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Biography tells how pope set course for the church

| Sunday, July 28, 2002

"Pope John XXIII" by Thomas Cahill, $19.95, Viking. 241 pages.

There is a first-reaction tendency for those who are amateur Vatican and papal historians to remember Pope John XXIII as a happy, harmless Uncle Angelo (Guiseppe Ronacelli, his actual name), getting along with everybody, showing compassion to all, and, in short, as a docile man who dispensed wisdom that people, usually, ignored. Author Thomas Cahill shows that Pope John XXIII was a sly fox of in-house Vatican politics and that once he became pope, he set a course for the Catholic Church that left his cardinals stunned.

Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963 at the age of 82, was elected to the post on Oct. 28, 1958. These were tense times between the United States and the then Soviet Union during the Cold War. A longtime humanitarian, one of his first noteworthy decrees was a statement issued in April 1959 that told Catholics not to vote for political parties and candidates that were backed by communism. He was quickly vilified by then Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. Yet, in July 1961, he issued the encyclical "Mater et magistrea," which strongly proposed aspects of communism, such as stable yet living wages for all employed peoples. This social-issue schizophrenia of Pope John XXIII may be his most fascinating trait.

On December 2, 1960, Pope John received Geoffrey Fisher, archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It was the first meeting of a pope and archbishop of Canterbury since the Reformation, writes Cahill. Today, with Pope John Paul II meeting with religious leaders of various beliefs, it may be hard for people under the age of 40 to understand how historic the above meeting was.

After his meeting with the archbishop of Canterbury, Pope John XXIII began receiving non-Catholic religious leaders fairly regularly. Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed Christians, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church – all went to the Vatican to meet the pope. Probably the most famous example of these interreligious meetings was when Shizuka Matsubara, high priest of the Shinto Temple of Kyoto, Japan, went to Rome. Pope John XXIII "loved the 'precious robe of bright scarlet' that the Shintoists gave him as a gift," informs Cahill.

The author of this somewhat short (241 pages) biography was formerly director of religious publishing at Doubleday. Cahill is best known for writing the three-part series of books called Hinges of History." In order of publication, the three books are "How The Irish Saved "Civilization," "The Gifts of the Jews" and "Desire of the Everlasting Hills" ( about the life and times of Jesus Christ). Cahill plans to write four more books for the "Hinges of History" series, but "Pope John XXIII" is not one of them.

The biography is not without flaws. It needs an index and an extensive footnotes section. Yet the good outweighs the bad in the book.

Pope John XXIII, who began studying for the priesthood at the age of 12; often told people that being a priest was his only desired vocation. He was one of the few priests who would go onto to become pope who had life-altering events happen to him in both World War I and World War II. Cahill provides information about the Rev. Angelo's World War I experiences.

Chief among these was Angelo's day-in, day-out work as a hospital chaplain near the Italian front lines. "He goes about the hospital wards, hearing confessions, offering what services he can to those in pain, again and again anointing the bodies of dying men in their final agony – as much chaplain as nurse," describes Cahill. Then the author reproduces a section of Angelo's diaries: "It often happened <#201> that I had to fall on my knees and cry like a baby, alone in my room, unable to contain the emotion that I felt at the simple and holy deaths of so many of our (Italian) people <#201> "

The papacy is often derided by hindsight historians for not taking a more active role in the prevention of the deaths of Jews and other ethnic peoples by the Nazis during World War II. This accusation does not apply to Pope John XXIII. By the 1940s, Angelo had begun a long diplomatic career in the papal diplomatic corps. He held posts in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. He perceived, early in history, just what the Nazis had in mind – mass annihilation of as many non-Aryans as possible.

With his diplomatic and political skills, Angelo saved thousands of Jews and exiles from Nazi persecution.

He was contacted by Isaac Herzog, then grand rabbi for Jerusalem, about the fate of 55,000 Jews who were stranded in a no-man's-land among the rapidly shifting war zones early in the stages of World War II. Herzog sought Angelo to ask the Vatican for help. Angelo did so, and the lives of the 55,000 Jews were saved.

He interceded in world matters again when he sent letters to U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev, imploring that the two men find a way to end the Cuban missile crisis, in October 1962.

The Second Vatican Council was Pope John XXIII's piece de la resistance. As far back as 1959, he realized that the Catholic Church would have to adjust to the 20th century's changing moral codes. "The Oxford Dictionary of The Christian Church" (1988) calls " Vatican II," as the Second Vatican Council came to be known, "the most important event of his pontificate."

Pope John XXIII told the diocesan synod of Rome to re-energize the Catholic Church for the modern world. Under his leadership, the synod did jump-start the Catholic Church.

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