Friday, September 28, 2012
TLC Book Tour - Book Review - The Good Pope - David
Title: The Good Pope
Author: Greg Tobin
Review: As a non-Catholic I came to this book with no knowledge of Pope John XXIII or the tenets of the faith, but I enjoy stories of great people and how they got that way. Tobin’s biography did not disappoint as he took us through the life of Pope John; from his peasant childhood in the Italian mountains to the beginnings of his greatest achievement, Vatican II.
From the very beginning his parents were committed to the faith as they waited all day at the church for the priest to return so Angelo (Pope John) could be baptized. “There was no question of returning later” as hard life in the country had taught them tomorrow may never come, at least for some. It is a great message for all those who procrastinate the truly important, like living a more righteous life.
The general theme of the man (and the book) was one of ecumenicism, that respect for others and worrying about the weightier matters in life would do more to further the work of God, or at a minimum, peace in this world. Too often in life, especially in politics, religion, sports, etc., people become severely partisan. So much so their entire focus becomes how the other side is wrong. They sacrifice understanding why they believe what they do in order to understand all the ways others are not right. They build walls to separate themselves from others and eventually lose the ability to work with those different from themselves.
While stationed in Turkey Atatürk banned all religious displays including clothing. Angelo Roncalli said “What does it matter whether we wear the soutane or trousers as long as we proclaim the word of God.” It demonstrates how people get fixated on some outward appearance rather than what is on the inside. Several parables come to mind that teach this same principle, from the mote in the eye to the Good Samaritan. Roncalli was a man who believed the bible when it said we were to love all men.
He also demonstrated good humor about his situation from describing his father, “There are three ways of ruining oneself – women, gambling, and farming. My father chose the most boring.” His description of his circumstances to a friend “Without having taken a vow of poverty I am practicing it.” When asked about how many people worked in the Vatican “About half of them.” It all goes to show a man who did not take himself too seriously while at the same time holding the office which he held with the greatest respect. This ability to get down literally in the trenches (served as a priest in WWI) with those he was called to minister served him well as his responsibilities increased.
The message of the bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is love for all men, respect of others and their sincere desires to be good people. Through the daily actions of his life he tried to live this principle to its fullest, and worked to change those who would co-opt the scriptures to abuse their fellow men. When criticized for working with the Russians to secure the release of a imprisoned Bishop, or even the peaceful end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he said “We must not condemn them (Russians) because we don’t like their political system.” It is a sad world when a lot of us condemn others for much less.
A Side Note: I do find it interesting how the JFK church/state separation is much touted as a criticism of Mitt Romney and his Mormonism, but JFK, the Russians, and Pope John XXIII were very involved together to end the Cuban Missile Crisis. The aforementioned “complete” separation obviously had some cracks no one seems to interested in discussing nowadays. Plus, don’t get me wrong, I am not criticizing the involvement at all, I just find it fascinating.
I found almost the entire book delightful and full of interesting quotes and stories that served to uplift my own worldview. All of us could be a little nicer in life and while I am sure Pope John XXIII would be the first to agree he was far from perfect, at times in his life he did a pretty good job of doing his best.
Unfortunately I did find one section of the book that was out of tune with the rest, that was like hitting a jarring speed bump on the highway when all else had been fine. At one point the author’s own biases bled through and took me out of the narrative completely. I won’t get into the several issues the author brought up because at the end of the day they are things of personal opinion and have nothing to do with Pope John XXIII. But when you are purporting to write a biography and you begin a sentence with “It might be mere semantics and revisionism to ask how John himself might comment on the contemporary issue of …” and then go ahead and spout your personal opinions and state that the Pope would have clearly agreed with me – you have gone wrong.
This process of co-opting the Pope to make divisive statements of contemporary issues was just plain disgraceful. It ruined the flow of the book and it honestly took at least fifty more pages to get back into the life story again. Furthermore it made me suspicious of the rest of the text that the author might be forcing his opinion in and I just wasn’t noticing. At the end those ten or so pages really brought down an otherwise excellent life story of a great man who, as it seemed to me, deserved better.
Quick Review: 3.75 stars out of 5
Why I Read It: I enjoy biographies of interesting people.
Where I Obtained the Book: Sent to me by the publisher for review.
Synopsis: On November 23, 1958, Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the son of peasant Italian farmers, became Pope John XXIII. Widely expected to be a transitional pope, John surprised the Church hierarchy and the world by convoking an ambitious ecumenical council—the first such council in more than a century—to bring the Catholic Church into the modern era. "I want to throw open the windows of the Church," he said, "so that we can see out and the people can see in." Broken into four sessions and held over four years, the Second Vatican Council ("a new Pentecost," according to John) breathed new life into the Church and its pastoral mission, knocking down the centuries-old wall between the Church hierarchy and the laity and repositioning the Church as a universal instrument of hope, justice, and compassion for people of all faiths.
Fifty years after he convened the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII remains one of the most beloved and remarkable fi gures in the history of the Catholic Church. Affectionately known as Il Buono Papa, or the Good Pope, John is remembered today by Catholics and non-Catholics alike as an enduring symbol of peace, ecumenicalism, and Christian spirituality. In The Good Pope, Greg Tobin recounts John's remarkable story, from his impoverished childhood in Bergamo, Italy, and his successful tenure as a papal ambassador in war-torn Europe to his surprise ascendancy to the throne of St. Peter. In the process, he traces John's legacy as the spiritual father of the modern Church and explains why the Good Pope and his great council are as vital, vibrant, and important to Catholicism as ever before. Meticulously researched and engaging, The Good Pope captures the heart, soul, and spirit of the man who ushered in a new era of religion in the twentieth century.
Author Biography: Greg Tobin is the author of several books on the Catholic Church. He was the editor of The Catholic Advocate, and during the April 2005 papal transition he appeared frequently on national radio and TV programs as an expert commentator on the popes and the papal election process. His books Selecting the Pope and Holy Father were widely used as authoritative resources on the subject and were quoted in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as the Associated Press. He lives in West Orange, NJ.
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