I've been dancing on air since last week, when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has declared my hero, Angelo Roncalli -- aka Pope John XXIII -- a saint.

Some people are raising their eyebrows because Pope Francis waived the requirement that a candidate have two confirmed miracles. But the pope is just following a more ancient tradition, when saints were chosen by acclamation of the faithful.

And everyone -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- has always known that if ever a saint walked this earth, Pope John was it. He doesn't need any more miracles because his whole life was a miracle. He didn't look very impressive. He looked like a fat, dumpy Italian housewife.

"His face was like a jigsaw puzzle of borrowed pieces," wrote religious scholar Peter de Rosa. "But his heart was one of God's masterpieces."

His predecessor, Pius XII, has been criticized for his silence during the Holocaust. But there's no mystery about what Roncalli was doing during the war: he was forging thousands of fake baptismal certificates for Jewish children to save them from the Nazis.

After the war, the Vatican sent him to France on a delicate mission: to prevent three French cardinals and 20 bishops from being put on trial for treason because they had collaborated with the Nazis. He accomplished his mission with such tact, the leader of the rabidly anticlerical Radical party exclaimed, "If all priests were like Nuncio Roncalli, there would be no anticlericals left!"


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When he was elected pope at age 77, most people assumed he would be a mere caretaker. It didn't work out that way. He lived less than five years more, but that was long enough to change the church -- and the world -- forever. He was the pope who took the anti-Semitic language out of the liturgy and the first pope to reach out to the Jewish community. And, of course, he was the genius who dreamed up the Ecumenical Council, one of the most revolutionary events in Church history.

Unlike his successors, he didn't think it was his job to lecture people or root out heresy or issue dire warnings about the future. He thought his job was to be a good Christian. And that meant carrying out the injunction of the Gospels: to love everyone. That included the prisoners in Rome's infamous Regina Coeli prison, whom he visited shortly after his election, saying, "You cannot come to see me, so I have come to see you."

And the little boy who wrote to him, saying he couldn't make up his mind whether to be a pope or a police officer. Pope John wrote back, "It would be safer for you to train for the police. Anyone can be pope -- as you can see, since I became one."

And, especially, loving everyone included loving people who disagreed with him: communists, capitalists and church conservatives alike.

To all of them, he was simply the Good Shepherd. He inherited a church that was mired in arcane scholastic disputes and obsessed with the torments of hell. He left it suffused with love, charity and service to others, and with its eye turned firmly toward heaven.

He may not have been a caretaker, but he took awfully good care of his church. He was truly Christ's vicar on Earth.

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.