John and Francis: two of a kind

Fifty years after the death of Pope John XXIII, comparisons are being invited between him and Francis. A specialist in interreligious dialogue explains what they have in common.

- John Borelli, The Tablet

From the moment of his introduction to the world as Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has resembled Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, or Pope John XXIII, more than any other Pope since Pope John’s death 50 years ago. The first resemblance is that both were 76 when elected. Roncalli’s electors wanted a short-term ­compromise candidate. He turned 77 less than a month after his election, reigning barely another 54 months before succumbing to cancer; yet, the much beloved Pope John unquestionably changed the lives of Catholics and of countless others. 

Three months into his papacy, Roncalli stunned the cardinals who had elected him by announcing his intention to summon an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. Only 20 such general councils had met previously. Pope John’s Second Vatican Council greatly renewed the Catholic Church and significantly redirected Catholics towards social justice and dialogue with others.

Pope Francis, who will turn 77 in December, is indeed a man of social justice and dialogue, thoroughly formed in the principles and teachings of Pope John’s Vatican II. Rumoured to have come second behind Benedict XVI in 2005, he already represents a change in direction for the Catholic Church and a correction of the immediate past, as did Pope John XXIII. Pope Benedict had just turned 78 when he was elected, but his papacy, by contrast, is already judged as eight additional years to the long papacy of John Paul II.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli signalled big changes ahead when he chose “John,” breaking a 175-year pattern of usual names like Pius, Leo, Gregory and Benedict. There had even already been a John XXIII, who convoked the Council of Constance (1414) which later deposed him in a show of conciliar power over papal authority.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio broke two even larger traditions by being the first Jesuit Pope and by selecting “Francis”. No one had ever felt brave enough or worthy enough to choose the name of the universally beloved 13th-century saint, venerated for his poverty, humility and simplicity of service to anyone in need.

FULL STORY John and Francis: two of a kind

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