Biographies of faith: Pope John XXIII by Thomas Cahill

Over the years I’ve featured the biographies of a number of significant historical figures such as Mao Zedong, Martin Luther and Maimonides. This time, since I needed something dealing with Vatican City to apply towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, I’m featuring Thomas Cahill’s 2002 biography of Pope John XXII. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a copy during a side trip down the biographies section at my pubic library. With pleasant memories of Cahill’s previous books like How the Irish Saved Civilization and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea I figured why not take a chance on this one. After finishing it last week I’m glad I grabbed it. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of his other books, Cahill’s short biography of one of the 20th century’s most revered Pope’s is an intelligently written and at times inspiring piece of nonfiction. 

To me, Cahill’s Pope John XXIII seemed like two books cobbled into one. The first half was a brief history of the Catholic Church, as told from Cahill’s  perspective, which feels like that of a progressive Catholic. The second half of the book is more what I expected from a biography of a notable historical figure. It begins with Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli’s humble peasant origins in rural Italy, followed by his days as a seminarian, priest, junior army officer, (thanks to years of bad blood between the Church and the Italian national government, divinity students were not exempt from conscription) chaplain, Bishop’s Secretary and Papal Ambassador. It was during his time as the Church’s representative in Bulgaria that his behind the scenes efforts helped countless Jewish refugees escape the murderous clutches of the Nazis. After spending a decade in France he was recalled to Rome, made Patriarch of Venice and elevated to Cardinal.

Elected Pope after the death of Pius XII, due to his advanced age many thought John XXIII would serve as a short-reigning Pope and act as a transition figure until the eventual election of Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan. However, John XXIII would prove them all wrong by becoming the first “rock star Pope” Besides convening the Second Vatican Council, he would take an active role in advocating interfaith dialog, pacifism, economic justice and human rights. During his short reign he visited Rome’s hospitals, prisons and reform schools. He was also Time magazine’s Man of the Year. Not bad for a man who became Pope at the age of 77.

Pope John XXIII reminded me a lot of Gary Wills’s Why I Am a Catholic. Both books were written by progressive Catholic historians who began their respective books with a history the Catholic Church. After reading Pope John XXIII I want to read more books about the Catholic Church. I’ve been wanting to read Penny Lernoux‘s People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism for years but I’ve never taken the time to do so. Perhaps now this is a good time to finally read it. Not long ago I read a review of John Thavis’s The Vatican Diaries that Julie wrote for her blog The Smiling Shelves. I’m happy to report that a few days ago I was able to find a copy at my public library. Currently, I’m working my way through it and so far The Vatican Diaries is shaping up to be a pretty good follow-up read to Pope John XXIII. I hope to have it finished and reviewed sometime in the near future. With some good luck and a little hard work, you’ll be reading my review of yet another book about the Vatican and the Catholic Church.

8 thoughts on “Biographies of faith: Pope John XXIII by Thomas Cahill

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