Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: Meet John XXIII: Joyful Pope and Father to All

Here’s a question for you: what do you know about Blessed Pope John XXIII? Honestly, do you know more than that he was an Italian-born peasant, from a large multi-generational home, and that he “opened wide the windows of the Church”, calling for the Ecumenical council known through time as “Vatican II”?

Well, honestly, I didn’t. All I knew about Blessed John were the above facts. I didn’t know anything about the man as a son, brother, uncle or great uncle. I didn’t know anything about the parish priest, school teacher, or Archbishop in a Communist-held country. I simply didn’t know John XXIII!

But, thanks to Patricia Treece’s recent biography, Meet John XXIII: Joyful Pope and Father to All, I now know much more about this man and am currently searching for a copy of his Journal of a Soul, his autobiography, so I can read more of his own writings. This man was so much more than just the good pope … so much more than the man who called the controversial Vatican II … so much more than the peasant pope.

Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, born November 25, 1881 in a small Italian village named Sotto il Monte (under the mountain), was just one in a household made up of aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins (numbering as many as 32 relatives) in the large stucco shareholder’s house. Roncalli was born into a house that was poor financially but amazingly rich in Catholicism, familial devotion and good-will toward all. One of the most telling quotes, from his Lettere written much later in life: I have forgotten much of what I have learned from books, but I recall still, blessedly, all I learned from my parents and elders. (pg. 3)

Through his parish priest and relatives, the young Roncalli was sent to seminary and then on to Rome for further studies. Since he was the oldest son in a large and financially-strapped family, this was a major sacrifice for his family. Roncalli knew this and continuously tried to help his family. For instance, when his next oldest brother was called up for military service, Angelo left seminary for a time to serve in his brother’s place. This military service would help him later when he worked as a chaplain in military hospitals.

After ordination, Roncalli went to Rome for further studies – canon law, Church history and a PhD in theology. The learned man never forgot the people though and was often called on as mediator, teacher, and counselor for workers, students, seminarians and the Church hierarchy. No matter how much he was wined, dined and praised, his writings – quoted throughout Treece’s book – show a humility only exceeded by his love for God and His Church. Throughout all the laudatory examples, Roncalli always gives credit to God’s graces.

His rise within the Church was not always welcome. At one point, Pope Pius XI “exiled” (the term Treece uses) the man to Bulgaria – a country led by the Communist party, with interreligious fighting between the Orthodox Eastern Rite Catholics, and the only Roman Catholics were refuges from Turkey and Macedonia (and the lowest of the low to the Bulgarians). During his ten-year sojourn in Bulgaria, the good Archbishop worked toward peace among the Christians, attempted to build a relationship between the Orthodox to bring them back to Rome, and succeeded with secular and religious alike to show Christ’s charity to all.

Not once during this entire extremely difficult and lonely ten-year assignment, did Roncalli complain openly or try to get a different posting. Pope Pius XI noticed and, when announcing Roncalli’s new assignment, said We want to give Bishop Roncalli a special sign of esteem and trust because, by not asking anything for himself, he has enlightened us a great deal.” (pg 78) The future Pope was living his self-imposed motto: Obedientia et Pax (obedience and peace).

The new assignment? He was named apostolic delegate to Greece and Turkey – an assignment that fit well with Roncalli’s love of Church history but one also fraught with difficulties (for example, Turkey was culturally and politically Muslim). As with every other position, Roncalli brought charity and love to every conflict and challenge that arose. Roncalli’s time as apostolic delegate spanned the war years – a very tough time to be based in Greece and Turkey -- including visits to war hospitals as the only avaiable chaplain!

In 1944, Pope Pius XII named Roncalli the papal nuncio of France, based in war-ravaged Paris. At this point, France was filled with anti-clericalism so Roncalli’s expertise and bringing sparring parties together was much needed. In 1953, Pius XII moved Roncalli to Venice, giving him the red hat of cardinal with the appointment as Cardianl Patriarch of Venice.

It was from this position that the 77-year-old Roncalli was elected Pope John XXIII after Pius XII’s death in 1958. He died five years later after battling a very painful stomach cancer for years, a battle that he offered up for His Church.

Now, these are the bare facts of Roncalli’s life. Treece does a fabulous job of peeling back the onion-skins of his life and showing the many deeper graces of this beatified man’s life. With quotes from Roncalli’s own letters and journals, comments from staff members and interviews with his many relatives, Treece paints a life of sanctity. She spends only a bit of time on the papal years; using the story of Roncalli’s life as the foundation for his later work, work that brought the Catholic Church to the notice of both secular and religious leaders throughout the world.

I very highly recommend this biography for high school readers and above. This book is particularly appropriate for reading during this Year of the Priest – anyone looking for a model of what a priest should and can be, need look no further than Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli.

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This review was written as part of the Catholic book Reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Meet John XXIII: Joyful Pope and Father to All and to purchase your own copy of this soon-to-be thriller classic.

Treece, Patricia – Meet John XXIII: Joyful Pope and Father to All – Servant Books (Cincinnati, OH). 2008. ISBN: 9780867-167290 (paperback, 208pgs)

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