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John XXIII: A tradition-breaking pope like Francis

Friday, Apr 25, 2014

A man walks past posters announcing the double canonisation of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII.

VATICAN CITY - Pope John XXIII, who will be made a saint with John Paul II on Sunday, surprised many by leading the Catholic Church to more open relations with the world.

When the man nicknamed "Good Pope John" became head of the Catholic Church on October 28, 1958 at the age of 77, many thought he would be a simple caretaker.

He had a determined character, however, and led a process of modernisation of the Church and closer ties with Judaism, inviting comparisons from Vatican watchers to the current reform-minded Pope Francis.

"There is a spiritual and ideological continuity between John XXIII and Francis," said Angelo Pansa, a historian specialising in John XXIII's reign.

Less than three months after being elected, John XXIII announced preparations for the Second Vatican Council, a global gathering of Catholic bishops, which opened in October 1962 and proved to be revolutionary.

Unnerving Vatican conservatives, he reached out in a famous address to crowds in St Peter's Square at the start of the Council which spoke of his desire to bridge the gap between the Church and the faithful.

"All the world is represented here tonight, even the moon hastens close to watch this spectacle. When you head home, hug and kiss your children and tell them: 'This is the hug and kiss of the pope'," he said.

He was the first pope to leave the confines of the Vatican to visit parishes and hospitals in Rome - a tradition that has been followed by his predecessors.

Pope John did not live to see the end of the Council, dying on June 3, 1963 of complications linked to stomach cancer less than two months after he wrote the papal encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).

It was addressed "to all men of good will" and not only Catholics, and was in part a reaction to the prevailing political situation in the midst of the Cold War.

Time Magazine named him Man of the Year in 1962, hailing him as a peacemaker after his address during the Cuban missile crisis helped defuse tensions.

Pansa said "he wanted to leave a door open to the Soviet Union, seen in the West as the Empire of Evil".

The historian pointed out that John XXIII donated rosaries to the children of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US president John F. Kennedy - a gesture "to unite the White House and the Kremlin".

On a more personal level, John XXIII had a healthy sense of humour. Once asked by a reporter how many people worked in the Vatican, he replied: "About half".

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