To paraphrase what I wrote last fall, one of the cool things about the European Reading Challenge is it forces you to spread things around a bit when it comes to your reading. Specifically, according to the rules of the challenge you can’t just read a bunch of books set in, or about one single country, or small group of countries. To have any chance of winning the challenge you must to read a wide array of books representing an array of European countries. Of course, for the larger countries nations like the United Kingdom, France or Russia it’s pretty easy finding the applicable books. But what do you do about the smaller countries of Europe? And what about the micro state of Vatican City? Since I’ve already read The Vatican Diaries (it’s excellent, by the way) and have no desire to read anything by Dan Brown, my options are somewhat limited. However, after thinking it over a bit I came up with a solution: read something about a Pope. Even if I restrict it to Popes from the post-Lateran Treaty era (the agreement the Vatican signed with Italy which established Vatican City as a sovereign state) there’s probably at least seven or eight Popes to choose from. No matter if the last three Popes, including the current one Francis were born outside Italy, all Popes spend their careers presiding in the Vatican.
In 2013 I featured Thomas Cahill’s short biography of Pope John XXIII entitled Pope John XXII. Since I found Cahill’s account of John XXIII’s life fascinating and definitely worth reading about, I vowed to someday read more stuff on the revered Pope, should I ever get the opportunity. Then, over the last year during my weekend visits to the public library I kept noticing another John XXIII biography, this one by the German theologian and journalist Christian Feldman. Finally, one weekend afternoon I decided to stop ignoring it and grabbed that copy of Feldman’s Pope John XXIII: A Spiritual Biography.
Published in 2000, Feldman’s biography begins with the birth of Angelo Roncalli, the man who would become John XXII. Born to a family of impoverished sharecroppers in rural Lombardy, the young Roncalli eventually entered seminary. After his graduation and priestly ordination he served in several administrative roles as well as seminary lecturer. With the outbreak of World War One he was conscripted into the Italian army, and served as a stretcher-bearer and chaplain where he ministered to the wounded and dying from both the Italian side and those from the enemy Austrians.
For the next 30 years Roncalli was posted to several overseas in assignments in Bulgaria, Turkey and later France. During these years he assisted refugees (including many Jews), encountered Islam and after the Second World War II ended helped reconcile former enemies. His last post before being elected Pope was Patriarch of Venice.
In the end, it was these supposed weaknesses that in the end, were his greatest strengths. His backwater postings in Turkey and Bulgaria not only enlarged his horizons politically, socially and religiously but also led to his deeper understanding and appreciation of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Thanks to his humble roots, Roncalli’s simple, peasant-like charm could disarm even his harshest adversaries. Even though he came from rural Lombardy, his intellectual curiosity and openness to new ideas would make him the perfect Pope to convene the Second Vatican Council with the purpose of bringing the Church into the modern age.
I would probably consider this slim book a modest biography of the beloved Pope, but an informative one. Should you decide to read it, I would encourage you to read it alongside Cahill’s above-mentioned biography. A combination of both books should give readers a decent picture of one of modern history’s most interesting and perhaps revered Pope.