The Humor and Love of John XXIII

The Humor and Love of John XXIII

by James Martin, SJ

One night [during retreat], around ten o’clock, I was exploring the house library, a small, wood- paneled room with the typically motley jumble of old, used, worn, and downright ugly furniture that characterizes “Jesuit style.” (In fairness, the little library at Eastern Point has since been spruced up.) Poking through the shelves, I came upon a book called Wit and Wisdom of Good Pope John.

Published in 1964, not long after the pope’s death, the book had torn and yellowed pages. Despite [the assistant novice director’s] warning not to lose myself in books, the temptation to peek inside was irresistible. After a few pages I was hooked: who knew John XXIII was so funny? Of course, not all the stories were laugh-out-loud funny. And I had already heard his famous answer to the journalist who asked innocently, “How many people work in the Vatican?”

“About half of them,” said His Holiness.

But the passage that made me laugh in the retreat house (and drew pointed glances from more silent retreatants) was one that placed the pope in a Roman hospital called the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Shortly after entering the building, he was introduced to the sister who ran the hospital.

“Holy Father,” she said, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”

“You’re very lucky,” said the pope, delighted. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”

It was that somewhat frivolous story that drew me to John XXIII. How wonderful to keep his sense of humor, even while holding a position of such authority, when he could easily have become cold or authoritarian. How wonderful to have a sense of humor at all! A requirement of the Christian life, I think.

It reminded me of a story I had heard from a friend about Fr. Pedro Arrupe, the former superior general of the Jesuits, often called “Father General,” or, more simply, “the General.” Once, Father General was visiting Xavier High School in New York City, which has, since its founding, sponsored a military cadet corps for its boys, a sort of junior ROTC. For his visit, the school’s cadets, in full uniform, lined both sides of the street. When Father General emerged from his car, the phalanx of cadets snapped to attention and saluted crisply.

He turned to my friend. “Now,” he said, “I feel like a real general!”

Pope John XXIII had a similarly wry sense of humor, and who couldn’t love a pope who had a sense of humor? Who couldn’t feel affection for a man who was so comfortable with himself that he constantly made jokes about his height (which was short), his ears (which were big), and his weight (which was considerable). When he once met a little boy named Angelo, he exclaimed, “That was my name, too!” And then, conspiratorially, “But then they made me change it!”

For his humor, his openness, his generosity, and his warmth, many people loved him: Good Pope John.

But to see John XXIII as a sort of papal Santa Claus is to only partly understand him. An experienced diplomat, a veteran of ecumenical dialogue, and a gifted pastor and bishop, he brought a wealth of experience to the office of pope.…

Soon after finishing the long retreat, I decided that I wanted to know more about Angelo Roncalli than just the few funny stories I had read in the retreat house library. So I slowly made my way through Journal of a Soul and Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography John XXIII: Pope of the Century as a way of getting to know him better.

In time, I realized that I was drawn to John XXIII not as much for his wit, or his writings, or his love of the church, or even his accomplishments as for something more basic: his love for God and for other people. The gentle old man seemed to be one of the most loving of all the saints: always a loving son, a loving brother, a loving priest, a loving bishop, and a loving pope. John radiated Christian love. Was it any wonder that so many people were drawn to him?

from My Life with the Saints, by James Martin, SJ


James Martin, SJ 

James Martin, SJ, is associate editor of America magazine and a prolific author, writer, and editor.

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