One of the better parts about being a writer is that you get learn things for a living. For example, when Carl Olson asked me to cover a lecture on Pope John XXIII and the Jews for Catholic World Report, I had only a fairly general image of Pope John. I thought he was a genial and humble man, a skilled diplomat, and a fine leader. I liked all that I’d read by him, but until Rabbi David G. Dalin explained the extent and nature of his work on behalf of the Jews during World War II, I never thought of him as a hero.
Almost as interesting was Rabbi Dalin’s characterization of him as one of the great scholar popes. I had not known he wrote a five-volume biography about St. Charles Borromeo, or that he was a respected lecturer in Church history.
One laughably wrong characterization I read about him, again and again, is that he was some kind of flaming liberal.
The idea of Bishop Roncalli, protege of Pius XII (and by some accounts the man Pius XII wanted to succeed him), as some kind of heretic liberal may be one of the more absurd things people say about him, and there is no shortage of people saying silly things about John XXIII. For example, in a recent interview filled with more than its fair share of flatly untrue statements, heretical former priest Tony Flannery suggested that Pope Francis may be “far more radical than John XXIII.”
Actually, neither of them is any kind of radical. And since Flannery is a man of the far left, and John XXIII’s more vocal foes tend to be of the far right, it’s pretty clear that neither side truly understands this great saint.
If you’d like to learn more about him, my story about Rabbi Dalin’s research on John is up now at Catholic World Report. Here’s a bit of it:
He was the preeminent Vatican diplomat in Turkey and Greece during World War II, and played a historic role in saving tens of thousands of Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, and Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
“During the tragic years of the Holocaust,” Rabbi Dalin observes, “Angelo Roncalli reached heroic heights.”
Pius XII and his Vatican diplomats—with Bishop Roncalli among the most prominent—had some political leverage in Catholic countries, and they used it to halt or significantly delay deportation of Jews by Nazi puppet governments. In Budapest alone, Roncalli rescued at least 50,000 Jews by issuing baptismal certificates. During the German occupation of Greece, he actively aided the local population and prevented the deportation of Greek Jews to death camps. He was instrumental in preventing tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. Through persistent diplomatic protests, Roncalli and Pius were able to save thousands in Slovakia.
Since Roncalli had a warm relationship the king and queen of Bulgaria, he wrote to King Boris III saying, “On no account should Bulgaria agree with the horrific and dishonorable demand of the Nazis,” and threatening him with the punishment of God if he cooperated.
And although the canonization ceremony isn’t until later this month, let’s finish this post by doing something many Catholics will be doing from now on: saying, “Saint John XXIII, pray for us.”
h/t: Thanks to John Burger for connecting me with CWR.