I knew I understood Blackie Ryan, a fictional priest who appears in 17 novels by Father Andrew Greeley, because he esteemed three great Johns in his youth: John Unitas, John Kennedy, and John XXIII.
I was never much into Unitas, quarterback for the Baltimore Colts, both because I never followed football and because Syracuse alum Jim Brown was the gridiron hero in my family.
But I revered President Kennedy and Pope John. Blackie Ryan – had he been a real boy – would have been a year older than I, and we both struggled through adolescence at a time of Cold War terrors and church upheavals. These two Johns towered over both events and were heroes to millions of Baby Boomers.
I grew up Protestant in a tiny Central New York community so I had little understanding of the New Frontier oligarchy or the Vatican’s archaic governance. Popes were far removed from my experience until about 1957 when my father and a neighbor took four of us boys from the neighborhood to New York to see a Yankees game. We peeked inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral and saw a life-sized wax figure of Pope Pius XII encased in a glass box. It was a macabre sight. He looked – well, waxen, and cadaverous, like an immobilized vampire. I did not regard his figure as something religious people would venerate. He gave me the creeps.
Pius died in October 1958 when I was 12. His passing stirred little interest within our confederated Protestant church but it launched the first papal transition of the television age. The election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII was well covered and to my youthful eyes he looked more far more appealing than his predecessor. In contrast to Pius, who looked like a disapproving embalming teacher, John was a round, smiling grandfather type. At 76 he was not expected to last long and was widely touted as a transitional pope.
Of course John famously overturned that expectation in 1962 by calling the historic Second Vatican Council to reform the church. He also extended the church’s reach to all people when he declared, “We were all made in God’s image, and thus, we are all Godly alike.”
It would be years before I understood what Vatican II was all about but John from the beginning of his reign fascinated me. In art class one year I attempted to draw an India ink portrait of the pope. I used a LIFE magazine photograph as a model and I remember struggling to get his nose right. “Nobody has a nose that big,” I thought. A half century later, when Martha and I took two of our daughters on a Roman holiday, we viewed the perfectly preserved remains of John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica. His nose was indeed that big. The India ink drawing is one of the few artifacts of my youth that survives. The look of concentration I drew on his face led some of my high school classmates to wonder if I captured him in his morning ablutions. They immediately dubbed it, “John on the John.”
President Kennedy, the other John of my youth, never met Pope John. Perhaps their closest connection was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, eight months before the Pope died. As the world teetered on the edge of nuclear winter, John offered to mediate between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Both leaders praised the Pope for his commitment to peace, but neither heard his urgent prayer on Vatican radio: “May they hear the anguished cry which rises to heaven from every corner of the earth, from innocent children to old men, from persons and communities: peace, peace!”
The resolution of the missile crisis has been attributed to Kennedy and Khrushchev, who each backed away from hardened positions that could have led to nuclear war. At the time I remember a condescending comment from a journalist who referred to “Pope John, who thought he played a role in making peace.”
Thought he played?
Fifty-six years after the world stepped back from the abyss, it seems clearer to me that it might not have happened without divine intervention. I have no doubt that Pope John XXIII played a pivotal role in making the peace. And he will always remain, for me, one of the two big Johns of my life.