Saint John XXIII’s humour

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

In his old age Saint John XIII was a whimsical, fun old man to be around. That is why people loved him so much that they called him “Good Pope John”.

Saint John XXIII’s jokes are great. Once a reporter asked him: “How many people work at the Vatican?” And John XXIII responded: “About half of them”. John XXIII realized that the Vatican can often be a beaurocracy where half the people are basically doing nothing. When a cardinal complained that a rise in Vatican salaries meant a particular usher earned as much as the cardinal the pope remarked: “That usher has 10 children; I hope the cardinal doesn’t.”

Once when John XXIII was visiting a hospital he asked a little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy said: “Either a policeman or a Pope!” And John XXIII said: “Well, I would go for the policeman if were you. Anyone can be a Pope. Just look at me!” What a powerful witness of humour and humility!

He also once said: “It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about the serious problems afflicting the world and I tell myself, I must talk to the pope about it. Then the next day when I wake up I remember that I am the pope.” Another time when he was visiting a friend in a hospital, called The Hospital of the Holy Spirit, the Mother Superior greeting him and said: “Holy Father, I’m the mother superior of the Holy Spirit.” And He replied: “Lucky you! What a job! I’m just the ‘servant of the servants of God’”.

Not long after he was elected pope, Saint John was walking in the streets of Rome. A woman passed him and said to her friend, “My God, he’s so fat!” Overhearing what she said, he turned around and replied, “Madame, I trust you understand that the papal conclave is not exactly a beauty contest.” He once wrote: “There are three ways to become extremely poor: Thefirst is women. The second is gambling. And the third is farming. My father chose the most boring one.” He is saying that his father was a good man and became poor not through women or gambling but by being a farmer. When he was cardinal and patriarch of Venice, the future pope was talking with a wealthy city resident and told him, “You and I have one thing in common: money. You have a lot and I have nothing at all. The difference is I don’t care about it.” Sometimes we assume that wealthy people are not concerned about money. In reality it is not about the amount of money but it is all about our attitude towards it.

Once a journalist came to John XXIII when he was still the then-patriarch of Venice and asked him what he would be if he could live his life all over again. Immediately, the future pope said, “Journalist.” Then he said with a smile, “Now let us see if you have the courage to tell me that, if you could do it all over again, you’d be the patriarch!” A Vatican official told the pope it would be “absolutely impossible” to open the Second Vatican Council by 1963. “Fine, we’ll open it in 1962,” he answered. And he did!

One of my favourite quotes of Saint John XXIII is the following: “Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age”. What a great quote! All of us are like wine. As we get older we either become better and improve. And our vintage would be so amazing that people would taste what we have to say. With age we would become even better than we were before. Or else we would begin to sour and become bitter, become vinegar. We would be the cranky old man and woman who yell at kids for nothing!

Clean humour and holiness go together! Humour and grace accompany each other. Holy humour can ease tension and division. It connects us to people and it is a prime source of strength and resilience in rough sees.

Am I letting God’s humour change me?

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