Illuminating the lives of a saint


Angelo Roncalli brought Catholicism to the people but, argues HUGH MACDONALD, his triumph was as a man not a pope

IT is perhaps an irreverent notion, but given the perplexing ubiquity of popularity polls it is tempting to suppose that the title of Greatest Pope would lie between two twentieth-century titans, namely Pope John XXIII and the present incumbent. Thomas Cahill, I suspect, would see it as a one-horse race with the peasant from Lombardy gathering the spurious, temporal honour. His biography is more than sympathetic, indeed it borders on hagiography in the truest and best sense of the word in that it is literature that deals with the life of a saint. Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, Cahill quietly and persuasively asserts, was a pope of special gifts.

Cahill, a former director of religious publishing at Doubleday, has been enlisted to Weidenfeld’s eclectic and unorthodox brief life series which has already seen Edmund White on Proust and, less successfully, Paul Johnson on Napoleon among other attempts at fresh, iconoclastic biography. Cahill, therefore, has been encouraged to walk his own path and this biography is a constantly provocative, informative account of the history of a Church. It seeks to place Pope John in his time and in the history of papal Catholicism. It succeeds brilliantly on both counts although, as Cahill concedes, it is an essay rather than a definitive biography. Cahill argues that the supremacy of the bishop in Rome is based on the premise of the Donation of Constantine, a document that was almost certainly bogus.

He then shows how the papacy waxed and waned in terms of temporal power. Once emperors would bow at the knee of a pope, heeding his every command. Now, at best, the pope provides either spiritual guidance or a nagging conscience on matters moral, cultural, religious nor even political. Occasionally, a pope can escape these bonds and significantly change the face of the world. The present pope has been praised in internal CIA documents as the man who defeated communism.

The political achievement of Angelo Roncalli, also known as Pope John XXIII, was no less spectacular. He played a leading, mediatory role in defusing the Cuban missile crisis of 1963. But he will be remembered, too, both as a personality and powerful influence in the modernisation of the Church.

He was in his 70s when he won the papal vote as a compromise candidate after a church career that included duty as a spiritual director at a seminary then apostolic roles in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Paris. He had only five years as pope before his death from stomach cancer. He did not waste one moment. He took the papacy to the people, abandoning the constrictions of the Vatican to visit children’s homes and converse with his flock. ”The secret of everything,” he said, ”is to let yourself be carried by the Lord and to carry the Lord.” He opened up the Vatican to visiting dignitaries, re-establishing the papacy as a factor in world affairs. He re-wrote liturgy to avoid any crude condemnation of Jews, tens of thousands of whom he had saved from the Holocaust when he was an apostolic administrator in Turkey.

But it was Vatican II that summed him up as man and pope. The council he summoned to Rome confounded the conservatives by its wide-ranging remit. The pope, humbly and wisely, stayed in the background as the Church wrestled with the issues that still snap at its heels today. Would Pope John have pushed for the abolition of celibacy? Would he have agreed to some use of contraception? His death rendered these questions as speculative as his successor, Pope Paul VI, removed such revolutionary topics from discussion.

However, Angelo Roncalli’s greatest triumph was as a man. One of 12 children born to a peasant family, he knew of hard times. His career included work as an orderly during the carnage of the First World War and he was regularly out of step with Church conservatism, once teetering perilously close to excommunication. But he was simply, and wonderfully, good. He was embraced, literally at times, by his flock.

He was humble and humorous but had an unwavering sense of what was right and possessed the strength of mind to pursue it. He encouraged people to laugh and to pray, knowing that sometimes they are the same thing. But, crucially, he was a man, accepting he was prey to faults and fears.

Returning from the funeral of a beloved sister, he muttered to an aide in existential despair: ”Woe betide us if it turns out to be an illusion.” It is strangely comforting to know that the spiritually strong can share the great doubt but continue to live in faith, knowing that it can never be transmuted into certainty.

Pope John XXIII, Thomas Cahill, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99.

Herald – Dec 4th – Midweek Book Review