“They called him Il Buono Papa, ‘the Good Pope.’ During Pope John XXIII’s lifetime – and especially in the immediate aftermath of his death from stomach cancer on June 3, 1963 – Italian Catholics and Socialists alike; journalists and diplomats; Roman Catholics, Protestants, non-Christians, and nonbelievers across the globe; men and women of every race, class, and nation called him ‘good’ and mourned his passing.”
I was born after the death of Pope John XXIII. My generation vividly recalls the impact our own saintly pope, John Paul II, had in reaching out to non-Catholics and his stance against Communism. But this era of ecumenism is actually a continuation of the Papacy of John XXIII.
In The Good Pope, author Greg Tobin examines the life of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, from his early years as a peasant farm boy, to his priesthood, where he was sent to study Canon Law, and eventually sent abroad to “backwater” countries where Catholicism was by far the minority. As the story develops, we see this young priest shine in the area of diplomacy – reaching out to all of God’s children, not just the Catholics. His rise to the Papacy seems quite improbable, but yet, he was, in the end, the perfect man for the job. In a time when the world experienced a split between capitalism and communism, and at the same time, our world was becoming smaller with the advent of new technologies, change was in the air. As Pope, John XXIII, called for a new ecumenical council – Vatican II. As Tobin asserts:
“This pope still matters because he stood with his feet planted firmly in the swiftly flowing river of history and, like the legendary Saint Christopher, helped his people move safely from one bank to the other without being swept away by raging currents beneath. Thus he ‘saved’ the Church he loved so much, preserving its core doctrines intact, through force of will and personal diplomacy as manifested in a humble, indeed earthly spirituality that contradicted most expectations by his peers.”
As the 50th anniversary of Vatican II approaches, now is an excellent time to study the life of Pope John XXIII. Tobin’s book is a good first look at this man, who was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2000. I appreciated Roncalli’s astuteness in his stance against Italian fascism – the Mussolini government tried to court it’s Catholic population by promoting Catholicism in the schools and returning crucifixes to public buildings. But Roncalli bravely spoke out and said “His (Mussolini’s) goals may perhaps be good and correct, but the means he takes to realize them are wicked.” In hindsight, of course, we know he was correct. But at the time, there were many Catholics who felt the end justified the means.
I enjoyed reading about Good Pope John’s reaching out to Nikita Kruschev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At a time when the western world frowned upon diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, the Pope understood that peace would not be achieved by closed doors. By allowing messages back and forth between the Kremlin, John XXIII achieved the release of Orthodox Archbishop Slipyi, held prisoner in the Gulag for seventeen years. In fact, this Pope consecrated his life for the conversion of Russia to the Catholic Church.
In addition to his chapters on Vatican II, Tobin devotes time to John’s eighth and final encyclical, Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth), which was written while the Pope was suffering with stomach cancer, just months prior to his death in 1963. He writes that it was well received by everyone – capitalists, socialists, communists, and non-Christians, and was one more important contribution to the world from his Papacy. For a man with less than five years in the seat of St. Peter, Pope John XXIII made an impact on the world that is still felt today.