Good Pope John

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The Sunday following Easter is celebrated in the Catholic Church as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” In the spirit of the Easter season, this is a day when we give special thanks to the Lord for His great mercy and we pray that every person on earth knows that God loves them and forgives them of their sins. This devotion to Jesus’ mercy was something that Pope John Paul II had promoted during his papacy. It’s fitting that on this Divine Mercy Sunday he’ll be named a saint. Joining him in sainthood that day will be another pope, John XXIII, also known as “Good Pope John.” While most of us have clear memories of Pope John Paul II, who was our pope for 27 years from 1978 until 2005, fewer of us remember Pope John XXIII.

He was born Angelo Roncali in 1881 in Sotte il Monte, a village of 1200 at the foot of the Italian Alps. His family had lived there since 1429. The future pope was one of 14 children and his family farmed for a living. Their cows shared the ground floor of their home with them. He grew up happy and loved and in 1904, was ordained to the priesthood. He rose to the College of Cardinals in 1953 and was elected Pope in 1958 at the age of 76. Most officials within the Church expected him to be a kind of “caretaker” Pope from whom little innovation or real leadership would be expected. Good Pope John surprised everyone by calling for a worldwide Church council—the Second Vatican Council—which would transform Roman Catholicism. Though his papacy lasted just 5 years, his influence on our faith has been remarkable and lasting. Yet aside from his calling for Vatican II, he’s best remembered for his sense of humor. In his honor, here are a few of his most well-known quotes:

—When a reporter asked Pope John, “How many people work in the Vatican,?” he replied,”Oh, about half.”

—On another occasion,a Vatican official told him that it would be “absolutely impossible” to open the Second Vatican Council by 1963. “Fine, we’ll open it in 1962,” the Pope answered. And they did.

—The Pope was often the butt of his own jokes. He often laughed about his appearance—big ears, large nose, and round figure. One day after a session with a photographer, he said, “From all eternity God knew that I was going to be Pope. He had 80 years to work on me. Why did He make me so ugly?”

—He joked about his humble origins, too. “Italians come to ruin most generally in three ways: women, gambling, and farming. My father chose the most boring one.”

—Becoming Pope might have surprised him a bit. “It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and I decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.” And another one: “Anybody can be Pope: the proof of this is that I have become one!”

—Lastly, he was once at a dinner party where a woman was seated across from him wearing a very low-cut dress. His papal secretary turned to him and whispered, “What a scandal! That woman—everyone’s looking at her!” “No one’s looking at her,” said Pope John. “Everyone’s looking at ME to see if I’M looking at her!”

Both popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, lived lives of humility and service and millions of the faithful join together in giving thanks to God for both of them. And both men are proof that being saints means sharing the joy (and laughter) of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

“I live by the mercy of Jesus, to Whom I owe everything and from Whom I expect everything.”
—Pope John XXIII

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