Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Good Pope-A Book Review

In my hometown of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, there is only one Catholic High School; Roncalli High.  Due to my narrow world vision and poor catechesis, I had never known why the school was called Roncalli and I never questioned it, either.  It wasn't until I opened the book, The Good Pope:  John XXIII & Vatican II, The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church, by Greg Tobin, that I discovered that the source of the school's name is the birth name of  Blessed John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.

I'm sorry to say that not only was I unaware of Pope John XXIII's birth name, but I also knew very little about the Good Pope at all.  So when I was contacted by a representative of TLC Book Tours asking me to read and review Greg Tobin's book for a blog tour, I was eager to educate myself about this beloved pontiff.

Before I opened the book, I skimmed over the reviews on the back cover and was a bit disheartened to read this by Thomas H. Groome:  "The story of Good Pope John is always worth telling but all the more so in the current climate of retreat from his vision of aggiornamento.  Greg Tobin tells it very well.  As we wait for better days, this story will help to keep hope alive."  I felt that this was a foretelling that the book would simply be a criticism of the Church today and would pit liberals against conservatives as seems to be a sad trend in the blogosphere today, with division and dissent as the name of the game, and I worried that reading The Good Pope would leave me feeling disheartened and irritated.  As I began to read the book, I was clearly looking for signs of this, but my worries were needless.  Each reference made to conservatives vs. liberals seemed to be a necessary part of telling the story of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, and I could easily tolerate it, and in fact, enjoyed reading about it when it came to the telling of the battles that occurred between the bishops and cardinals during Vatican II understanding it to be of historical value.

I have to admit that I not only learned a great deal in these very easy to read pages, but I also thoroughly enjoyed the book and found myself recommending it to others at every opportunity.

From the very beginning of the book I was captivated and felt that I could relate in a very small way to this good and holy man who was the subject of this book.  As a member of,  volunteer for, and good friend to the National Head of the Apostleship of Prayer, I was happy to learn that Pope John was also a member of the Apostleship of Prayer as a young adult, which, according to the author, was "another way for Roncalli and those who were as pious as he to devote every minute of their waking lives to Christ."  I also enjoyed reading about Roncalli's years as a seminarian and learning that he struggled to get good grades, as well as finding out that his relationship with his family was not always joyful and holy but that he struggled to find peace while visiting in his overcrowded home with "continual family arguments."  It sounds to me as if the Good Pope came from a very normal household a lot like my own, and as the mother of a seminarian, I chuckled to think that my own son could probably commiserate with Pope John when he returns home for visits to his own overcrowded house filled with family arguments.

Delving further into the book, I was charmed by Pope John's explanation of why he chose the name "John" upon being elected to the papacy, and was especially fond of his use of the plurals "we" and "us"  when referring to himself:

"Vocabur Johannes (I wish to be called John).  This name is sweet to us because it is the name of our father. It is sweet to us because it is the name of the humble parish church in which we were baptized; it is the name of innumerable cathedrals scattered throughout the world and first of all the sacred Lateran Basilica, our cathedral.

It is the name which has been born by more popes in the long list of Roman pontiffs.  In fact there are 22 supreme pontiffs with the name of John of undoubted legitimacy.  Practically all have had a short pontificate.  We have preferred to cover the littleness of our name behind this magnificent succession of Roman pontiffs.

But we love the name of John, so dear to us and to the whole Church, especially because of the two who have born it, the two men, that is, who were closest to Christ the Lord, the Divine Redeemer of the whole world and founder of the Church.

John the Baptist, the forerunner of our Lord, was not the light himself, but a witness to the light, an invincible witness to truth, justice and freedom, in his preaching, in his baptism of penitence, and in the blood which he shed.

And the other John, the disciple and evangelist, beloved by Christ and his dearest mother, who at the Last Supper leaned on the breast of the Lord and drew from thence that charity of which he was a living and apostolic flame until the end of his ripe old age.

May John the Evangelist who, she himself relates, took to himself Mary the Mother of Christ and our mother, support together with her this exhortation, which is meant for the life and joy of the Catholic and apostolic Church, and also the peace and prosperity of all nations.

My little children, love one another; love one another because this is the greatest commandment of the Lord."

I was also greatly endeared to the fact that his second encyclical written as pope, Sacerdotii nostri primordia (The Beginning of Our Priesthood), was a tribute to St. John Vianney written as a means to "guide, inspire and even challenge Roman Catholic priests."  As someone who is greatly drawn to offer my lifelong prayers and sacrifices for the sanctification of priests as an oblate of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, I especially was pleased to read this passage:

"In John's last major verse in his hymn to priestly excellence, he asks that the faithful pray for priests and that families support vocations to the priesthood.  'We have complete confidence that the young people of our time will be as quick as those of times past to give a generous answer to the invitation of the Divine Master to provide for this vital need....So let Christian families consider it one of their most sublime privileges to give priests to the Church; and so let them offer their sons to the sacred ministry with joy and gratitude.'"

The Good Pope continues on with a detailed explanation of Pope John's vision of renewal for the church and his call for the Second Vatican Council, with interesting tales of the in-fighting among the bishops and cardinals and Pope John's continual and  peaceful overseeing of it all up to his death.  I was fascinated to learn so much that I had never known about Vatican II and now that the 50th anniversary of this historic event is upon us, this book would make a great read for those, like me, who know very little about this pivotal moment in Church history.

In the second to last chapter, Finis, the details about the death of Pope John XXIII are revealed and I was deeply moved by many of his final words such as those spoken to his family:   "My time on earth is drawing to a close.  But Christ lives on and the Church continues His work.  Souls, souls."  And, "Do you remember how I never thought of anything else in life but being a priest?"  Also sweet were his words of consolation to his close friend and aide, Monsignor Loris Capovilla:  "I'll protect you from heaven."

The author's description of the final death scene was also deeply touching:  "Just at that moment, John took his last breath.  Those in the room with John knelt and prayed, then sang hymns-the Te Deum and the Magnificat.  As tradition dictated-and tradition was something John loved-the dead pope's brow was tapped firmly to make sure he was really dead."

I am certain that had I ever known Pope John XXIII in life, I would have greatly loved him,as many clearly have, thus the title, The Good Pope.  I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to read The Good Pope and to come to learn the reason why he is so greatly revered through time and location, even to the naming of a small town's Catholic high school.  Whether you already know a lot about Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council or, like me, you know very little, I strongly encourage you to read The Good Pope.  You will not be disappointed!

For more reviews of The Good Pope, visit these blog stops of the TLC tour:

Tuesday, September 25th: 50 Books Project
Wednesday, September 26th: Imprisoned in My Bones
Thursday, September 27th: A Catholic Life
Friday, September 28th: Book Him Danno!
Monday, October 1st:
Tuesday, October 2nd:
Thursday, October 4th: Vox Nova
Monday, October 8th: Cold Read
Monday, October 8th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Wednesday, October 10th: 50 Books Project
Thursday, October 11th: A Catholic Mom Climbing The Pillars
Monday, October 15th: Man of La Book


  1. The book sounds good. I don't know much about him either. I heard about his wonderful sense of humor and of course Vatican II. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for your review of this book and also a small glimpse of Pope John. I really didn't know much about him! The book does look like good reading.

  3. I'm happy to see that your fears about the content were not only unfounded but that you truly ended up enjoying this book!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  4. Totally agree with your surmise with Groome, but I'm reading it now and will be posting my own tour review.

    Glad you like it!

  5. I liked the book as well (I'm on the tour here), I've never heard of John XXIII but I'm glad I read the book.