In 2013, the Church marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Blessed John XXIII, arguably one of the most beloved popes of all time. From the beginning of his brief papacy (he reigned only four years, seven months), it was typical for people to refer to him as "Good Pope John" and to speak of him as if they knew him.

John’s predecessor, Pope Pius XII, had been an undeniably holy man, a brilliant intellectual, a priest dedicated — heart and soul and mind and strength — to the Church.

But, by temperament, Pius was austere and reserved. John, on the other hand, was cheerful, almost jovial. Short, stocky and almost always smiling, Pope John more resembled a much-loved grandfather than a supreme pontiff. But, just as there was much more to John Paul II than "star power," there was much more to John XXIII than a buoyant personality.

As a member of the papal diplomatic corps, John (then Bishop Angelo Roncalli) had worked with leaders of the Orthodox Church, as well as Muslims, in Greece, Bulgaria and Istanbul, which gave him an in-depth understanding of how to establish good relations with non-Catholics. He once described the splintering of Christianity into hundreds of denominations and sects as a "laceration of the Divine plan," and he would come to believe that charity between Christians of different denominations might be more effective in bringing about unity than complex theological discussions.

Consequently, as pope, he welcomed to the Vatican leaders of various Protestant denominations — to the consternation of the starchiest members of the Curia, who were uncomfortable around the spiritual descendants of Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII.

During World War II, when he was apostolic delegate to Turkey, Bishop Roncalli used his influence to save thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from the Nazis, including a group of Slovakian Jewish children, whom he helped to emigrate to the safety of Palestine. He was not alone in this, of course; there were many heroic Catholics — clergy, religious and laity — who risked their lives to save victims of the Third Reich.

In 1960, Pope John held a private audience with 130 American Jews, led by Rabbi Herbert Friedman. He greeted them with a verse from Genesis, "I am your brother, Joseph" (Genesis 45:4), which is what Joseph of the coat-of-many-colors fame had said when he revealed himself to the brothers who had sold him into slavery.

Pope John’s tendency was to look for what was positive in any situation. He never compromised his faith, but he did not see Catholicism as an obstacle to reaching out to those who believed in religions or political philosophies that were antithetical to his own. And so his visitors included not only Jacqueline Kennedy, the Catholic wife of the first Catholic president of the United States, but also the son-in-law of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and a Shinto high priest from Japan.  

For decades, it has been said that, in the conclave of 1958, no one considered Cardinal Roncalli a serious candidate for pope. But Peter Hebblethwaite, the foremost biographer of Pope John, rejects that myth. He says plainly, "[Cardinal Roncalli] was papabile, one candidate among others."

It was a small College of Cardinals that met in Rome that October — only 51 electors. At that time, all cardinals could vote, regardless of their age. Hebblethwaite reports a conversation between Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa of Florence, Italy, and Cardinal Roncalli. "You’d make a good pope," Cardinal Dalla Costa said. "But I’m 76," Cardinal Roncalli replied. "That’s 10 years younger than me," Cardinal Dalla Costa responded. Cardinal Maurilio Fossati of Turin, Italy, was even more direct. He told Cardinal Roncalli, "We want you."

Then there is the oft-repeated story that Pope John said he wanted to "open the windows of the Church so the world could look in and the Church could look out." There are many variations on this line, but the general idea was that John wanted the Church to be more engaged with contemporary secular society. Although it expressed Pope John’s intentions accurately, this story is apocryphal, too. There is no primary source that documents Pope John ever saying such a thing.

Another myth is the idea that calling a council came to John as a sudden inspiration from almighty God. For this, we have a host of documentary evidence that disproves this story. Archbishop Loris Capovilla, who was Cardinal Roncalli’s and then Pope John’s secretary, tells us that the new pope mentioned "the necessity of holding a council" only two days after his election. There is also a memo written in John’s own hand, dated Nov. 2, 1958, noting topics that he had discussed in a meeting with Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini of Sicily, among them the possibility of calling a council.

Yet, by temperament, Pope John tended to be hopeful — he believed that even the Church’s enemies could be won over. As he said to the bishops on that first day of Vatican II: "What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council."

There has long been an opinion among some Catholics that Pope John intended to sweep away the Catholic Church as it existed in his day and replace it with something more modern and streamlined. Yet that quote from his opening-day address is hardly a call for revolution.

Certainly, he wanted to shake up complacent minds and warm bitter hearts, and he hoped the Council would accomplish that; but during his reign he did nothing to shake up the day-to-day life of the Church. He kept the elaborate full papal ceremonial customs (he was the last pope to do so). He wore the tiara. He was carried in the sedia gestatoria (ceremonial throne). His only revisions to the liturgy were the removal of the phrase "perfidious Jews" from the Good Friday liturgy and the addition of the name of St. Joseph to the list of saints invoked during the Canon of the Mass.

The documents of Vatican II, which in so many ways convey what he desired, were written after his death, and the Novus Ordo Missae was the work of Pope Paul VI. And many of the upheavals that shook the Church in the years immediately after the Council had more to do with the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s than anything Pope John or Pope Paul taught.

Pope John’s encyclicals, especially Mater et Magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress) and Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), are still read, studied and quoted today.

But one of his documents remains virtually forgotten. The apostolic constitution (the highest type of decree a pope can issue) Veterum Sapientiae (On the Promotion and Study of Latin) was published on Feb. 23, 1962. The document addresses the place of Latin in the life of the Church, and what John says in it often comes as a surprise to many Catholics: "The employment of Latin has recently been contested in many quarters, and many are asking what the mind of the Apostolic See is in this matter. We have therefore decided … to ensure that the ancient and uninterrupted use of Latin be maintained and, where necessary, restored. … In the exercise of their paternal care [bishops and superiors general of religious orders] shall be on their guard, lest anyone under their jurisdiction, eager for revolutionary changes, writes against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the liturgy or through prejudice makes light of the Holy See’s will in this regard or interprets it falsely."

Yes, John wanted the Church to reach out to non-Catholic religions, to political leaders and nations that were hostile to the Church, and he hoped that the recognition of our common humanity could reduce tensions and animosities that had existed in some cases for centuries. But his actions and his writings do not support the idea that he began his papacy eager to unleash a whirlwind in the Church.

In life and in death, Blessed John XXIII appealed to a broad spectrum of society (that’s what saints do). Although it’s natural that Catholics on the left and the right want to claim him as their own, he doesn’t fit either category. He was a holy, intelligent, loving, compassionate, complex man whose life and work defies all attempts to put a label on him.


Thomas J. Craughwell is the

author of the newly released

Pope Francis: The Pope From the End

of the World

from St. Benedict Press.

He writes from Bethel, Connecticut.