Even as a boy growing up among tenant farmers in the Italian countryside of the late 19th century, young Angelo Roncalli knew he would be giving his life to God. At the age of 8, he pledged himself to the Franciscan order. By 23, he was an ordained priest. Of course the world knows Roncalli as Pope John XXIII, who took the papacy at the age of 76 and was intended to be one of those caretaker popes who keeps the seat warm for a couple of years. Instead, he transformed the Roman Catholic Church and, for the first time, put a human face on the office.
At the age of 14, young Angelo started keeping a diary — a habit he continued until his death in 1963. Those innermost thoughts were published as Journal of a Soul. I love that title — evocative, profound, beautiful — and it's filled with the kind of wisdom that always captivated me growing up around Jesuits. My favorite: "We are not on earth as museum keepers, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare a glorious future."
In that sentiment, John XXIII stakes out a clear position in that age-old Christian split between striving to create heaven for all here on earth, or striving to win a place in heaven for yourself.
John XXIII and Pope Francis both took the job at an advanced age after rising from humble circumstances. That's in stark contrast to so many of those popes with noble bloodlines — many of whom were more into selling indulgences and launching crusades than caring for the poor. And Francis is also wading right into the hard work of making a difference. He brokered a deal to bring the United States and Cuba closer together. He's calling out world leaders for despoiling God's creation by doing nothing about climate change. And he's taking on the Vatican's version of gridlock by reforming the Holy See. All the while, he continues to refocus attention on the poor. (Watch him challenge America on that front when he is expected to visit New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia in September.)
In this time of individual greed trumping global good, the world needs a conscience. Pope Francis has embraced the challenge: "In society and the world in which we live, selfishness has increased more than love for others... men of good will must work... to ensure that love for others increases until it is equal and possibly exceeds love for oneself."
The world is looking for a new way forward. Like John XXIII, Pope Francis is sharing his soul — God's voice, he would say — and, more and more, the world is listening. ♦