‘Good Pope John’: the laughter and legacy of Pope John XXIII

Some years ago a Canadian publisher sent out a catalog which included a large reproduction of William Wheatley’s “The Liberator,” more commonly known as “The Laughing Jesus.” I had the poster framed and hung it above my desk, and I often look up during the course of a day and wonder, “What’s he laughing at?”

Sometimes I imagine he’s just told another parable, so preposterous that even he burst into laughter after telling it. Sometimes it reminds me of a parent, laughing at a child’s innocent foolishness. And sometimes I think he’s laughing at all of us and saying something like, “Why don’t you guys get this?” Frequently the laughing Jesus reminds me of Pope John XXIII, who was known for his own good humor, and, I think, was one of the guys who “got it.” Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the third of 13 children, was born in 1881 to a family of poor farmers near Bergamo, Italy. He was ordained in 1904, served as a hospital orderly and chaplain during World War I, and for much of his early career served as apostolic visitor or ambassador to Bulgaria, Turkey and France. In 1952 he was made cardinal and appointed Patriarch of Venice; six years later he was elected pope and chose the name John.

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To those who expected him to be a short-lived and inconsequential caretaker he turned out to be either a surprise or a disappointment. Only three months after his election, John announced his intention to call an ecumenical council. Although he did not live to see its conclusion, the Second Vatican Council renewed the church’s understanding of itself, reshaped its mission in the world, and restored its relationship to other religious traditions. James Martin writes that John will be remembered for something more than his wit, his example or his accomplishments. “Good Pope John,” as he came to be called, “seemed to be one of the most loving of all the saints,” Martin writes, “always a loving son, a loving brother, a loving priest, a loving bishop, and a loving pope. John radiated Christian love.” It was a love rooted in humility, obedience and trust. “The secret of life,” he wrote in his spiritual diary, “Journal of a Soul,” “is to let oneself be carried by God and so carry God to others.” John’s humility and trust were often expressed in his humor. While visiting the Hospital of the Holy Spirit on one occasion, he met the sister in charge who introduced herself as “the superior of the Holy Spirit.” “You’re very lucky,” John replied, “I’m only the Vicar of Christ.” Only the Vicar of Christ — but not too afraid, too embarrassed or too self-­important to joke about how preposterous that was.

I think it’s worth remembering as we celebrate the totally preposterous feast of God-With-Us. What do you think? Pray and Reflect Use one or more of the following questions for personal reflection, group discussion or private journaling:

• On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) rate how much you appreciate how truly amazing the Christmas event is. How would you have rated yourself five years ago?

• Can you think of occasions when you realize how amazing or preposterous some­thing is that you just throw your head back and laugh? Do you think the mysteries of our faith, like the Incarnation of God-With-Us, are those kinds of amazing events? Do you remember the line from the movie “Shrek:” “I laugh in the face of evil”? Should we be helping our children appreciate how humor is a sign of humility, trust and hope?

• I think the most preposterous thing about our faith is … Join the Conversation Add your comments to this week’s discussion at: bit.do/disciples-corner.

Dave Cushing is director of adult faith formation for the Catholic parishes in Waterloo. The Disciple’s Corner is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Office of Faith Formation and Education and is funded through the Archdiocesan Educational Development Board. Our purpose is to help catechists, teachers, parents, grandparents, guardians and other adults grow in their appreciation of their role as disciples of Jesus Christ.

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