Giuseppe Roncalli. Pope John XXIII. Il Buono Papa. Whatever name he is called by, he is an emblem of the modern Catholic church, the initiator of Vatican II, which brought about massive and controversial changes to the Catholic church. I knew nothing about John XXIII when I received this book, and I was impressed reading his story.
Unlike many popes throughout church history, John XXIII didn’t come from an aristocratic or high church background. He was the son of a poor farmer who rose to prominence on, essentially, his good reputation and seemingly inexhaustible compassion and willingness to work for the poor. This led to his promotion through the Catholic ranks and his eventual election—by electors who probably expected him to be a placeholder pope—to the highest office in the Catholic church.
I am not Catholic or exceptionally well-versed in Catholic history, so I can’t speak for the accuracy of Tobin’s book. Based on the material presented here, John XXII comes off extremely well—devout without being a scold, committed to his work without neglecting his friends and family, able to lead without being haughty. My favorite anecdote in the book concerns Paul XXIII’s modifications to the papal gardens: he had a sprinkler installed with a remote control so he could soak cardinals as they walked through the garden. It’s a funny story, but also serves as a fitting metaphor for John’s entire papacy, as he attempted to puncture some of the unnecessary pretentions of the church, such as the Latin mass, without losing what he saw as truly important. Tobin does a good job through this short biography of making John XXIII an interesting character in spite of the fact that he seems to have very few dramatic flaws. The Good Pope is, then, primarily the story of a good man who does great things within his sphere of influence. There’s very little in the way of scandalous secrets or backroom dealings—with Rocalli, according to Tobin, what you see is what you get.
Although I’m not Catholic, I am a Christian and found portions of John XXIII’s life inspiring. I wonder, however, how interesting a non-religious person would find this bio. I found the political aspects surrounding Vatican II extremely interesting, but John XXIII’s spiritual journey is undeniably the core of the book (Vatican II has hardly begun when John passes away). I suppose that, religious or not, we can all find something inspiring in a man who put feet to his beliefs so effectively and consistently. I’ll be interested to see what Carlton has to say about the book when he reviews it later this month.