Blessed Pope John XXIII (1881-1963)

Pull just about any biography of a saint off the library shelf, flip to the index, and I will lay serious money you will not find a listing for the saint’s sense of humor. It is a quality that we do not expect in saints, and so it rarely pops up in writings about them. But there are exceptions:

St. Lawrence (died 258): During Emperor Valerian’s persecution of the Church, this Roman deacon was arrested and condemned to be roasted on a grill. His dying words to his executioners were, “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.”

St. Thomas More (1478-1535): Thomas More was a clever boy who grew up to be a witty man, and his wit did not abandon him, even as he was going to execution. The scaffold steps were unsteady, so he asked one of the king’s officers to help him up. “As for coming down,” St. Thomas said, “let me shift for myself.”

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582): Once, while traveling in a violent rainstorm, Teresa’s donkey lost its footing and she fell. She broke her wrist, she was covered with mud, and some valuable legal documents in her baggage that had taken months to acquire were ruined by the rain. Frustrated and in pain, she cried out to God, “Why did you let this happen?” And God answered her, saying, “This is how I treat my friends.” Teresa shot back, “No wonder you have so few.”

St. Philip Neri (1515-1595): Once an earnest young priest asked Philip Neri’s advice: What was the most appropriate prayer to say for a newly married couple? St. Philip thought about it for a few minutes and then replied, “A prayer for peace.”

Blessed Pope John XXIII (1881-1963): Pope John XXIII may have been the Church’s most humorous pope. Shortly after his election, a reporter asked him how many people work in the Vatican. Pope John replied, “About half of them.” While passing through a crowd he overheard a woman exclaim, “He’s so fat!” The pope stopped and said, “Madame, the conclave is not a beauty contest.” During a visit to a Roman prison, Blessed John passed a cell where the prisoner turned his back on the pope. “What is his crime?” the pope asked the warden. “He murdered his wife,” the warden answered. Then John asked that the cell door be opened. He stepped inside, put his hand on the convict’s shoulder and said, “If I had a wife, I might have killed her, too.”

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95) and “Saints Preserved : An Encyclopedia of Relics” (Image Books, $16). 

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