Popes John XXIII and Francis: Two ‘Men in Dark Times’
Published in 1968, the book Men in Dark Times still has something to say in our time. Hannah Arendt wrote it long ago, it is true, and the work consists of a collection of essays devoted to people who lived most of their lives during the first half of the last century, with the exception of Gotthold Lessing.
Yet a light shines in the lives of these people who have gone before us, given the fact that some of them never lost their integrity in the difficult settings in which they lived. For us today, this is not only a reminder of the ideological dangers that still threaten us, but also a leaven of hope in a humanity that, though often hidden, encourages us for the future.
Indeed, the world in which Arendt lived with the characters whose lives are for her a leitmotif for her reflection, allowed itself to be poisoned by the totalitarian ideologies that marked the last century. In the context that brought us two great wars and an increasing ideological polarization that continued, to some extent, in the postwar period, some people did not allow themselves to be reduced to being merely children of their time. These are the people Arendt calls “men in dark times.”
One of these figures is Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (1881-1963), the simple priest whose destiny mysteriously led him to the Chair of Peter. Arendt’s essay bears as its title the affirmation of the Christian authenticity of the character: “Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: a Christian on the throne of Saint Peter from 1958 to 1963.” Assuming, without allowing himself to be corrupted, the role and also the power of the Petrine See, which is proper to the weight of institutions, Roncalli always preserved his faith and his authentically Christian lifestyle. In this regard, Arendt begins by recalling what she heard from the simple people of Rome who had met him: “This pope was truly a Christian. How is that possible?”
When we read Arendt’s reflection on Roncalli, even though he is a protagonist of the 1960s, the stories, his words, as well as his gestures, easily cause us to think of the current pontificate of Francis. This is evidenced by the fact that not even the violent calls for his resignation by ultra-conservative groups have succeeded in destroying the image of this new “good pope.” In this sense, starting from Arendt’s text, we will now try to establish parallels between John XXIII and Francis, both in terms of their persons and their pontificates.
Authenticity and simplicity of life
From the beginning of his pontificate in 1958, everyone – and not just Catholics, as Arendt points out – was pleasantly surprised and touched by the gestures and words of John XXIII. So too, Wim Wenders’ documentary, Pope Francis: A Man of his Word, shows the same admiration for Pope Francis on the part of various sectors of society.
These are two transparent people whose lifestyles reveal a simplicity and authenticity that precede, or rather determine, the strategy informing their governing. Arendt marvels at the nonchalance of a pope who knows how to laugh and does so without restraint, just as Austen Ivereigh describes the closeness between the then Archbishop Bergoglio and his people.
The same applies to the good relationship of the two pontiffs with people from all social strata. Indeed, just as John XXIII developed a very familial relationship with ordinary workers of the Vatican, so the images of Pope Francis dining convivially with the Papal State’s employees are well known. Therefore, Arendt’s description of Roncalli’s pontificate readily brings our imagination back to Francis. Being in contact with everyone – including prisoners, sinners, workers, Vatican gardeners – treating everyone as equals, including Khrushchev’s daughter and her husband, whom John XXIII welcomed into the Vatican, leading to criticism from those who were scandalized: all this is very similar to the style of Pope Francis, which so impressed Wenders.
This closeness, this familiarity, relates to what Pope Francis says of shepherds who have “the smell of sheep.” Of course, from a Christian point of view, close affinity, heartfelt compassion for people is necessary. This is what the Samaritan shows us in the parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Without this closeness, without this love, fraternity and solidarity will be empty, because “service,” as Francis says, “always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ that closeness and tries to help.”
It is in this priority of the proximity of the heart that we can understand the gestures and words of Pope Francis, which are not more scandalous than those of his predecessor, Saint John XXIII. In this regard, it is worth noting what Arendt says about Roncalli: his pontificate is to be understood on the basis of the lifestyle he assumed as an authentic Christian; and thus the divine mandate “Come, follow me” precedes the maintenance of the structures and rules of the ecclesiastical institution, as well as the proclamation and cold apologetic defense of dogmas. Ultimately, Roncalli’s central values were manifested in his time as Pope in the sense that his gestures and words revealed more the man of faith than the principles and structures of an institution.
It is natural that unpredictability should also characterize the gestures and words of those who are authentic. There are many amusing stories about John XXIII. Perhaps not all of them unfolded exactly as they are told. Nevertheless, they reveal the spirit of this character. Arendt relates some of these anecdotes, in particular that of John XXIII walking in the Vatican gardens during visiting hours. And when it was suggested to him not to do so, he said spontaneously: “But why can’t they see me? I swear I won’t misbehave.”
Francis recognized in John XXIII a priest who went out into the streets, where he met the ordinary people of this world; for him he is the example of a true shepherd. What binds Francis to John XXIII is the fact that the former had an awareness of a shared humanity, in the exercise of the ministry. In doing so, these two popes are perceived by people as men like us. Herein lies the humility that touches us and allows them to approach people and sensitize them to issues of social justice and gestures of popular piety.
Roncalli and Bergoglio in the ‘dark times’
So far we have considered the humanity of these two characters. Now it is time to describe their “dark times.” In her book, Arendt is interested in real people, how they lived in this world and how they were affected by the historical context. The expression “dark times” was borrowed from Bertold Brecht, although Arendt gives it a much broader meaning. In fact, while for the German dramatist it refers to a time of famine, a time of excessive violence and injustice, appalling massacres and extreme catastrophes, for Arendt these dark times are not reduced to the disasters of the 20th century. These times, which are neither rare nor unprecedented in human history, are dark periods in which, nevertheless, the light, not of beautiful theories and beautiful concepts, but of the lives of a few men and women shone. They were generally a few who did not allow themselves to be absorbed by the spirit of their times that led humanity to catastrophe.
In this sense it is interesting to note the parallels not only between the personalities of the two popes in question, but also between their respective historical settings. Are they about the dark times in which they are the light? The truth is that Roncalli lived through the Holocaust, World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Francis succeeds him as the first post-war pope to witness a military invasion of a European country.
We will now examine how they both faced these difficulties. For his part, Roncalli, as apostolic nuncio to Turkey, was frank with the German ambassador, Franz von Papen, refusing to collaborate with the Vatican diplomatic corps to support the Reich. Acting to save as many threatened Jewish lives as possible, he was open to dialogue (not to be confused with concessions) with everyone. Later, as Pope, he received, during a brief audience, representatives of Communist Russia and also gave them a blessing.
The report of this meeting as “very polemical” reminds us of many episodes of the current pontificate. Let us consider, for example, the meeting between Francis and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who defends the right to abortion. For Pope Francis, as for John XXIII, it is not a question of changing his mind about the principles of Christian morality, but simply of making gestures of mercy, capable of setting in motion processes whose conclusion is not ours to determine.
The expression used by Fr. Antonio Spadaro of a “diplomacy of mercy” is pertinent in understanding not only the present pontificate, but also the style of the reformer who convoked the last ecumenical Council.
The Magisterium of John XXIII and that of Francis
In this regard, we can establish another parallel in two encyclicals that reflect the two pontificates: Pacem in Terris (PT, 1963) and Fratelli Tutti (FT, 2020). Both texts were written in a world threatened by crises of various kinds, including the possibility of war between ideologically separated blocs. The two documents are criticized by some sectors of the Church for not having explicit reference in them to the necessity of baptism and conversion for the salvation of souls. Now, it is true that in these two encyclicals there does not seem to be such a concern for final salvation, but rather it is a matter of determining how those who have adopted Christianity as a way of life should live and act, hic et nunc.
In this way the culture of dialogue and encounter is promoted as against the culture of violence and fragmentation. Thus the two papal encyclicals converge in this Christian humanism. Although environmental and ecological concerns were not yet present in the magisterium of John XXIII, it is impossible not to be surprised by the many common features of the two documents. If John XXIII considers “with deep bitterness the phenomenon of political refugees,” defending their rights and dignity as human persons, while appealing to the principles of “human solidarity and Christian love,” Francis’ encyclical uses justifiably these same expressions. Indeed, the words of John XXIII are reaffirmed by the proposals Francis lists in Fratelli Tutti, namely: “increasing and simplifying the granting of visas; adopting programs of individual and community sponsorship; opening humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable refugees; providing suitable, dignified housing; guaranteeing personal security and access to basic services; ensuring adequate consular assistance and the right to retain personal identity documents; equitable access to the justice system; the possibility of opening bank accounts and the guarantee of the minimum needed to survive; freedom of movement and the possibility of employment; protecting minors and ensuring their regular access to education; providing for programs of temporary guardianship or shelter; guaranteeing religious freedom; promoting integration into society; supporting the reuniting of families; and preparing local communities for the process of integration” (FT 130).
Francis’ expressions, “universal fraternity” and “social friendship” echo the “human solidarity” of which Pope John spoke, as well as the dream of a “true fraternal community” capable of bringing together “all the peoples of the earth,” to which he aspired. In this regard, it is appropriate to recall the words of his predecessor, Pius XII, for whom “Salvation and justice consist not in the uprooting of an outdated system, but in a well-designed policy of development. Hotheadedness is never constructive; it has always been destructive. It has inflamed passions, but never assuaged them. It sows no seeds except those of hatred and destruction. Far from bringing about the reconciliation of contending parties, it reduces men and political parties to the necessity of laboriously redoing the work of the past, building on the ruins that disharmony has left in its wake.”
These words were clearly pertinent in the context of a world marked by the Soviet bloc and the Marxist horizon. In any case, the principle at work in the logic of John XXIII is very similar to that of Francis. It is a matter of beginning with gestures of mercy the journey toward universal fraternity: a difficult and progressive path, which we do not abandon thanks to the hope inherent in our Christian faith.
This is why the teaching of John XXIII, as well as of Pope Francis, are by no means reduced to naive dreams or wishful slogans. Insofar as they emerge from authentic Christian life, they are the teaching of those who feel mystically connected to all human beings, indeed to all creatures through a relationship with our common Father.
In fact, the promotion of peace and the collaboration of all for the common good, to which Francis and John XXIII make explicit reference, are not reduced to a simple political strategy that dilutes the essentials of Christian doctrine. It is about a Christian mysticism, according to which one takes care of one’s neighbor and of creation not simply out of ethical duty. Through the fraternity that springs from the heart, caring for one’s brother or sister goes far beyond morality: it translates into an action that reflects our deepest desires and allows us to realize ourselves as persons who live Christianity authentically.
Sincere dialogue thus appears as a process in which the culture of encounter takes shape. In this process, the desire to meet others, in their differences, goes far beyond simply tolerating them. As long as it is possible to tolerate others while remaining indifferent to their way of living and their convictions, the fraternal encounter will never take place, because fraternity exists only when we feel “esteem” for the other who reveals him- or herself before us as a child of God.
For this reason “universal fraternity” needs “social friendship.” Otherwise it risks being reduced to an abstract ideal, coldly pursued on the basis of the principles of impersonal systems, where the affection or closeness can never become a reality. Even when the context of the pandemic forced us to establish a physical distance to protect the most vulnerable, Pope Francis was keen to point out that this necessity showed how connected we are to others: my choices affect the lives of others. This is why an individualistic morality can never be grounded because we are connected to one another; we are born in relationship and need to remain in “contact” with others.
Pope Francis thus shares with John XXIII this human realism of affective closeness and authenticity of life. It is on the basis of such realism that we can understand what they both say about war and disarmament. This is by no means an abstract and ineffective idealism, but a continuation of the example of Jesus.
In this regard, note how John XXIII called for disarmament during the Cold War, immediately following the difficult Cuban missile crisis, while Francis has criticized the notion of a “just war” in a world whose tensions have led to a new war on European soil.
Pope John not only appealed for the “effective reduction of armaments,” but he even dared to call for their “elimination. His logic, or rather the Christology he followed, is simple: to the extent that such elimination remains forever unattainable until “the spirits” are reached, it is advisable to “dissolve the war psychosis.” Thus, instead of trying to establish a sort of Pax Romana, based on “the possession of an equal supply of armaments,” he called for true peace, which can be built “only in mutual trust.” This is what reappears in Francis’ magisterium, in explicit reference to the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council: “In the words of Saint John XXIII, ‘it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.’ In making this point amid great international tension, he voiced the growing desire for peace emerging in the Cold War period. He supported the conviction that the arguments for peace are stronger than any calculation of particular interests and confidence in the use of weaponry. The opportunities offered by the end of the Cold War were not, however, adequately exploited due to a lack of a vision for the future and a shared consciousness of our common destiny. Instead, it proved easier to pursue partisan interests without upholding the universal common good. The dread specter of war thus began to gain new ground” (FT 260).
These words, like the gestures of Pope Francis that sometimes surprise or scandalize us, can only be understood as the inspiration of a true disciple of Christ. This is what Arendt recognizes in relation to Roncalli: he only wanted the will of God his Father to be done, on earth as it is in heaven. This is not in the first instance a simple political strategy, but of a politics born of a Christian mysticism.
Conversion as liberation from ideologies
Only this mysticism makes the gestures and words of John XXIII and Pope Francis intelligible. As Arendt points out about John XXIII, this pontiff was always concerned to follow the example of Jesus. In every circumstance he embodied the Gospel in his life, going beyond conventions and customs, sometimes setting aside institutional protocols and rules. This is what happened when he met an entourage of Russian Communists, whom he blessed in the context of the 1960s.
The same applies to people outside the Church whom Francis meets. If, in the context of the Cold War, Pope John was able to welcome and dialogue with Soviet communists without denying his Christian faith, today Francis seeks to build bridges with various people who, in theory, seem to be outside, even at odds with, the Church. Consider, for example, his meeting withHolocaust, World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 2019. In a world, such as today’s, in which a peaceful encounter sometimes seems impossible because of growing ideological polarization, the document Francis signed with the Muslim leader, as well as the gesture of a friendly embrace they made, may have surprised, even shocked, especially the faithful of the two religions. The harmonious encounter between people of different faiths or opinions belongs today to a counterculture. So this is the attitude of the pope that differs from the aggressiveness present in current extremely polarized debates.
Now, faithful to genuine Christian tradition, Pope Francis embraced Ahmad al-Tayyeb, who welcomed him to Abu Dhabi 800 years after Il Poverello of Assisi had chosen, in a world marked by crusades and religious wars, to meet peacefully with Sultan Malik Al Kamil. Instead of violence, St. Francis chose dialogue. Instead of the power and strength of the world, Il Poverello chose the poverty of the Gospel. Instead of seeking a worldly victory, he embraced the cross and its logic. Certainly, in the eyes of the world, his mission was probably a failure. Because, ultimately, even after receiving the authentic message of one of the greatest saints and evangelizers the Church has ever known, the Sultan remained a muslim. According to the current pope, this episode only mirrors the words that the saint of Assisi left in writing. Pope Francis said, “I like to quote Saint Francis, when he gave his brothers instructions about approaching the Saracens and non-Christians. He wrote: ‘Let them not get into arguments or disagreements, but be subject to every human creature out of love for God, and let them profess that they are Christians’ (Regola non bollata, XVI).”
Saint Francis was not concerned with conquering the world or preserving the faith of his group. Rather than trying to convince others, his attitude stems from a supernatural vision of the Gospel, the only one that allows us to understand and live the cross.
Instead of beginning with wanting to convert those who are different, Francis experienced a welcoming God, a God who loves to the point of offering his own life. Whoever experiences this God welcomes the other and makes one who is different his neighbor. This is living from the encounter with Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Whoever becomes a disciple desires a free encounter with others. Only in this way can we understand the attitude of Pope Francis. It is about, quite simply, evangelizing in the manner of Jesus and the great saints who followed him.
Paradoxical as it may seem, there is no strategy here, even though it is this attitude that truly transforms or converts the world, the other and each of us to God. Rather than a strategy, Francis seeks to live out the beatitudes of the Gospel, which proclaim “blessed are the meek” (Matt 5:5). The pope comments on this passage from Matthew, stating that “Those who attack or overpower others are not blessed, but rather those who uphold Jesus’ way of acting, he who saved us, and who was meek even toward his accusers.”
It is a way of being that reconciles the individual with oneself, with one’s life and, of course, with God, with the world and with others. What freedom is needed, then, to make such gestures? Arendt, commenting on the words that John XXIII left in his spiritual diary, identifies in this pope a profoundly free man, to the point of being willing to detach himself from all the things of this world, be they material goods or power, the prestige of titles or of a good reputation.
Therefore, we are before a prophet, not one who predicts expectations, the future according to their own expectations, but one of those who find themselves prepared to do the will of the One who gives them life. It is this freedom that allows Pope Francis, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, to criticize Patriarch Kirill for his support of Putin, while distancing himself from the growing aggression of NATO. It is the same inner freedom that allows him to dialogue, in a pastoral approach, with politicians who promote the legal right to abortion, while firmly condemning it. With this freedom, he is able to see and denounce the problems of our world: from the question of migrants and refugees to the environmental crises, without forgetting the growing lack of concern for and abandonment of the elderly. As for John XXIII, we see the same freedom of speech, because of which he had countless difficulties, according to Arendt’s expression, “with Rome,” that is, with the institution.
Fundamentally, it is a matter of detaching ourselves from ideologies, in favor of a fruitful dialogue with all people. We believe that, just as the Church always needs to be reformed – Ecclesia semper reformanda – so too the conversion to which we are called, today more than ever, consists in a conversion of the heart, to make it meek and free from the ideological fundamentalism that polarizes us and distances us from one another, increasingly fragmenting society into different barricades or citadels.
This was the approach of John XXIII, and it is also the approach of Pope Francis. In this regard, it is interesting to note what Arendt observes regarding John XXIII’s Journal of the Soul, the pages of which testify to his faith. The idea of convening a Council came to him in the context of prayer; he had nothing premeditated or planned, and therefore could not foresee what the outcome of such an event would be. In this respect, too, he was free.
In essence, reform begins by triggering a process in which different people come together in a culture of dialogue. This is what John XXIII did with the Ecumenical Council, with the diocesan synod he convened, and with his declaration that he would revise the Code of Canon Law. Is not that what Pope Francis is also doing with the Synod on Synodality (2021-2024)? Indeed, in the opening homily of this synodal process, Francis, commenting on the Gospel episode of the rich young man (cf. Mark 10:17-22), described the characteristics of Jesus’ approach. First, there is the free encounter, in which Jesus lets the other speak; it is a matter of listening. Then comes the process of discernment, as a journey that is made together with others. The pope says that “Celebrating a Synod means walking on the same road, walking together. Let us look at Jesus. First, he encounters the rich man on the road; he then listens to his questions, and finally he helps him discern what he must do to inherit eternal life. Encounter, listen and discern. I would like to reflect on these three verbs that characterize the Synod.”
To return to Arendt’s text on Roncalli, let us highlight the affirmation that the “good pope” was moved neither by theories, nor by protocols, nor by conventions, but only by a lived faith. And his freedom is matched by his humility, says Arendt. Could we say the same thing in the present context about Francis? Yes, provided that the call to conversion is understood as detachment from closed theories and realized in time, in order to better incarnate the style of Jesus who always invites us to welcoming and listening.
In this sense, both John XXIII and Pope Francis not only move away from the tendency that characterizes many men and women of our time: that of an ideological fanaticism that, in its hysteria and violence, prevents peaceful encounters between different people, as well as the common good. Moreover, the two popes are the antithesis of an Eichmann, who, according to Arendt, acted without conviction, without reflection, passively adhering to a perverse system and thus trivializing evil.
In this article we have tried to show how much of what Arendt says about Roncalli readily refers us back to Pope Francis. Whether it is their spontaneity, their informal way of addressing everyone equally, their determination for peace, or their freedom of thought, which drew criticism from different political sides, these two figures are similar in many ways.
On the occasion of the canonization of Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II, Francis said that Pope John “in the convocation of the Council showed a delicate docility to the Holy Spirit,” allowed himself to be led and was for the Church a shepherd, a guided-guide, guided by the Spirit. Thus he rendered a “great service” to the Church.
This is the docility of the blessed who receive the grace of peace, of being instruments of peace. This is the grace which Francis of Assisi received and which the present pope constantly asks for: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” because “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9). The grace asked for in this prayer of St. Francis contrasts with many intransigent positions that tend to characterize the debates in our modern societies (and also within the ecclesial communities themselves), which are increasingly fragmented.
John XXIII and Pope Francis show us the way forward when we allow the Gospel to shape our lives. Their example reveals the paradox that we must remain moderate in order to follow Jesus radically. In today’s polarized world, this moderation is as radical as it is necessary.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.11 art. 7, 1122: 10.32009/22072446.1122.7
. Cf. H. Arendt, Men in Dark Times, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
. Cf. ibid., VII.
. Cf. ibid., 57-69.
. Ibid., 57.
. Cf. ibid., 59.
 . Cf. ibid., 60.
 . Cf. A. Ivereigh, The Great Reformer. Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2015, 44.
 . Cf. H. Arendt, Men in Dark Times, op. cit., 61.
 . See ibid., 65.
. Francis, apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, November 24, 2013, No. 24.
. Id., Homily at the Mass in Havana, Cuba, September 20, 2015. The excerpt is quoted in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Assisi, October 3, 2020, No. 115.
. Cf. H. Arendt, Men in Dark Times, op. cit., 58.
. Ibid., 63.
. Cf. F. Ambrogetti – S. Rubin, Pope Francis. His Life in His Own Words. Conversation with Jorge Bergoglio, New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.
. Cf. H. Arendt, Men in Dark Times, op. cit., VII.
. Cf. ibid., VIIIf.
. Cf. ibid., 62.
. Cf. ibid., 66.
. A. Spadaro, “La diplomazia di Francesco. La misericordia come processo politico”, in Civ. Catt. 2016 I 209.
. PT 57.
. Cf. PT 58.
. Cf. PT 9; 94.
. Cf. PT 91.
. PT 162.
. Cf. PT 89; FT 15.
. Cf. FT 93; 224.
. Cf. Pope Francis, Let Us Dream. The Path to a Better Future. In Conversation with Austen Ivereigh, New York – London – Toronto – Sydney – New Delhi, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 23.
. PT 61.
. Cf. H. Arendt, Men in Dark Times, op. cit., 68f.
. Cf. ibid., 66.
. Francis, Homily in Abu Dhabi, February 5, 2019.
. Cf. John XXIII, Il giornale dell’anima e altri scritti di pietà, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2003.
. Cf. H. Arendt, Men in Dark Times, op. cit., 63.
. Cf. Francis, “Pope Francis in Conversation with the Editors of European Jesuit Journals”, in Civ. Catt. En. June 2022.
. See “Pope Francis respects US Supreme court decision and condemns abortion”, in Vatican News (www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2022-07/pope-francis-condemns-abortion-like-hiring-a-hit-man.html), July 4, 2022.
. Cf. Pope Francis, Let Us Dream…. , op. cit., 116.
. Cf. H. Arendt, Men in Dark Times, op. cit., 61.
. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, November 21, 1964, No. 6.
. Cf. H. Arendt, Men in Dark Times, op. cit., 59f.
. Francis, Homily in the celebration of the Eucharist for the opening of the Synod on Synodality, St. Peter’s Basilica, October 10, 2021.
. Cf. H. Arendt, Men in Dark Times, op. cit., 65.
. Cf. Id., Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York, The Viking Press, 1963.
. Cf. Francis, Homily on the occasion of the canonization of Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II, St. Peter’s Square, April 27, 2014.