This week, June 3 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII, a man of remarkable humor and humility who once remarked, "Anyone can be pope. I am the best proof of that." Despite the honors heaped upon him, he never took himself too seriously or forgot that he was the son of a poor sharecropper.
"I am not a good looking pope--just look at my ears--but you will get along with me." He was old and fat and unpromising at the time of his election in 1958 at age 78; yet, in barely five years, the changed the Catholic church and the relation of the church with the world. He began the Second Vatican Council, which came as surprise to many who expected the former Angelo Cardinal Roncalli to be a caretaker until someone better came along. And he endeared himself to millions.
Like Pope Francis, he loved people and shunned pomp--not easy at the Vatican with its entrenched traditions. He walked the city streets, picking up the nickname Johnny Walker, and visited a Rome jail because the inmates could not come to see him.
About ancient traditions, he said: "Tradition means 'protect the fire,' not 'preserve the ashes'." About reform, he believed in taking things step by step: "See everything. Overlook much. Correct a little."
He had a positive rather than judgmental attitude toward people and was a good pastor in Venice. Before that, in Paris as the nuncio after the war, he encountered a workman who had just hit his thumb and was cursing, calling upon God to damn everyone imaginable. Roncalli stopped him, smiled and said: "Why don't you just say 'shit' like everyone else?"
That anecdote speaks volumes about the man.