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A pope for today

A GLOBAL good will surrounded the papal transition last week, putting me in mind of Pope John XXIII, with whom such affirmation began. His words and deeds seem more to the point than ever. I turned to his several biographies to remember why.

As a Vatican diplomat during World War II, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli served in Turkey, where he was the rare Catholic prelate to resist the Holocaust, supplying hunted Jews with false baptismal certificates to enable their escapes. In France after the war, he took the place of a papal legate too closely associated with the Vichy regime. Recent reports tell how the new legate facilitated the return of hidden Jewish children to their families. His close experience of Christian failure during the Holocaust stamped him forever. He knew about power and what its corruptions could lead to, even in the church.

He was named patriarch of Venice. In a major 1957 address, he said: ''Authoritarianism suffocates truth, reducing everything to a rigid and empty formalism that is dependent on outside discipline. It curbs wholesome initiative, mistakes hardness for firmness, inflexibility for dignity. Paternalism is a caricature of true fatherliness."

Elected pope in 1958, he promptly declared that he would never speak infallibly. When he called for a Vatican Council, the conservative Curia bureaucrats told him preparations would delay it until at least 1963. In that case, he replied, I want it to begin in 1962. He sought advice from, among others, Jules Isaac, a Jewish historian who had presumed to suggest that anti-Semitism had its roots in New Testament portrayals of Jews, and Hans Kung, the Swiss theologian who defined a bold agenda for Catholic reform -- and continues to.

In opening the council in St. Peter's Basilica, Pope John denounced those who opposed his ''aggiornamento." Their voices, he said, ''make their way to us and offend our ears: voices that are burning, it is true, with religious zeal, but not equally gifted with tact and good judgment. In the current conditions of human society, they can see nothing but betrayal and destruction. They say that in comparison with the past, our age has done nothing but decline and deteriorate. And they behave as if they had learned nothing from history, which is the teacher of life." The pope's voice must have risen as he said then: ''But we have to decisively contradict these prophets of doom who keep on predicting nothing but disaster. . . . We want to dedicate ourselves zealously and fearlessly to the task posed by our age."

John XXIII explicitly defined that task by identifying, in his 1963 encyclical ''Pacem in Terris," what he called the signs of the times -- three reasons for tremendous hope. They were the strides being made by workers toward economic justice, the end of colonialism, and the women's movement, what we would call feminism. John XXIII explicitly saluted women for, as he put it, ''demanding both in domestic and public life the rights and duties that belong to them as human persons."

Pope John declared an end to the wars of the Reformation. He began the dismantling of the structures of papalism. He affirmed liberty, freedom of conscience, the right of all believers and nonbelievers to be treated with respect, not only as individuals, but as members of other faiths and movements. Not long before his death in 1963, he received Nikita Khrushchev's son-in-law at the Vatican, a Communist, an atheist.

''You are a journalist," the pope said, ''so, of course, you know the Bible story of creation. The Bible tells us that God created the world and the light on the first day. But, you know, the Bible's days are really epochs, and these epochs last a very long time." Perhaps the pope leaned closer to the Communist. ''We look one another in the eye, and we see a light. Today is the first day of creation, the day of light. Everything takes time. The light is in my eyes, and the light is in your eyes. If God wills, he will show us a way."

On Sept. 3, 2000, Pope John XXIII was ''beatified," the first step toward sainthood. In the same ceremony, paradoxically, the 19th-century reactionary, Pius IX, was beatified, too. A culture war pope, who saw the truth only in his own perceptions, and a pope of openness, who saw the authentic light of God in the eyes of all, both are part of the Catholic past. But the world recognized John XXIII as the Catholic future. It still does.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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