‘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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