Book Review: The Good Pope

With the 50th anniversary of Vatican Council II just around the corner, now seems an appropriate time to re-examine the council and the figures who led it. (Indeed, with the Year of Faith, the Holy Father has invited us to do just that.) So it was with great interest that I read  The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church — The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II by Greg Tobin.

Unfortunately, anyone looking for a  thorough  treatment of either Bl. John XXIII or Vatican Council II will be  disappointed in  The Good Pope. Mr. Tobin has an almost myopic interest in the political, eschewing the theological or spiritual significance of either John XXIII or the council, and his book is the poorer for it.

Anyone unfamiliar with the “Good Pope” will find some interesting information and anecdotes. Tobin does a good job of portraying Angelo’s humble beginnings and steady rise through the Church’s ranks, focusing on his diplomatic appointments in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and France. Yet of all these instances in the pope’s life it was the account of John XXIII’s passing that I found especially moving. Surrounded by family and staff, the pope endured great pain in his final days, the result of the stomach cancer which took his life. Speaking to those present before receiving the Last Rites he was heard to say

The secret of my ministry is that crucifix you see opposite my bed. It’s there so that I can see it in my first waking moments and before going to sleep. It’s there, also, so that I can talk to it during the long evening hours. Look at it, see it as I see it. Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate: they say that Christ died for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness…

Unfortunately this probing of John’s spirituality comes only at the end of his life. While providing a good overview of some of the pope’s encyclicals, Mr. Tobin picks and chooses only those with a focus on political or social issues. I would have enjoyed seeing a treatment of Paenitentiam Agere (John XXIII’s encyclical on penance) or Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia (on St. Jean Vianny and the priesthood). Looking at these lesser-known encyclicals would have helped fill in some of the gaps of John’s faith.

This focus on the political extends to the chapters on Vatican Council II; Mr. Tobin seems less interested with the results of the council than with the maneuverings of the various personalities and factions at the council. (I don’t recall any direct quotes from the council documents, but plenty from diaries and interviews of those in attendance.) This leaves the impression that the council was less about the end results than about the feelings and intrigues of its participants. This does little to help readers understand the council’s impact on the life of the Church and subsequent reforms.

Another major shortcoming is the lack of direct reference to Mr. Tobin’s sources. While a list of sources is provided at the end of the book, no inline citations or footnotes are provided. An especially egregious example is on page 236, in which an unidentified source claims that progressive forces at the council “correctly deduced that John wanted a wholesale reform.” This unattributed assertion is not backed with any evidence and serves only to bolster Mr. Tobin’s own conclusions.

The Good Pope is, ultimately, less than the sum of its parts, failing as both biography and history. While it contains some interesting tidbits, in the end I can’t say that I understand either John XXIII or Vatican Council II any better. Given the wide selection of books about the council and the Good Pope, I cannot recommend this title to anyone wanting more than a political view of either.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from TLC Book Tours.

Original image by Pivari / WikiCommons