04/15/2014 06:25 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

Saint John XXIII

On Sunday April 27 Pope Francis will formally declare that Pope John XXIII is a saint. It is now more than fifty years after Pope John's death (1963); his reputation for holiness has stood the test of time in a way that cannot yet be said for Pope John Paul II, also to be canonized on April 27.

Born on November 25, 1881 in Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo in northern Italy, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was one of 13 children in a loving family that knew well the demands of frugal living. When Angelo was ordained a priest, in Rome, his family could not attend the ceremony, for the travel costs were too expensive for them. It is extremely likely that he never forgot this, and that his focus, as pope, on justice for the poor and for workers, was grounded, in part, in his early experiences. Drafted into the Italian army during World War I, Roncalli served as a medical orderly, and in that role saw up close the horror and suffering of young men wounded and dying for a nationalist cause of dubious value. This, too, he could not have forgotten.

A traditional Catholic view said that Catholicism was true, indeed the truth, while other religions were false, and thus to be shunned. But in his long years before becoming pope, Roncalli worked as a papal diplomat in eastern Europe, in Turkey and Greece, and in France. He got to know personally and became keenly aware of varieties of Christians, including the Orthodox, and also of persons of other faiths, such as Muslims. During World War II he helped Jews to escape arrest and deportation by Nazis, and to reach Palestine. As pope, John XXIII removed offensive references to Jews from the Catholic liturgy for Good Friday, and laid the groundwork for the very substantial improvement in Jewish-Catholic relations promoted by Vatican II and by popes since then. Though Pope John died before Vatican II issued any significant documents, it was he who had the idea for the Council, an idea that centered on the need for a bringing-up-to-date, for an opening of windows, for turning the Church from defensive and arrogant self-absorption to become a more vibrant Church as the people of God on pilgrimage and moving forward in the world. With Pope John, persons of other faiths became sisters and brothers for Catholics, not infidels, heretics, and schismatics headed for damnation.

It is also true that John XXIII had a conservative side, and he could at times be reluctant to embrace certain new things. As late as 1962 he promoted use of Latin in seminary education, just as it was to all but disappear. He was little impressed by television, and as patriarch of Venice, in the 1950s, he cautioned priests against spending time watching television programs. And he seems to have liked at least most of the traditional protocol and ceremonial at the Vatican. But such protocol did not keep him from conveying a human, personal warmth that had been rarely seen in his predecessor, the austere Pius XII. A smiling, overweight, endearing, and grandfatherly figure, Pope John was also crowned with the tiara and carried in a throne. Like most of the more interesting human beings on the face of the earth, John XXIII could somehow combine in his person seemingly contradictory tendencies.

John XXIII helped the Catholic Church, especially the European Church, to leave behind a nostalgic view of the past that demonized the French Revolution, and set the Church against nearly everything perceived as being new since the Enlightenment. In his 1961 encyclical Mater et magistra, John exhorted Catholics and others to move beyond stale controversies, and to engage issues such as a living wage for workers, and economic justice for newly independent nation-states in Africa and Asia.

But this did not mean that Pope John naively or uncritically embraced everything that could be identified as modern or contemporary. The years of his papacy, 1958-1963, correspond to the height of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Playing a neutral and diplomatic role, Pope John helped to defuse the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and thus played a role in avoiding nuclear annihilation. In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in terris, published only weeks before his death from cancer, John insisted that peace in the world would require something more than, and something other than, two superpowers pointing weapons of mass destruction at each other. A nuclear-armed and fragile armistice was not the way to guarantee genuine peace. The centuries-old Catholic tradition of certain conditions for a 'just' war, Pope John did not formally repudiate, but his teaching superseded it and set a course for papal teaching on war and peace that has been followed and developed by his successors: Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis. All of these popes have called for an end to war, and they have been very critical of the United States and its wars.

Canonized saints are supposed to be models for other Christians to follow and imitate in their lives. This makes popes perhaps rather poor choices for canonization, for who can imitate a pope but another pope? But I suggest that it is precisely the way in which John XXIII was open to change, in his late seventies and early eighties, that makes him a valuable role model. Many people become relentlessly more conservative and reactionary as the grow old; they imagine that the golden age was in their younger days, and that the world around them has since gone to hell. Pope John offers a healthier model for growing old gracefully, one that includes an expanding openness to change. As such he may be a valuable model not only for popes, but for all Christians, and indeed for all persons of whatever faith or no faith. May he be such a model for us all, and may he continue to inspire Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., Pope Francis, a man not unlike Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.