by Joe Procopio.
I remember the election of Pope John the XXIII in 1958. In December of that year he celebrated his first Christmas Mass as pope, and it was the first time that the Church had the technology to broadcast the Christmas Mass worldwide over radio and television.
Being 2000 years old, the Church is the oldest living organization on earth, and she invited people from everywhere in the world to come to Rome to attend this memorable Mass.
There were purple robed cardinals, peasants, average men and women, intellectuals, dummies, poor, rich, religious, non-religious, Catholics and non-Catholics —people from nearly every nation.
But even though this was a brand new pope, most people were expecting just another Christmas homily.
And a homily can be very boring especially if it is about the same subject every year for 2000 years. After all, how many times can you tell the story of Christmas without repeating yourself?
So people were prepared to be bored. The mood seemed to be: ho-hum, another Christmas homily.
The pope walked up to the microphone to give his talk. Speaking Italian, he began:
"Who represented us at the First Christmas?
"If you say it was the angels, you would be wrong because angels do not have bodies like us. If you say it was the shepherds, you would be wrong because the shepherds were farmers, and most of us are not farmers.
"If you say it was the Wise Men, you would be wrong because the Wise Men were wealthy and highly educated, but most of us are poor and stupid.
"I will tell you who it was that represented us at the First Christmas: It was—the jackass."
You could see the people in the church stirring and murmuring. The Church people must have felt especially humiliated thinking thoughts like: "I brought this person next to me all the way from Japan only to be humiliated by this man!" and "How could the Holy Spirit have given us this big oaf as our pope!"
It helps to understand the enormity of the embarrassment for the religious in the church if you think about the fact that they devote their entire lives to Christ and his Church. They do not have ordinary jobs with families and children to worry about.
A large number of them spend a great deal of time praying and studying. Many are scholars. The priest who was the head of languages in the Vatican at the time knew many languages.
So this was truly an awkward moment.
Then the pope said:
"The jackass was always feeling sorry for himself. He felt frustrated and thought his life was too monotonous—meaningless. He was habitually unhappy. He would always walk around with a long face or, what the Italians call ‘una faccia lunga.’
"One day as he was walking, he looked up and saw a horse. He thought to himself: ‘What a beautiful animal the Lord made when he created the horse. Look at him. He’s gorgeous. He has a magnificent mane, and he can run like the wind.
"’Me—I am short and ugly. I have no mane and cannot run very fast at all.’
"He continued walking with a long face and, as he walked, he looked up and saw a camel. This time he said to himself, ‘What a wonderful creature God made when he made the camel. Look at him. He can go for days—as the pope put it—giorni, giorni—days, days—without any water.’
"’Me—I am always thirsty and can never seem to slake my thirst.’
"Again he continued walking with a long face when suddenly he looked up and saw a cow. He said to himself: ‘What a marvelous creature God made when he made the cow. Look at her. She is very friendly and gets along with everyone. The cow not only gives milk to nourish her own but she nourishes other creatures as well.
"’Me—I cannot nourish anyone. I am not easy to get along with, and I am very stubborn.’
"Continuing with his walk, he looked up and saw a baby in a manger. There was something special about the baby—something in the look of the baby’s eyes that captured his attention. So he walked up to the manger and sat down by the infant.
"It was a cold wintry night and the baby was cold."
Here the pope described a bit of the better part of our nature. He said that no one likes to see children suffer. Even people who do not like children do not like to see them suffer.
Then the pope said that the jackass began breathing heavily on the baby.
The next thing everyone heard was the pope panting loudly into the microphone. He was a very large man and so it sounded something like this: "Uhh huh….. Uhh huh….. Uhh huh."
He continued, "After a while, the baby reached up and patted the muzzle of the jackass—as if to say: ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for keeping me warm on this cold wintry night.’
"Now, for the first time in his life, the jackass was happy. He no longer felt sorry for himself. He had found meaning and purpose in his life, and all his troubles went away."
And then the pope said something that absolutely astounded the entire world.
"For that’s the way it is with Almighty God. All he wants is the warm breath of a living soul. You give him that and he will take care of the rest."
Let me repeat that. It is so powerful and compelling that I want you to remember it for the rest of your life: For that’s the way it is with Almighty God. All he wants is the warm breath of a living soul. You give him that and he will take care of the rest.
The whole world was overwhelmed. Stunned. There was utter silence for a very long time.
Even then, as a young man, I said to myself: "What could anyone possibly say after that? Get off the podium. There is nothing more anyone can add to that statement."
But finally the silence was broken; the pope spoke again. He said—and I must give you the Italian first: Da un asino a tutti voi altri asini, Buona Natale.
Which means: "From one ass to all you other asses: Merry Christmas."
If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!