Monday, October 20, 2008
An important anniversary is coming up on Tuesday, although I doubt many people will take note of it. Fifty years ago, the College of Cardinals emerged from the Sistine Chapel to announce that they had elected a dark horse as the new pope.
They chose the kindly Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Roncalli, assuming he would be a temporary caretaker because he was already 77.
But they were wrong. Roncalli, who took the name John XXIII, lived only another five years; but that was long enough for him to change the world.
I remember the day he died. The radio announcer said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have terrible news. Our beloved Pope John is dead."
And the announcer wasn't even Catholic. You see, Papa John wasn't just the pope of the Catholics, he was everyone's. He was loved by Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people of all faiths and people of none.
He didn't look very impressive. He was a fat, dumpy little man with a face like a kindly old Italian grandmother.
"His face was like a jigsaw puzzle of borrowed pieces," wrote religious scholar Peter de Rosa. "But his heart was one of God's masterpieces."
As Papal Nuncio to Turkey during World War II, he smuggled thousands of Jews to safety. That's why he's known in Israel as a Righteous Gentile, the highest honor Jews can pay to a non-Jew.
After the war, the Vatican sent him to France on a delicate diplomatic mission: to save the Church from the vengeance of Charles De Gaulle, who wanted to put three French cardinals and 20 bishops on trial for treason because they collaborated with the Vichy regime.
He not only dissuaded De Gaulle, he did it with such tact that Edouard Herriot, leader of the rabidly anti-clerical Radical party, said, "If all priests were like Nuncio Roncalli, there would be no anti-clericals left!" After Papa John's death, De Gaulle himself filed a letter with the Vatican attesting to his sainthood.
As pope, he didn't think it was his job to lecture people or root out heresy or issue dire warnings about the future. He thought his job was to be a good Christian. And that meant carrying out the injunction of the Gospels: to love everyone.
That included the prisoners in Rome's infamous Regina Coeli prison, whom he visited shortly after his election, saying, "You cannot come to see me, so I have come to see you."
And the little boy who wrote to him, saying he couldn't make up his mind whether to be a pope or a policeman. Papa John wrote back, "It would be safer for you to train for the police. Anyone can be pope - as you can see, since I became one."
And it especially included those who disagreed with him: communists, capitalists and church conservatives alike. To all of them, he was simply The Good Shepherd.
He was the pope who took the anti-Semitic language out of the liturgy, and the first to reach out to the Jewish community. Many Jews fondly recall the words from the Bible he used in greeting a delegation of rabbis: "I am Joseph, your brother."
And, of course, he was the genius who dreamed up the Ecumenical Council, one of the most revolutionary events in Church history.
He inherited a Church that was mired in arcane scholastic disputes and obsessed with the torments of Hell. He left it suffused with love, charity and service to others, and with its eye turned firmly toward Heaven.
He may not have been a caretaker, but he took awfully good care of his Church. He was truly Christ's vicar on Earth.
Papa John was beatified by the Vatican in 2000, which is just one step away from sainthood. But the whole world already knew: If ever a saint walked this earth, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, also known as Pope John XXIII, was it.