Getting to know 'the Good Pope'

As the Church marks the 50th anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council this month, author Greg Tobin gives Catholics a thoughtful introduction to the man behind that historic moment in Church history in his newly released book, “The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church — the Story of John XXIII and Vatican II” (HarperOne, $26.99).  

Tobin, who is vice president for university advancement at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., and the author of several other books, shared his thoughts on Blessed Pope John XXIII and what the “good pope” might still have to teach the Church and the world today. 

The Good Pope

Our Sunday Visitor: In the introduction to your book, I was fascinated by the question you posed: “What would have happened if an ultratraditionalist or a less pastoral-minded cardinal had been elected as pope?” Can you elaborate? 

Greg Tobin: Although it might not have known it or been able to articulate it, the world needed a pastor at the time Pope John XXIII was elected, in October 1958. It was the height — or the nadir — of the Cold War, and the tail end of the age of colonialism. A time of great turmoil for many nations and great prosperity for others, including the United States.  

A person with a different temperament or personality might have been a fine pope, may have reigned longer, may even have been more politically skilled or intellectually gifted. But Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, from an Italian mountain village, was the man of the moment, and the cardinals gave their votes to him, rather than a more rigidly orthodox or younger man or a more dignified figure in the mold of Pius XII.  

It is a rule, of sorts, that the cardinals will pick someone very different from (if not opposite from) the recently deceased pontiff. They felt he was suited for the position, and it turns out they were right. 

OSV: Although we often hear about how Pope John XXIII was such an unlikely cardinal to be elected pope, reading through your book brings this home — the way he moved into different positions at different times, met certain people at just the right moment. Was it the Spirit at work? 

Tobin: In one of those “coincidences” of history, the right man emerged at just the right time for the Church and the world. Cardinal Roncalli, the patriarch of Venice, had been underestimated and, to a degree, marginalized throughout his clerical career. Yet, those who knew him were well aware of his intelligence and charm, his appreciation of history, and his finely honed diplomatic skills. He had spent many years in the East, where Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim cultures co-existed and Jews were always a distinct presence in the community. Can we quite imagine what a man who had lived in Sofia, Istanbul and Paris must have been thinking during the conclave, locked up within the Apostolic Palace and sleeping on a supremely uncomfortable bed? 

One of the key factors in his election was his age. At 76 (just about to turn 77), he was actually among the relatively younger group of cardinals. There were only 55 electors, with many of them in their 80s and some in their 90s (before Pope Paul VI’s rule barring those older than 80 as electors). So Roncalli was viewed as someone who could serve for a few years while some of the younger papabili, such as Cardinal Giuseppe Siri (late 50s) and then-Archbishop Giovanni Montini (the future Pope Paul VI, who was just 60) gained some “seasoning.” In my opinion, and from a perspective of faith, it was clearly a sign of the Holy Spirit. 

OSV: Why did you want to write this book at this moment in history? 

Tobin: I wanted to present this man’s life to a new generation who has only the slightest inkling of who he might be, as well as to bring him back into the consciousness of people of my generation (so-called baby boomers), many of whom recall him as the pope of their childhood. It is 50 years since the opening of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican and will be 50 years (next June) since his passing. His potential canonization is also out there, something which many Catholics around the world are eagerly anticipating. 

OSV: Do you feel things happening in the Church are pushing back on some changes Pope John put in place? 

John XXIII Gems
“It often happens that I awake at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember I am the pope.” — Pope John XXIII 

Tobin: The council is still evolving and being absorbed and lived by the Church. It is a process that takes many decades. I think it is fair to say that Vatican I (1869-70) had left so many issues untreated and was truncated or incomplete, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because a different pope — and perhaps a different Church, in many ways — took up the task and more or less completed it. There is still “push back” to a degree on the definition of infallibility, now 140 years old, as there is on the teachings of Vatican II, as there will be for many years to come. The dynamics of theology and praxis almost demand that there will be ongoing debates about and differing interpretations of a council that put so much on the table for us to savor and digest. 

OSV: What do you say to those who continue to look at Pope John as someone who did damage to the Church, someone who was too “soft” on certain issues? 

Tobin: The Church has survived truly bad popes in the past and those who would lead the Church into error. That is the Spirit in action in a very evident way. If John XXIII was soft on some issues — out of Christian compassion — have others, then, been too hard — perhaps in a pharisaical sort of way? Somewhere in the appreciation and critique of John’s teachings, there is room for differing interpretations, surely. But I am skeptical of extreme analyses. I quarrel with anyone who doubts his sanctity, which is what attracted me in the first place to him as a subject. 

OSV: Reading your book gave me hope for the future of our Church. As I read certain sections, I was reminded that our world has always had big issues to face and we have been given the Church leader we need to see us through. What can we learn from Pope John XXIII that can help us today? 

Tobin: I think John XXIII was not only the “pope of the world” in a new way, but he is a “pope of the ages” in a traditional, apostolic way. That is, his teachings are worth passing down to new generations who can, indeed, learn from him and apply those lessons to today. Yes, our ever-changing world never really changes. What is it the French say? I think the greatest lesson I take from his pontificate, and from the man himself, is the notion that a Christian can be truly Peter, the Rock, as well as a man of intellectual subtlety and deep spirituality. Further, Pope John was unafraid to live out and proclaim his faith and would have done so as a rural parish priest, if that had been his calling, instead of to the Apostolic See. 

We can learn the value of spiritual simplicity and focus from him, in a big way. I am optimistic about the future of the Church, which is undergoing trials of an epochal nature right now. If it is truly an institution of divine origin, there is little I or anyone can do to damage it fatally — as hard as we may try through our own sins and shortcomings. 

OSV: Any willingness to imagine what Pope John might say or do regarding certain things in the Church now — new translation of Mass, investigation of sisters, etc.? 

Tobin: Of course, it’s impossible to know what one pope of a different age might do or say in another era. I do think it would be interesting to transport Pope St. Gregory I from the seventh to the 21st century, however! Regarding Pope John, I believe he would push for continued renewal of liturgical practices, Scripture scholarship, serious and continued ecumenical outreach and improvement of Jewish-Christian relations. Regarding the situation with the organization of American sisters, I just have the feeling that perhaps it would not have gotten to this point if he were around, or that he would have taken a personal, pastoral interest and “handled” it in his own manner — and with a smile. 

Mary DeTurris Poust’s newest book, “Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality” (Alpha, $14.95) will be out in November.