John XXIII: Saint in the Age of Television


Blessed Pope John XXIII

In 1958, a congenial old man, Angelo Roncalli, was elected to the chair of Peter.  He was to be a caretaker pope, someone to keep the ship steady while the cardinals identified a more long-term leader.  That smiling old man soon stunned the world by calling the first ecumenical council in nearly a hundred years.  That was not exactly what the Cardinals had in mind.

But they had chosen a profoundly holy man for the job, someone who’d be declared “Blessed” just a few decades later.  One thing about holy people – they are docile to the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit blows where he wills, and they follow without hesitation.  Don’t choose that sort of person to man the helm if you don’t want to rock the boat.

Docility requires humility, which is a critical component of holiness in any age.  When asked to enumerate the four Cardinal Virtues, St. Bernard of Clairveaux (11th century) replied “humility, humility, humility and humility.”  If there was a salient characteristic of Angelo Roncalli, it was these four cardinal virtues!

Born to a peasant sharecropping family of Northern Italy, Angelo never lost touch with his roots.  As a seminarian, spent his summers working the fields with his brothers.  Whenever he removed the white gloves of papal ceremonial, one could see the calloused hands of a peasant.

Pope John XXIII was the first pontiff to allow representatives of atheistic communist governments to visit the Vatican.  On one occasion he received a Soviet Diplomat and his wife in private audience.  He handed the wife a gift, a beautiful rosary.  When he placed the beads in her hand, she exclaimed to her husband in Russian “look, he has the hands of a worker, he is one of us!”  Of course she did not expect this peasant-pope to understand.  But she was wrong!  This peasant spoke not only Latin and his native Italian, but also French, Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish, and Russian.  Duty required that he learn them.  Duty had also required that he become an expert in the Fathers of the Church and the Reformation, so he got his doctorate in Church history.  A highly cultured peasant indeed!

Yet the comment of the Russian woman gave him great satisfaction – he was proud to be recognized as a peasant, a worker, as “one of us.”

That highlights another quality of John’s holiness that is a model for us all.  No one left his presence without feeling that they had something profoundly in common with him, that he was with them, for them.  All, even atheists, felt somehow affirmed by him.

This is not to say that he was without principles.  At outset of the council, he strongly affirmed that the essence of Catholic doctrine and morals would not change to suit modern tastes.  He had strong convictions about modesty in dress, and he frequently reminded those who forgot.  In his opening speech, he included strong criticism of those “prophets of doom” who saw nothing but sin and danger in the modern age.

Yet he was always able to distinguish persons from their actions or ideas, and recognize the human dignity of everyone.  His affirming smile let people know that he found something delightful in them, the goodness of God that could not be obscured by their sins or politics.  He was always able quickly to find some common ground and build rapport.

He was not liberal or conservative.  He was just Angelo Roncalli, disciple and priest of Jesus Christ.  The conservatives loved him because of his traditional piety.  The liberals claimed him because he was open to change.

Yet there was not a political bone in his body.  He was not trying to be “diplomatic.”  He was just transparently himself.  Always.  This is why he was chosen to serve in the Vatican diplomatic core for so many years.  Because of his authenticity and integrity, everyone trusted him.  He succeeded where others failed, building bridges, reconciling foes, defusing crises.  Few know that when the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, it was Pope John who helped Kennedy and Khrushchev come to a peaceful resolution.

Pope John’s ability to get erstwhile enemies talking was part of why the Holy Spirit was able to use him to make Vatican II happen.  He made progressives and traditionalists sit down at the same table and work together.  When some wished to submit their resignations, he refused with a smile and told them it was their duty to listen to each other and collaborate for the glory of God.

Saint that he was, he took God’s work and God’s glory very seriously.  Yet his holiness prevented him from taking himself, and his glory, too seriously.  He had the proverbial “Roman nose,” big ears and a waistline reflecting his love of pasta.  When he was given a glimpse of himself for the first time in a full length mirror, dressed in full papal regalia, his secretary overheard him mutter under his breath with a smile, “My God, this Pope is going to be a disaster on television!”

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 1.800.803.0118. This was originally published in the Catholic News Service’s syndicated column “Faith Alive” and appears here by permission of the author.

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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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