Thomas Cahill’s highly successful Hinges of History series has established him as one of the most engaging and popular authors in the field of religion today. Three volumes have been published thus far: How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews and Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. All have been best-sellers.
His latest book on Pope John XXIII is part of a different series, Penguin Lives, which consists of compact biographies of major figures and covers a very wide spectrum, from Crazy Horse to Mozart and from Elvis Presley to St. Augustine. While Cahill’s own contribution to the series is not likely to tarnish the fine reputation his writings have already achieved for him, neither will it enhance it. In spite of the many flashes of bright and vivid prose one finds in this volume, in the end it does not measure up to the high literary standards of the author himself nor to the book’s larger-than-life subject.
Divided into four partsBefore John, Angelo the Man, Roncalli the Pastor, John the Pope and After Johnmore than a third of the book has nothing directly to do with John XXIII himself. Part I provides a sweeping overview of papal history, from Peter to Pius XII. One wonders whether Cahill, in his former role as director of religious publishing at Doubleday, would have sent the manuscript back for rewriting, with clear instructions to compress Part I into a few pages of introduction, just enough to provide some historical context for the remarkable story of John XXIII.
The overview itself is marred by a style that is sometimes breezy and even crude, and the tone is occasionally cynical. The text in Part I, but elsewhere in the book as well, is pockmarked with words and phrases like tizzies, papal pork barrel, motor-mouth bishops and blockhead. Pius XII is referred to as a moral pygmy. His definition of the dogma of the Assumption is characterized by Cahill as oddball. Pius VI is said to have been as close to being a nonentity as popes ever get and John XXIII himself a sucker for ceremony. The occasional crudities are better left unmentioned (examples can be found on pages 84 and 86).
An editor should also have noticedand correctedthe author’s tendency to repeat the use of certain words (barbarian, or some form thereof, is employed 18 times in the course of 15 pages) or to use certain words that have long since acquired a pejorative meaning, like barbarian itself, Uniates (a term abhorred by Eastern Catholics in communion with Rome) and mafia (used three times in seven pages).
When the author finally addresses the subject matter of his book, he treats the reader to the sort of crackling and luminous writing of which he is manifestly capable. He provides a theologically splendid description of the Catholic sacramental vision (pp. 76-77 and pp. 80-81, Angelo the Man), although he cannot resist the temptation to set it over against Vatican fulminations and the severities of papal extremism.
His emphasis on the crucial role of mentors in young Angelo Roncalli’s priestly and episcopal life is of immense value to understanding this great man. Roncalli first learned the ways of compassionate and effective ministry from his local pastor in Sotto il Monte, Don Francesco Rebuzzini, and then how to be a good bishop, patterned after the Gospel rather than ecclesiastical protocol, from Bologna’s Giacomo Maria Radini-Tedeschi, whom young Father Roncalli served as secretary. He also learned much from, and sought to emulate, the Archbishop of Milan, Andrea Carlo Ferrari, a valued confidant and faithful supporter. Like Radini-Tedeschi (and later Roncalli himself), Ferrari was not a favorite of certain high-ranking Vatican officials. And there were also great mentors from past eras, the most significant of whom was St. Charles Borromeo, another archbishop of Milan, to whose pastoral record and writings Roncalli would devote the major portion of his own scholarly activity. As a historian in his own right, Roncalli looked to another 16th-century figure, Cardinal Cesare Baronius, as a model. It was Baronius’s vision of history as saturated with a supernatural dimension, guided always by divine providence, that would inform John XXIII’s immensely important opening address to the Second Vatican Council in October 1962an address to which the author pays too little attention in his narrative of John’s papacy. There were, of course, other mentors of less celebrity status: Roncalli’s parents, his uncle Zaverio and his extended family of peasant farmers and homemakers.
This providential view of history, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, touched and directed Roncalli’s whole life and ecclesiastical career. Assignments not originally embraced became the building-blocks that would constitute the spiritual substance of his person and pontificate. His assignments to Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece as a Vatican diplomat opened his eyes and imagination to a part of the world that would remain close to his heart to the very end of his life. His storied, back-channel efforts to save thousands of Jews from sure death during the Second World War and his deft handling of sensitive postwar issues as papal nuncio in France (the priest-worker movement, and what to do about bishops who had collaborated with the Nazi regime) are other cases in point.
Part III, on Roncalli the pastor and pope, carries the reader forward with enthusiasm and exuberance. Cahill is a wonderful guide as he illuminates the path to understanding, appreciating and then giving thanks for the remarkable witness of John XXIII’s ministry, not only to the church but to the human community itself. He identifies the inner core and strength of this man, Angelo Roncalli, and shows how and why he would become the most beloved pope in all of history.
Unfortunately, Part IV, After John, tends to revert to some of the less attractive stylistic traits of Part I. Cahill’s evaluation of Paul VI is entirely too negative, although for reasons very different from those subsequently brought forward by the late pope’s severest critics on the right, namely, that he was too weak, too soft, too timid in the enforcement of orthodoxy and disciplinein other words, that he was too much unlike John Paul II. Although the latter needs no defense from this reviewer, it never serves a prosecutorial case when arguments brought forward are, here and there, factually incorrect. The author asserts, for example, that it would be impossible to imagine John Paul II’s bestowing his episcopal ring on an archbishop of Canterbury (as Paul VI did).... But in fact, in 1996, on the occasion of the 1,400th anniversary of Gregory the Great’s sending of missionaries to Britain, John Paul II bestowed upon the current archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, a pectoral cross and invited him and the other Anglican bishops who had accompanied him to Rome to march in procession, in full episcopal regalia, for an ecumenical Vesper service in the Church of St. Gregory the Great. Their wives were invited to join in the procession as well.
Finally, the suggestion that John Paul II felt himself gifted with infallibility long before he became pope, is so gratuitous and even reckless on its face that it clearly impedes rather than advances the otherwise legitimate point the author wished to make about the current pope’s authoritarian style of governance. John XXIII does not need to have other popes, before or after him, put down in order for him to be raised up. He stands on his own two feet, casting a giant’s shadow over the whole of church history, backward and forward alike.
Is Pope John XXIII worth reading? Surely, yes. But one might be well advised to begin at page 73 and to close the book at page 214. And what a compelling ending that would have been, with cardinals and farmers alike gathered around the dying pope’s bed, singing the In paradisum.
Fortunately, the church has now officially acknowledged what Catholics and all people of good will had recognized from that very moment of death. John XXIII is indeed in paradise, an abiding model now of sanctity and of humanity itself.