St. John XXIII 101

by NR Interview
“Good Pope John” emphasized what unites, not divides, people.

This fall, in October, Catholics will celebrate for the first time the feast days of two newly canonized saints, John Paul II and John XXIII. The recent memory and familiarity with the former, believed to have been seen by more human beings than anyone in history, lead to an under-appreciation of the latter. Many fell into the pitfall of looking at the Church through a merely political lens. The former Angelo Roncalli, John XXIII was a man of deep faith and heroic virtue, the mark of a saint.

Randall S. Rosenberg, a theology professor at Saint Louis University, has written a good and current introduction to the newly canonized saint — accessible to anyone with an interest in the man, who served as pontiff during tumultuous times in the Church and the world. Rosenberg talks about the man and The Vision of St. John XXIII, his recently released book, with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What was so good about the man who was known by some as “Good Pope John”?

RANDALL S. ROSENBERG: Well, as I was researching and writing the book, thoughts of Father Zosima’s character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov kept emerging, especially his admonition to embrace the world in humble love. As newly elected pope, John reflected that “contrary to the common perception that the everyday language of the pope should be full of mystery and awe,” he believed that “the example of Jesus is more closely followed in the most appealing simplicity.” So there was something attractive about his humility, simplicity, and humor. These qualities, along with his ability to making lasting friendships across religious and political divides, played a part in his designation as “Good Pope John.” But he was good not just in an interpersonal sense — he was a holy man, highly serious about the moral life and nurturing a rich inner life.


LOPEZ: You write in the book that he believed that the fundamental doctrines should “be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in their effects, that they be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms.” Does some of the chaos and division that came in the years after the Second Vatican Council suggest that should have been tempered a bit? Was he naïve?

ROSENBERG: I’m not so sure it’s a matter of being naïve. The aim was to foster a fresh encounter with the Gospel, with the living Christ, and correlatively to encourage a more evangelical, missionary mode of ecclesial life. But it is certainly important to acknowledge that Pope John did not live long enough to witness the cultural upheavals that arose, for the most part, immediately after the Council — (in the U.S. context) the complexity of the ’60s, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, assassinations, Roe v. Wade, among many others. Furthermore, more than 50 years later, it is difficult to maintain empirically that church doctrine is, in the optimistic words of John XXIII’s opening speech, still presumed to be well known by all. As we discern “the signs of the times” (to use John XXIII’s phrase) we must recognize head-on that there has been a significant decline of the Catholic subcultures and Catholic schools on the elementary and secondary levels, which has significantly affected religious formation and practice.


LOPEZ: Who was Angelo Roncalli? For a young man or woman thinking about the future of their lives this summer, what might be helpful to know? Are there any under-appreciated biographical facts in the life of Roncalli that you wish people could know better?

ROSENBERG: Angelo Roncalli was born in 1881 to peasant sharecroppers in Sotto Il Monte, a modest agricultural town near the ancient cosmopolitan city of Milan, and he grew up in a very large family. He entered the seminary in 1893. But he did not live an innocuous life. He served as a military chaplain during World War I and played a part in helping to save thousands of Jews during World War II. He lived for nearly 30 years outside of Italy, serving in Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and France. He emerged as pope when the world was dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust, a global war that wiped out more than 50 million lives, the atomic bomb, and the Cold War. The inspiration for his most important contribution to Catholic social teaching, Pacem in Terris, can be traced to October 25, 1962, the day on which Pope John wrote his appeal for negotiations during the Cuban missile crisis. So I think it’s important to point out that Pope John served as a diplomat in the East for many years and also was not blind to the dark side of human history. He reflected in his journal: “I have always believed that for an ecclesiastic, diplomacy (so called!) must be imbued with the pastoral spirit; otherwise it is of no use and makes a sacred mission look ridiculous.”


LOPEZ: Why did he choose John as his name upon election as pope?

ROSENBERG: He chose the name John because it conjured up images of two men who were closest to Jesus: John the Baptist and the Beloved Disciple. He also wanted to prioritize in his papacy the simple but profound connection in 1 John 4:7-8 between neighbor-love and the love of God. During his installation, he emphasized his commitment to being a good pastor in the manner of the description of the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John, emphasizing that important human qualities (diplomatic tact, shrewdness, organizational abilities, etc.) can certainly help the pope carry out his office, but they can in no way substitute for his fundamental task as a pastor.


LOPEZ: During the recent two papal canonizations, did you feel like your man John XXIII was left out of some of the celebration?

ROSENBERG: I did not have the good fortune of being in Rome for the canonizations, so I suppose my perspective is a bit limited. But it is not surprising that John Paul II received more attention. More people have living memories of John Paul II’s 27-year pontificate and have been directly affected by his papacy, myself included. I did, however, get the impression that many in the media — religious and secular — weren’t sure how to cover John XXIII. In the book, I attempt to point out to younger readers that the papacy of John XXIII was indispensable for opening up the imaginations of subsequent popes and made possible many of their important initiatives. So, I guess I prefer not to think about the canonization in terms of competition for attention. That said, my hope is that, in light of the canonization, more people will take up the companionship of St. John.


LOPEZ: During the recent canonizations, the conventional wisdom was that Pope John XXIII was a saint for the Left and John Paul for the Right. How poor a view of reality is that?

ROSENBERG: The Second Vatican Council — arguably the most momentous religious event of the 20th century — is, as far as I can tell, the common factor that unites the double canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II. Initiated and convened by John XXIII, the Council called for an evangelical openness to and deeper conversation with the modern world. Both popes were known to be men of deep holiness. And both prayerfully considered the signs of the times and discerned how to effectively communicate the living Gospel — “the medicine of mercy” (to use John XXIII’s phrase) — to Christians and all people of good will. If John XXIII initiated this global evangelical vision, John Paul II — the traveling pope — understood his papacy as an implementation of the evangelical vision of Vatican II.

That said, I suppose it’s possible that Pope Francis may also be attempting to bridge factions in the Church. Recalling Pope John’s inclination to emphasize what unites rather than what divides, Francis may be suggesting — in recognition of this common liberal/conservative perception — that setting these two popes in opposition is superficial and that in reality, they are both different. And yet they are both saints who have significantly shaped the evangelical nature of the Church’s mission in the world.

LOPEZ: What was it that made you sit down and write a book on him?

ROSENBERG: I never had any plans to write a book on John XXIII. I was raised in the generation of John Paul II and simply thought of Pope John as the one who called the Second Vatican Council. I had the good fortune of being invited to deliver a lecture on the pastoral vision of John XXIII in 2011 as part of the Newman Academic Convocation in St. Louis — a joint effort by the four Catholic institutions of higher education in St. Louis and our archbishop, Robert J. Carlson. After celebrating the beatification of John Henry Newman in 2010 and the call for us as theologians to integrate our faith and the intellectual life, we decided to devote five years in a row to the Second Vatican Council. This led to an invitation to write a book on the topic, a book geared toward a general audience and especially an audience who knew a lot more about John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but not so much about John XXIII. Having been deeply moved by the life and example of John XXIII as I prepared the lecture, I decided to accept the invitation. At the time, I had no idea he would be canonized this soon. In many ways, then, I retrieve the memory of John XXIII in light of the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis.


LOPEZ: What do you mean when you encourage a retrieval “from John XXIII a commitment to the flourishing of a Catholic life that is enriched by a nurturing of the Catholic imagination and a commitment to a regular set of spiritual practices?”

ROSENBERG: Roncalli’s life was shaped by the rhythms and seasons, the prayers and devotions, the teachings and liturgical life of the Church. He lived an ecclesial existence. His journal reveals continual rededication throughout his life to a consistent set of religious practices. For younger generations (at least in the secular West), a thicker sense of Catholic identity seems indispensable. As I already mentioned, the Church has experienced a significant decline of the Catholic subcultures and Catholic schools that have shaped religious formation and practice. So I do not suggest this thickening of identity and practice with the intent of fostering a new “ghetto mentality” or to erect new, unnecessary bastions, but to acknowledge that in many contexts, human identity and the human desire for meaning, truth, goodness, beauty, and communion are massively shaped by other forces, including the powerful forces of global consumerism.


LOPEZ: How does Walker Percy’s image of a castaway on a new island play into this?

ROSENBERG: Well, it is almost a cliché to suggest that we are on information overload in the modern world. In Walker Percy’s narration, the castaway regularly takes early-morning walks on the beach, where he encounters tightly corked bottles, each containing one single piece of paper washed up on the shore. The challenge for the castaway is how to classify these messages. Are they pieces of information or pieces of news? The younger generations, I suggest, are not simply looking for dispensers of information, but for authentic news-bearers with messages and habits of being that may potentially open more enriching, challenging, and holy ways of living in the modern world — ways rooted, not in the images and practices of global consumerism, but in the images and practices of a robust, hospitable, and attractive Catholic form of life. My children are just finishing first grade and third grade, so this question is especially on my mind. I do not wish to denigrate all of popular culture; we all, with very few exceptions, consume its products to varying degrees. The key, I suggest, is discernment in the Ignatian sense of the term.


LOPEZ: You write: “It seems evident that many of our cultural texts — songs, films, media images, advertising campaigns — created by the forces of global consumerism often offer friendships of exploitation, and not of virtue and human flourishing.” How is John XXIII “a news bearer, a friend who offers a way to human flourishing”?

ROSENBERG: I was alluding here to Aristotle’s three kinds of friendships, as I’m sure many of your readers could detect. As I just mentioned, I do not wish to denigrate forms of popular culture that artistically and effectively diagnose the modern malaise or that foster in some way the search for goodness, beauty, truth, and love. That said, it is fitting to point out with Walker Percy that the face of the denizen of the present age of consumption is often the “face of sadness and anxiety.” Exploitation of the dignity of the human person in multiple forms is very much a part of many popular cultural texts. If René Girard has correctly identified the powerful role of mimetic, imitative, socially mediated desire in human culture — that we often desire according to the desires of the models that predominantly shape our lives — then John XXIII as a saint in the modern world might help shape our desires and offer us a friendship of virtue. If we desire what John XXIII desired, then we will desire God and the life of holiness above all, and by extension, a life of joy, a commitment to spiritual practices, Christian unity and interreligious understanding, along with peace, justice, and the common good.


LOPEZ: Does that make him an enemy of capitalism, as some read Pope Francis to be?

ROSENBERG: I don’t think so. Religious traditions offer resources for resisting exploitation under any guise. As far as I can tell, John XXIII does not emerge as an anti-capitalist in his contributions to Catholic social teaching. I think he proceeded more in the spirit articulated later by John Paul II, who offered us the distinction between an embrace of a kind of capitalism (the positive role of business, the market, private property, free human creativity in the economic sector) and resistance to an unbridled capitalism that goes unchecked.

I read Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium not so much as an enemy of capitalism, but as attempting to offer a prophetic critique of some of the deleterious effects of global consumerism, effects that have grown exponentially since the time of John XXIII. That said, I am well aware of Francis’s remark against trickle-down economics and his recent speech at the U.N. — a speech that has enhanced his reputation as an enemy of capitalism. I am no expert on matters of political economy, but perhaps I will draw on the spiritual wisdom of St. Ignatius, who is a key influence on the life and spirituality of John XXIII. At the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius proposes the following: “Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.”

First, in terms of a more generous interpretation, it is important to point out that Pope Francis made his comments with explicit reference to the writings of John Paul II, especially Centessimus Annuss discerning attitude toward capitalism, and Benedict XVI’s articulation of the “signs of the times” in Caritas in Veritate, which include the challenges posed by poverty, food shortages, the mobility of labor, lack of respect for human life, denial of religious freedom, and cultural eclecticism, along with Benedict’s challenge to conduct our economic lives simply not only with commercial logic but also with the logic of the gift.

Second, Francis did not simply use the phrase “redistribution of wealth” but suggested that “equitable economic and social progress” might be fostered by the “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as by indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” It seems to me that Francis has something far more complex in mind than simple redistribution of wealth and that it is our task to probe and assess what he means by this. Giving Francis the benefit of the doubt, it seems to me that he is first and foremost defending the dignity of the person (perhaps with the basic proposition from Gaudium et Spes in mind that the economy is meant to serve the human person, not the other way around), and not seeking primarily to empower the state or technocrats in the mission of social engineering and redistribution of wealth.

Finally, while I have attempted to offer a more generous interpretive framework, some of Pope Francis’s comments on these topics are debatable, even among faithful Catholics. I would even suggest that we should debate them. Within a Catholic horizon, neither address bears the mark of infallibility. Still, we would be the poorer for it (no pun intended) if we refuse Francis’s challenge to examine the deleterious effects of consumerism and to explore how best to create the conditions for increased economic opportunity for all — mindful of the complex network of state, private sector, and civil society, as Francis himself acknowledges.

LOPEZ: What is it about bridges that is important about John XXIII? And is that a pastoral vision or a political one? When bishops speak on matters of world concern, can one be separated from another?

ROSENBERG: As Francis acknowledged early in his pontificate, one of the titles of the Bishop of Rome is “pontiff” which indicates the pope’s call to be a “builder of bridges with God and between people.” I also thought often, as I was writing the book, of John Paul II’s comment in his pastoral letter on the formation of priests that the priest is called to be as humanly “credible and acceptable as possible” so that “his human personality” might become “a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity.” John XXIII was a bridge builder. He was inclined to emphasize what unites us rather than what divides us. His bridge building was especially on display in his commitment to Christian unity and interreligious dialogue, his political vision and prophetic call for human unity, and his joyful humor.

The question of the pastoral and political is a good and difficult one. In a sense, the two are inextricably intertwined; that is, if we understand politics, not first as a matter of party allegiance, but as an exploration of the questions posed by Aristotle centuries ago: How ought we to order our lives together? What conditions might ensure the common good? In this sense, John XXIII’s appeals for peace, for example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in his last love letter to the world, Pacem in Terris, are both pastoral and political. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his Cost of Discipleship, the church takes up space in the world. The church is a public body.


LOPEZ: What is the ironic imagination you talk about in the book, and how is it helpful to understanding and learning from John XXIII?

ROSENBERG: Well, I happened to be reading Jonathan Lear’s A Case for Irony, Anthony Esolen’s Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Literature, and William Lynch, S.J.’s Images of Faith: Exploration of the Ironic Imagination in preparation for a course I was teaching on theology and literature just before writing this book. The ironic imagination nurtures humility and self-reflection. While the mission of the Church rightly nurtures a towering and challenging presence in public life — caring for the poor, protecting vulnerable life, defending religious freedom, among others — our record is certainly mixed. This has been exemplified in recent times, for example, by the global sexual-abuse crisis. The ironic imagination keeps us in check by recognizing that the performance of Christianity both individually and collectively in history (and in our own lives this very day) is flawed. Irony provides a healthy, self-reflective space to acknowledge the gap that often exists between what is expected of us and our own performance in reality, modeled dramatically by the failure of the disciples in the Gospels. John XXIII’s advice, echoed by Benedict XVI, is not to always take ourselves so seriously. This, of course, is not meant to suggest that our commitment to the centrality of faith is to be minimized, but that we are not the ones ultimately in charge.

The ironic imagination can also aid us in navigating the complexity of our modern pluralistic milieu. Pope John was well aware of this pluralism and embodied respectful encounters and intense collaborations with unbelievers, other Christians, Jews, members of non-Christian religions. As Charles Taylor has reminded us, we live in an age of the supernova, “a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane.” In an age of self-conscious pluralism, religious persons commit to their faith with the tacit and widespread knowledge that others believe differently or do not believe at all. And these others are not alien to us. They are our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. This new pluralism places us in an ironic position and challenges us to navigate a difficult tension: the capacity to witness to and commit our lives to the truth of the Catholic tradition, while at the same time wondering about our own limitations vis-à-vis the inexhaustibility of divine mystery. This ironic situation might contribute to passivity or cynical withdrawal. And yet, in light of the Catholic tradition of faith and reason, as well as a document such as Nostra Aetate, the experience of irony as a possible mode of learning and self-reflection might help us navigate the tension between a deep vulnerability to the transformative power of the other, including other religious traditions, and a single-hearted commitment to the centrality of Christ and Christian distinctiveness.

John XXIII, I suggest, is both a pioneer in and embodiment of this kind of “thick” ecumenical and interreligious vision. John did not forfeit his commitments to the rich particularity of Catholic teaching and practice. Rather, his strong faith and religious identity, his sense of humanity, along with prayer and discernment, served as a bridge and not a bastion. He opened up in significant ways the Catholic imaginary to include friendship in the deepest sense of the term with other Christians, Jews, and Muslims.


LOPEZ: How important was humor to John XXIII’s holiness?

ROSENBERG: Not all forms of humor, of course, are obvious goods. It is possible to consider humor as expressive of prideful superiority, the kind of laughter Jesus condemned in Luke’s Gospel: “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep” (6:25). Humor might also be understood, with Freud, as fundamentally a release from the kinds of constraint we place on the energies of aggression or sexuality, which help govern our “civilized” lives.

But humor can also be an expression of love, humility, and joy. If we only concentrated on the heartwarming stories of humor, surely our picture of John XXIII would be incomplete. But I suggest in the book that humor might actually be indispensable to the life of holiness as James Martin, S.J., argues in his helpful book Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I draw on Martin’s book to show that John XXIII stands in a long line of saints throughout the ages who modeled the indispensable link between the life of joy and the life of faith.

Pope John’s friendship with the world included not just a friendship of moral and intellectual virtue; he also offered, through his humor, a friendship that avoided the extremes of buffoonery and boorishness (to draw again on Aristotle’s categories). Through his wit and wisdom, he opened up for many an image of the papacy that radiated a countenance of humor and joy in rather dark times.

Upon his visit to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Rome, for example, the mother superior of the religious order that runs the hospital introduced herself: “Most Holy Father, I am the superior of the Holy Spirit!” Upon which Pope John replied, “Well, I must say you are lucky. I’m only the vicar of Jesus Christ!”

Pope John made a moving visit to Regina Coeli Prison in Rome the day after Christmas of 1958. He told a joke — mindful that he was raised in a sharecropping farming family — to establish intimacy with the inmates: “There are only three ways to lose money in Italy: farming, gambling, and women.” His father, he said, had chosen the least interesting way!

LOPEZ: What did his “friendship with the saints” look like?

ROSENBERG: Pope John’s pastoral style and call for reform were rooted deeply, as I try to show in the book, in the wisdom of some of the great reforming saints: Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Francis of Assisi, Charles Borromeo, Francis de Sales, Ignatius Loyola, among others.

Perhaps his choice on the day of his priestly ordination to visit his favorite churches and altars to his favorite saints — the sites that permeated his Catholic imagination — gives some indication as to what this relationship looked like. He reflected: “It seemed that evening as if I had something to say to all those holy ones and as if every one of them had something to say to me. And indeed it was so.” “So I visited,” he reflects, “St. Philip Neri, St. Ignatius, St. John Baptist de Rossi, St. Aloysius, St. John Berchmans, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Camillus de Lellis, and many others. O blessed saints, who in that hour were witnesses to the Lord of my good intentions, now you must ask Him to forgive my weaknesses and to help me keep ever alight in my heart the flame of that memorable day.”


LOPEZ: What was so special about St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622) to him?

ROSENBERG: Roncalli referred to the author of Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God as “my St. Francis de Sales,” “my special protector and particular model.” His first exposure to Salesian spirituality was through his Uncle Zaverio, a key influence in his life, especially on his desire to integrate devotional prayer and a concern for justice. In the seminary, Roncalli had become part of the Marian Confraternity, which focused on the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. Throughout his priestly and episcopal ministry, he appropriated and lived out key dimensions of the style and spirituality of de Sales — gentleness, humility, peacefulness, doing small things with deep love — virtues that would later mark the way he governed as pope. In his opening address at the council, he exhorted the Church to engage the world with the “medicine of mercy” and not the “weapons of severity.” I would like to suggest that this was not simply a call to be tolerant or nice, but to be, you might say, St. Francis de Sales in the modern world.


LOPEZ: Do you recommend friendship with John? How does one even go about that?

ROSENBERG: The Catholic tradition encourages the faithful to pray for the intercession of and to develop a friendship with the “friends of God and prophets” — the communion of saints. Just as we are able to experience intimacy with the authors of the texts that shape us, so, too, I recommend reading about St. John’s life and perhaps more important reading, praying with, and meditating on his Journal of a Soul. As imitators of Christ, the saints in every age demonstrate that it is possible to live out the enduring values of the Gospel, even in dark times. Pope John offers us one such model.


LOPEZ: We’re in ordination season; what are some of the most important lessons for priests to learn from the priesthood of John XXIII?

ROSENBERG: First, an image that kept emerging as I wrote the book (in addition to the Dostoevsky image mentioned above) was Kierkegaard’s claim in The Sickness Unto Death that, from “the Christian point of view, everything, indeed everything, ought to serve for upbuilding” and resemble “the way a physician speaks at the sick bed.” John XXIII, as I mentioned already, spent Christmas of 1958 visiting a children’s hospital, an adult hospital, and a prison. Pope Francis’s images of a bruised church and the church as field hospital in the midst of battle are not far away from this vision. So, in sum, John XXIII exhibited the priority of the personal and administered the medicine of mercy throughout his priesthood.

Second, I would relay Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s story of a priest of his home (and my home) archdiocese of St. Louis who had an audience with Pope John in 1962. There were about ten priests in line, and he was the last to greet the pope. Each of the other nine priests introduced themselves: I am a university president; I am a chancellor of my diocese; I am a hospital chaplain; I am a college professor; and so on. “Well, reported my brother priest from St. Louis,” Dolan says, “as Pope John came to him, he felt rather lowly, for, so he thought, his priestly work was hardly as exalted as those nine before him, so he almost inaudibly whispered, ‘Holy Father, all I am is a parish priest.’ Whereupon, to his consternation, Pope John genuflected before him, kissed his hands, and stood to say, ‘That’s the greatest priestly work of all!’”

Third, Pope John continually prayed to the effect of “I want to be a holy pastor.” He lamented the failure of many priests to show charity. After ministering to a sick girl in 1917, for example, Roncalli was prompted to think “with sadness” about “the many similar cases” in the world, and of “all the innumerable hidden miseries” that people endure. “I ask myself,” laments Roncalli, “if we priests — and with us, good laymen — are generous enough. If only at times we had more tact, more constancy, greater magnanimity, how many more victories (we would have) among so many!”

Finally, Pope John was formed deeply by St. Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule (the pope who preferred the title “Servant of the Servants of God”). So I suggest reading and re-reading Gregory’s Pastoral Rule. Perhaps the following text from Gregory will whet the appetite: “Therefore, humility is to be preserved in the heart and discipline preserved in works. But in this respect, we must skillfully balance things so that while we supervise with the virtue of humility, we do not relax just supervision. Because if a leader lowers himself more than is proper, he will not be able to affect the lives of the laity through the bond of discipline. Let spiritual directors, then, uphold externally what they undertake for the benefit of others and let them retain internally what scares them about their own condition. Nevertheless, the laity should perceive, through subtle signs that appear at the proper times, that their spiritual directors are humble.”

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. Editor’s note: A change has been made in the introduction to correct an error in the introduction since posting.

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