April 25, 2014


Remembering ‘Good Pope John’

On Sunday, Pope Francis will canonize both Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II. For trivia buffs, out of 266 pontiffs, they will be the 81st and 82nd popes to be canonized. Of course, two of them are still living.

When Pope Pius X, who was pope from 1903 to 1914, was canonized in 1954, he was the first pope to be declared a saint since Pius V, who was pope from 1566 to 1572. However, the Church was blessed to have other holy popes during the 20th century. Besides Pius X, John XXIII and John Paul II, Popes Pius XII and Paul VI have been declared venerable, and Pope John Paul I has been declared a servant of God.

Of the two popes to be canonized on Sunday, certainly most people are more familiar with John Paul II, since he died so recently. In this editorial, we’d like to refresh your memory about some of the things that earned John XXIII the name “Good Pope John.”

Many people have noticed similarities between him and Pope Francis. Both have now been named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”—as was John Paul II. Both were over 75 years old when they were elected pope. John was 77, and Francis was 76. Both are known for their humility and informality. Both must be with other people; John XXIII’s family said that he suffered greatly while he was pope because he felt isolated.

He was the first pope since 1870 to make pastoral visits in his Diocese of Rome, causing a sensation when he visited children with polio at the Bambino Gesu Hospital and then inmates in Rome’s Regina Coeli prison. He himself wrote in his diary about those visits: “Great astonishment in the Roman, Italian and international press. I was hemmed in on all sides: authorities, photographers, prisoners, wardens.”

He was also the first pope since 1870 to travel outside of Rome—to Assisi and Loreto—although, of course, he didn’t travel as extensively as his successors.

We know a great deal about his religious development because of that diary, eventually published as Journal of a Soul. He started it when he entered the seminary as a young man named Angelo Roncalli, and it shows his efforts to “grow in holiness.”

Like Pope Francis, John XXIII had a great sense of humor. Probably the most quoted example was his answer to the reporter who asked how many people worked in the Vatican: “About half.”

John XXIII is known mainly as the pope who called the Second Vatican Council to make the Church more relevant to the modern world. He said, “I wish to open the Church’s window so that we may see what is happening outside and so the world may see what is happening within.” He was pope for the first session of the council before his death. Pope Paul VI continued it.

He was a great friend of the Jews. During his first Good Friday service as pope, he actually interrupted the service when the prayer for the Jews referred to them as “perfidious.” He eliminated that word. He later apologized on behalf of the Church for the sin of anti-Semitism, and he made sure that Vatican II documents pertained to reconciliation with the Jews.

However, he had been known for his service to Jewish people long before his election as pope. During World War II, while he was apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece, and later apostolic nuncio to France, he managed to save thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation recommended that he receive the title “Righteous among the Nations” for his efforts.

Cardinal Roncalli almost didn’t become Pope John XXIII. As Pope Pius XII was aging, he appointed his secretary of state, Giovanni Montini, Archbishop of Milan without making him a cardinal. If he had been a cardinal, he would probably have been elected pope after Pius XII died. Cardinal Roncalli was elected as a “stop-gap” pope. After his election, one of John XXIII’s first moves was to make Montini a cardinal, and he succeeded him as Pope Paul VI.

We believe that Pope Francis is continuing work begun by John XXIII.

—John F. Fink

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