I have to admit that I have enjoyed reading about the first actions of the new pope: his paying his own hotel bill; his giving his security detail the slip in order to make a private visit to a church; his preference for simple vestments; his choice of Francis as his pontifical name and so on. It gave me a warm glow of nostalgia as I remembered the accession of Pope John XXIII over fifty years ago.
Like Pope Francis, John XXIII came as a striking contrast to his austere and intellectual predecessor. Like Francis, John had come from poor Italian parents and was refreshingly down-to-earth. Like Francis, he was warm, playful and spontaneous, delighting in “sneaking out” of the Vatican to pay surprise visits to hospitals, old folks’ homes and even prisons. (He once told inmates, “You could not come to me, so I came to you.”) And, while he was not the first pontiff to adopt the name of John, he was the first to do so in over six hundred years.
Like Francis, John assumed the papacy at a time when the church was under a cloud. John’s predecessor, Pius XII, had been severely criticized for his silence during the Holocaust, and had made no apology for the Catholic Church’s long history of anti-Semitism.
John XXIII was determined to mend the Vatican’s relations with the Jewish community. One of his first acts as pope was to strike the description of the Jews as “perfidious” from the Good Friday liturgy. He also made a confession for the Catholic Church of the sin of anti-Semitism. Later, he would meet with a delegation of Jewish leaders, telling them, “I am Joseph your brother.”
That was a simple, yet profound declaration. Pope John’s given name had been Angelo Joseph Roncalli. So what he said was literally true. But the words he chose came directly from the 45th chapter of Genesis, where Joseph, the Hebrew patriarch, is reconciled with his brothers after many years of bitter estrangement. It was a gracious appeal to a Scripture held in reverence by members of both Christian and Jewish faiths, and it was graciously received by his audience.
Also, like Pope Francis, Pope John was 76 on his election. It was widely believed then—just as it is now—that the new pontiff would be an “interim” pope who wouldn’t rock the boat. Instead, less than three months after his election, John XXIII dropped a bombshell. He announced that he would convene the historic Second Vatican Council, which would bring about the most dramatic changes in the Catholic Church since the Council of Trent four centuries earlier.
Pope Francis may not do anything quite as earth-shaking during his own pontificate, but if his actions over the last few days are any indication of what is to follow, I think we can expect some more surprises.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.