Papa Giovanni

I was a baby when he died, yet his joyous memory and legacy lived on throughout my formative years, and his fat, peasant face smiled at me from pictures on devout Catholic walls, especially in Italy. Yes, Papa Giovanni, Blessed John XXIII, whose feast day is tomorrow: chosen not because it is the anniversary of his death, but rather the anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962... the day when the Catholic Church flung its windows wide open onto the world and let in the revitalising breath of the Holy Spirit.

I grew up not just seeing his face but hearing anecdotes and wistful reminiscences about him. The same adjectives abounded: good, kind, avuncular, humble, genial, loving and lovable. The first pope, after centuries of frosty distance and deference, to give the papacy a friendly, benign face. The first pope to visit Regina Caeli prison and insist on meeting and blessing all inmates, including the most hardened and dangerous. The first pope to open wide his arms and embrace the world.

He was a farmer's son who, apparently, enjoyed a glass of good wine: so a good excuse, if one were needed, to raise a glass in his honour, toast his smiling memory, and ask him to pray for the health of the Church he so memorably served...


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