Why is Saint John XXIII so loved by the Turkish people?

Pope John XXIII was canonised on Divine Mercy Sunday of this year (PA)

Much has been written about the two recent papal canonisations – an extraordinary moment for rejoicing by any Catholic who loves the saints and who is old enough to recall the pontificate of St John XXIII as well as that of St John Paul “the Great”. (I add this tag as commentators have rightly drawn attention to the fact that John Paul II, like Popes Leo the Great and Gregory the Great,  permanently shifted the political landscape of the world around him.)

Yet this very tag also seems to slightly eclipse his co-saint, John XXIII. For all the articles I have read about the twin events, nine tenths of them have been about John Paul II. This is understandable: as well as being very holy – an obvious prerequisite for canonisation – he was also colossally gifted in many areas and the memory of his pontificate is still vivid in people’s minds. He had a very long period in office and inaugurated or initiated so much during those years that the effects of his pontificate are still being assimilated. Almost everyone who knew him, starting with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, regarded him as a saint, so that the cries of “Santo Subito!” on his death seemed unremarkable.

In contrast, St John XXIII had a very short pontificate, which was concluded over 50 years ago, beyond the memory of many modern commentators. He didn’t travel all over the world, didn’t pen a long series of memorable encyclicals, didn’t look like a film star and didn’t electrify the crowds he addressed. For all these reasons, in a contradictory kind of way, I feel great affection for him. John Paul II overawes me; but I could just about imagine sharing a cup of cappuccino with his gentle, fatherly, unprepossessing-looking predecessor.

It so happened that I was in Istanbul during the weekend of the canonisations. Looking for a church to go to Mass on Sunday, I discovered St Anthony of Padua where there was an English Mass at 10 am. Inside were huge pictures of the two Popes on either side of the altar; and outside this enormous neo-Gothic basilica was a statue – of John XXIII, a dove of peace perched on his hand and with the inscription underneath, “Friend of the Turkish peoples.” Why so?

It seems he was appointed the Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece in 1934. He actually lived in Istanbul for ten years, until summoned back to Rome in 1944. During the war, as Turkey was a neutral country, he worked valiantly to save as many Jews as he could. Hundreds had fled from Greece, which was dominated by the Nazis, and Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, as he then was, worked closely with Rabbi Markas of Istanbul to help them escape to Palestine and other countries.

But the Archbishop also made friends with the Turks, religious or otherwise. The new Turkish Republic, under Mustafa Kemal AtaTurk, was resolutely secular, so he was in a tricky position. I discovered, to my surprise, that Roncalli introduced the use of Turkish in worship (long before the vernacular Mass) and in official Church documents, and that these and other tactful gestures earned him the respect of the government. Perhaps they were also charmed by his simplicity and warmth, and his evident love for them and their people. According to the Dominican Father Giuseppe Gandolfo, Roncalli’s emphatic remark “I love the Turks” has been “carved in the historic memory of the Turkish people.”

It is not farfetched to say that the future Pope’s time in Turkey helped to deepen and expand his understanding of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue in later years. He became fluent in Turkish and when he succeeded Pius XII was always proudly referred to in the country as “the Turkish Pope.” To have made such an impression on the fragile new Republic, with its ethnically mixed and volatile populations, at a time when the geographically significant city of Istanbul was also a centre of espionage would have called for wisdom, patience, foresight – and charity. I rejoice that he is now “Santo”, even if it wasn’t “Subito”.


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