. One friend claims to have suffered a day-long stiffening of one side of her face and neck, due to riding in a fast-moving car with the window down so that cold air was blowing on her.
In the early years of our relationship, Enrico and I argued about whether a window could be left open, even during the hottest summer nights, because it would allow a draft to blow onto our heads, with possibly fatal consequences. I was scornful of this, having grown up in Bangkok sleeping under a window air conditioner set so cold that it would freeze solid at night. We finally solved the dilemma by moving the bed away from the windows. Early on in Milan, he never wanted a fan to blow on him, but with the increasingly hot summers we’ve been having, we moved from a standing fan to a ceiling fan, and I guess he’s gotten used to it. Some nights this summer, we had BOTH fans blowing full on us – there was no other way to sleep in the heat.
The funny thing is, the colpo d’aria never seems to strike below the waist. An Italian woman who would cringe from the slightest draft coming in a window will go out in January’s worst winds, wearing a miniskirt, sheer stockings, and skimpy high heels.'
From the delightful blog My Bella Vita, citing traditions of Southern Italy which actually are to be found throughout the entire county:
'- Sit in front of the air-conditioning? Well, maybe you won’t DIE from this, but you could catch a horrific sore throat! Apparently the cold air, when blown directly towards your face, is toxic. Who knew? So, once again – dodge that draft!
- Use the air conditioning? Who knew Americans were such risk-takers? People throughout the country put their lives at risk every day simply by turning on the air. Italians are much smarter about this. If you are hot, you must stay hot, or your body will react badly and incite a sudden death! I kid you not. My gym is not air conditioned for this very reason, and I have to get plum pissy at home before they turn on the AC in the summer. This, by the way, applies to all central heating units and ceiling fans. Another case of draft dodging? I think so!
- Sit by an open window when the wind is blowing? For reasons similar to the two above examples – I wouldn’t do it!'
A book published this year, Cultural Competencies For Nurses: Impact On Health And Illness, by Linda Dayer-Berenson, has the following to say on the subject of drafts regarding patients of Italian ancestry in the United States on page 288:
"Italian Americans have several traditional health beliefs including the belief that the cause of illness is the result of a contagion or contamination caused by heredity related to a supernatural or human cause, related to wind currents that bear diseases, or psychosomatic causes." First generation patients are more likely to have the stronger beliefs in this regard.
So the verdict is: call a Council to open the windows and let in some air? I don't think so. To do that would invite disaster. Oh, wait...................
* 'Less than three months after his election as pope, John XXIII gave notice of his intention to convene an Ecumenical Council. While he expressed his intention in many messages over the next three years in formal detail, one of the best known images was of Pope John, when asked why the Council was needed, reportedly opening a window and saying, "I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in."'
Notice in the above that there is no attribution: "best known" and "reportedly" saying this to whom, and when?