Jurell Sison

The Original Pope Francis: St. John XXIII

A lot of the hype surrounding the canonization this past weekend was focused on the epic papacy of the Great John Paul II – and rightly so because he was awesome! But many older Catholics will be celebrating the short but historic papacy of the “The Good Pope,” John XXIII. You know — he’s the other pope on all the church flyers, the round-ish, jolly looking fellow, usually depicted in an ancient looking photo or painting. Yes — he is very old but during his time, he captured the hearts of many and his goodness and simplicity took the world by storm.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Unless you’re living under a rock, you know the goodness and simplicity of Pope Francis. For the past year he’s been the Catholic grandfather to billions of people all over the world. But Pope Francis wasn’t the only one seen in this light. During the early 1960’s the world fell in love with a humble man named Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, also known as Pope John XIII.

While many people find Francis’ style of leadership to be new and original, here are five reasons why Pope John was indeed, the “Original Francis.”

A Different Swag

After his election, Pope John was instantly given the nickname “The Good Pope” due to his affinity for literally everyone. Similar to Pope Francis, “The People’s Pope,” everyone saw something different in him. He had a different swag than the previous popes. Rather than speaking in stiff, prepared paragraphs littered with theological jargon, Pope John spoke to the people like a gentle grandfather. It was spontaneous and off-the-cuff.

“I’ve Come to See You!”

While it seems like a normal occurrence for Pope Francis, Pope John was the first to visit the Regina Coeli prison in Rome. One of his first remarks to the prisoners was, “you could not leave to see me, so I have come to see you.” With a warm embrace he won over some of the toughest prisoners.

Pope John also visited the Bambino Gesu Hospital on his first Christmas as pope in 1958. The nurses and children cheered for him as he entered the room to spend the holiday consoling children with polio. Similar to Francis, Pope John was a Catholic celebrity offering a healing touch and comforting smile. Some of the children even confused him with Santa Claus.

I told you he was jolly.

Sneaky, Sneaky Pope John!

Many of us were astonished to find out that Pope Francis was sneaking out of the Vatican to feed the homeless. Who else would perform such an act of mercy? Pope John, of course! He often left the Vatican at night, dressed as a simple priest to visit the sick but also to enjoy the city of Rome. On Sundays he spent time visiting parishes in the surrounding area. His spontaneous walks throughout the city even led Time Magazine to give him the nickname, “Johnnie Walker.”

A Kiss from the Pope

When Francis looks out into the crowd, it’s as if he is touching the hearts of thousands of people, all at once. The same goes with Pope John. He was as intimate as they come — even with thousands of people.


On the opening night of the Second Vatican Council, half a million people were singing and chanting for Pope John in Vatican Square. He came out to greet them with excitement saying, “As you return to your homes, give your children a kiss and tell them ‘This is a kiss from the Pope.'”

A Bold Vision for the Catholic Church

Pope John’s most significant task was summoning the Second Vatican Council. Over twenty-five hundred bishops, theological experts, and other officials from around the world gathered inside St. Peter’s Basilica to discuss the future of Catholicism. Some say it was the largest “meeting” in the history of the world. And yes—these conversations and debates, changed the church forever.

Much like Pope Francis, Pope John had a bold vision. He believed that the Catholic Church was relevant in a world that was constantly changing and searching for deeper meaning. Much like the Good Pope, Francis is guiding us to re-imagine a bold vision of church, one that makes Christ’s deepest truths stand out to the modern world.

A Big Heart Open to God

In Pope Francis’ famous interview with America Magazine, he praises Pope John’s model of leadership. It was all about doing “the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others.” This is what made these popes so beloved. Their small acts of kindness were charged with God’s great love.


It wasn’t that John XXIII was super-human or “out of this world,” in fact, it was just the opposite. He was “down to earth,” approachable, lovable, and humble — and just like Pope Francis — he provided a pathway to sainthood that we can wrap our minds around.

Today, more than ever, we need young disciples with big hearts open to God, doing the little things of everyday with a faithfulness that moves mountains. Sometimes we underestimate the magnitude of simplicity.

Whether we know it or not, we have everything we need to bring love into our world but we need to invite God into our every day. It’s the secret recipe to holy and heroic discipleship. Open your heart to God today and we will become saints-in-the-making, humble heroes, champions of God’s goodness.

Jurell Sison

About the Author

I’m a profound believer in Jesus’ dream for the world. I was born and raised Catholic and named after the father of Superman. I love laughing with my beautiful wife, Bridget, making YouTube videos, Filipino food, reading Catholic theologians, and keeping up with all things Pope Francis. If you’re interested, you can see more of my work at www.jurellsison.com and or you can follow me on twitter @jurellsison.