The greatness of a great man may have different aspects. An artist—Michelangelo, for example—is considered great only for his applied genius. […] Saintliness is certainly a criterion for greatness. Not all great men are saints, but all saints are great men. […]
I have no intention to assume here, even in part, the prerogative of the Church, which alone is qualified to declare anyone a saint. But, to express a personal opinion, based on my observation from the time that Cardinal Roncalli was elected Pope, I think he had what it takes to be a saint. I am aware that in approaching a subject of this nature it is easy to yield to the exaggerations of sentimental admiration; hence I will limit my arguments to the application of objective reality to principles. In principle, a saint can be defined, or at least described, as one who lives in complete harmony with the divine will, demonstrating in an outstanding way all the virtues, in particular humility, charity and heroic suffering.
Pope John frequently made references to the acceptance of God’s will in his personal life. To give one striking example: he made no secret about his personal concern for the [the Second Vatican] Council, yet before its opening and long before his fatal illness, he stated publicly that he would be willing to die before the convening of the Council if God so desired it. After the Council began and he felt the first signs of his serious sickness, he made it clear more than once that he was willing to die in obedience to God’s will before the conclusion of the Council. But such statements do not tell the whole story. The gentle Pontiff did not see the divine will as associated only with disappointments or disaster or death, as many seemingly pious people tend to do; he viewed it positively; he sought to make his whole life the complete fulfillment of God’s will. […]
It can be said that, as it is easy for the wealthy to speak about the ideal of poverty, so it is not hard for a man of high rank to make expressions of humility about himself. When Pope John repeatedly stated, however, that God had chosen his humble person for the supreme dignity of the papacy, he was not uttering a pious cliché. His humility was of the very substance of his personality. He never forgot his humble beginning in life as farm boy. He was always simply himself. He was his same simple self in talking with the poor, orphans and prisoners as with kings, queens, presidents and diplomats.
The dignity of the papacy is associated with the rigid formality of royalty, but in spite of this—to use a homely phrase—there was nothing stuffy about Pope John. Though his office required that he move in the midst of pomp, he was never pompous. His unpretentiousness was disarming, but no one in his presence forgot that he was the Vicar of Christ. He seemed to have no inhibitions for the simple reason that he did not need to have any. He was simply what he was supposed to be, and that is true humility.
Popularity is not necessarily a sign of greatness. But, it might be asked, why was Pope John so popular? True, his election as Pope catapulted him into world fame. But that does not explain how it happened that he captivated people all over the world. I believe that the basic explanation is to be found in his outstanding charity. Love begets love: John XXIII charmed people of all nations, races, creeds and walks of life simply because his heart went out to them with great love.
His love for men was Christian charity in its real meaning. Because it was all-embracing, it cut across lines and shattered traditions. Pope John was not able to see why his visits to orphanages, hospitals and prisons in Rome created a stir in the press: he felt that he was but acting as the Bishop of Rome in exercising charity toward some of the members of his flock. [….]
Taken as the sum total of his supernatural spirituality, the charity of Pope John XXIII had a particular characteristic. He had a genius for supernatural good. Of course, it would be taken for granted that any Pope acts habitually from supernatural motives. But Pope John was so attuned to the supernatural, it stood out on everything he did and said. It flowed from him as easily and spontaneously as water from a spring. He was naturally supernatural.
Pope John’s patient and resigned suffering and his deeply edifying death are well known. Not so well known is the fact that he suffered much while on his feet. The cancer that finally took his life had started to give him pain about a year before he died. When he participated in this year’s Good Friday ceremonies in St. Peter’s Basilica, his assistants noticed that he was in great pain. It is known only to himself and God how many other times he took part in functions or spoke to great crowds at audiences while suffering internally. And that surely was heroic suffering. It would be misleading, however, to refer only to his physical sufferings. Though it is hard to catalogue his spiritual sufferings, in general it can be said that he endured the bitterness of frustration and misunderstanding, even as Christ did.
It is difficult to think of the great personality of John XXIII without being reminded of his delightful sense of humor. In this he demonstrated that the quest for spiritual perfection does not make one less human, but rather more human, as originally intended by God.
I do not intend to paint Pope John as a paragon of absolute perfection, for even great saints have faults. He would be the first to admit that he had failings. But whatever his few little failings were, they are almost invisible in the grand design of his greatness.