Rediscover John XXIII, a Pope who stunned the world!

CLICK THE BOOK COVER to visit its Amazon page.MORE THAN 1 BILLION CATHOLICS around the world are wondering: Can a new pope revive our deeply troubled Church? Millions of those Catholics also wonder: Is it possible that another pope could “throw open the windows of the Church”? That’s a reference to Pope John XXIII, the pope who stunned the world by opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962—the historic global gathering of Catholic leaders that finally set the Mass in common languages, moved altars forward to make parishioners feel that they were a part of the Mass, changed countless other church structures and, most importantly, ushered in the modern era of interfaith relations. John did not live to see the end of the three-year process he set in motion. Yet his legacy continued! In the Second Vatican Council’s final days (led then by Pope Paul VI), the Council overwhelmingly approved Nostra Aetate, the declaration ending two millennia of Catholic condemnation of Jews (and also opened the windows to new relations with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others). Peacemakers and interfaith volunteers around the world look to John XXIII as an unlikely hero who surprised Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Greg Tobin about his new book, The Good Pope; The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church—The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II.

UPDATE IN FALL 2013: Tobin’s book now is also available in a less-expensive trade-paperback edition.


Greg Tobin. Photo courtesy of HarperOne.DAVID: I really enjoyed this book and I hope readers will buy it—because this is a very readable introduction to John XXIII and an era that changed the religious world. You tell the story well, both for people like me who remember the era—and for those who are discovering it for the first time. Why did you think it was important to write a new book about this pope, now?

GREG: I’m glad you had this reaction to my book. That is what I’m hoping readers will find. Why did I write it? The challenge is that—for most people alive today—John XXIII is a distant memory, if people are aware of him at all. Pope John Paul II eclipsed all the popes who preceded him for the vast majority of people around the world. This summer, it’ll be 50 years since John XXIII died. I think it’s important for the world to take a fresh look at this truly amazing figure.

He is responsible for the most significant religious event of the 20th century—the Second Vatican Council, or many people call it Vatican II. In the book, I also explore the remarkable man Angelo Roncalli who became John XXIII. He was a man of great holiness, a truly and genuinely humble spiritual person who suddenly was catapulted into this position of worldwide prominence.

The main thing readers will discover is: He surprised the world! His election was a surprise and it was a surprise that he convened the Council. This coincided with other revolutions in global culture at that time. I try to show readers that it also was a surprise how, through it all, he could remain this farm boy from northern Italy.

He had an enormous influence in his very short period of time on the world stage. His work influenced not only major religious issues, but also world peace and our understanding of mass communication in relation to faith. He became a unique celebrity—such a celebrity that people from John F. Kennedy to Charles de Gaulle wanted to have their photos taken with him.


DAVID: Your claim about the Second Vatican Council being the most significant religious event of the 20th century begs questions: What about the rise of Pentecostalism from the Azusa Street Revival in 1906? What about the Scopes Trial in 1925 and the unfolding battle between science and religion? And, many historians of religion now credit the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 as the birth of a new kind of lay-led, nondenominational religious movement. Many claim that the century’s major genocides—Armenians and then the Holocaust—were religious milestones. Or, what about the role of religion in the end of Communism? Or, the resurgence of Islam as a political force?

This was a tumultuous century in terms of religion. So, tell us more about your rather expansive claim about the Second Vatican Council?

GREG: First, you’ve set the context correctly in those questions. Here’s why I say that the Second Vatican Council ranks at the top of these historical milestones in terms of religion. At the time of John XXIII, the church was approaching the ripe old age of 2,000 years. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit works—and will continue to work—through human history and through the life of the Church. But the Church had not seen this kind of large-scale change before. The Council also matters because of the massive, global scale of this church—more than a billion people. It’s the largest organized religious body in the world.

When the Council wrought its changes, this had an impact on lives all around the planet, changing lives pretty much for all time to come. In the Mass, people started worshipping God in their own languages for the first time. Some of these changes the Council wrought were in response to horrors of the 20th Century like the Holocaust. The world’s biggest Church came out of that period of the Council with new teachings, a new way of expressing itself both around the world and in people’s daily lives at Mass, and new relationships with the world’s other major religious bodies, especially Jews but also other non-Christians as well.


DAVID: I’m sure a lot of people will continue to debate the claim of “most important” in ranking 20th century religious events. But I do understand your argument and I certainly would agree that Vatican II was one of the most important milestones in religious history. No question about that.

The relationship of Christianity toward non-Christians changed in the 1960s at the Council. Even though Pope John Paul II was accused of trying to roll back reforms of the Council, one thing John Paul continued to emphasize was this friendly  new attitude toward other world religions. Even nearing the end of his life, as he approached the year 2000, he wrote an impassioned letter to the world in which he encouraged Christian leaders to move even faster on improving relationships with non-Catholics.

GREG: Yes, I agree, and it excites me to see that you are emphasizing this point in relation to the Council and my book. Something happened from the heart of the Second Vatican Council that was radical. It was truly revolutionary. It was a very positive change in the world—the beginning of a brand new era of teachings and interfaith work that we had never seen before in Christianity.

Another way to look at this is to remember that, for centuries, the Catholic Church had been in defense mode. Few people even remember that there was a Vatican I, a First Vatican Council, in 1869-70 that was convened to talk about the church and the world. That Council also looked at the internal structures of the church, but the only thing of significance that came out of Vatican I was this controversial new definition of “papal infallibility.” So, the church remained in an even stronger defense mode.

At Vatican II, we saw no condemnations of heresy. Instead, there was a positive, forward-looking, outward-looking, unified voice that runs through all the documents that were issued. The actual reforms reflected this new spirit. What’s interesting is that, as the Second Vatican Council opened, the early ideas for declarations on working with other religious bodies got stalled along the way. But those ideas were resurrected before the Council ended and Pope Paul VI himself supported these ideas. He encouraged the Council not to give up on them, including the declarations on opening new relationships with non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate came at the very end, in 1965, as the last major act of the Council.


DAVID: The obvious question is—Will the spirit of John XXIII resurface? Could it resurface, given the kind of traditionalist bishops that John Paul and Benedict spent decades placing in high positions? One possibility is a revival of his memory around canonization. He was beatified by John Paul II in 2000, so he’s on his way toward official sainthood.

GREG: It’s impossible to predict when his canonization might occur, but I do think it will come. I would not say it is inevitable, but I do think it’s likely. John XXIII inspires many people around the world to this day. He embodied holiness in a humble, human, accessible way that I can’t recall seeing in anyone else at that level of church leadership. That is something that continues to intrigue and attract so many—leading people to learn more about this remarkable man.

DAVID: Thank you for talking with us!


Catherine Wolff has pulled together an inspiring collection of stories about real-life Catholic heroes who threw themselves completely into a life of faith—despite tragedy and sometimes in the face of great danger. Called Not Less than Everything, ReadTheSpirit also is reviewing and recommending that book today. In her Introduction, Wolff credits John XXIII as one of her own inspirations. She writes about growing up in “the time of Vatican II, the great council called by Pope John XXIII to throw open the windows of the Church, to read the signs of the times, in effect to come to terms with modernity. There was a tangible sense of hope that things were changing—the Church that seemed increasingly rigid and authoritarian even to faithful Catholics was reaching out to us and to the wider world. That optimism sustained us through many changes both in the Church and in society.”


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CATHERINE WOLFF on Catholic Heroes: Her new book is Not Less Than Everything, gathering two dozen talented writers to explore two dozen amazing Catholic lives.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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