Pope John XXIII
(November 25, 1881
-June 3, 1963
"See everything; overlook a great deal; correct a little."
John XXIII was the most popular Pope of the 20th century, and perhaps any other, beloved by both Catholic
s and non-Catholics. Christened “Good Pope John” by the media, he was the archetype for the modern papacy, a key figure in international affairs and modernizing the church. The key event of his tenure was the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II
), and effort to reform, reenergize, and modernize the church, over the objections of many conservative church officials. John is lionized by more liberal elements of the church, while conservatives blame him for everything that has gone “wrong” with the church since Vatican II.
Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in the small village of Sotto il Monte
, he was the eldest son and one of thirteen children of a peasant family. Encouraged to enter the priesthood by his great uncle Zaviero Roncalli, he was an undistinguished student, his studies briefly interrupted by military service. Nothing in his life indicated that he would become anything more than an insignificant parish priest.
He became the secretary to the Bishop
of Bergamo, Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi
, a man Roncalli greatly admired and would later write a biography of after his death. Both Roncalli and Radini-Tedeschi were caught up in the McCarthyesque witchhunt
s initiated by Pope Pius X
, who was determined to root out the forces of “modernism
” in the church. Roncalli, perhaps because of his relative insignificance or his diplomatic skills, emerged unscathed.
During World War I
, Roncalli served in the medical corps. After the war, Pope Benedict XV
, a friend of Radini-Tedeschi (who had died in 1914
), recruited Roncalli for a post which would eventually lead to his service in the Vatican
’s diplomatic corps. Pope Pius XI
(whom Roncalli had met during his historical research) made Roncalli an archbishop
and sent him off to Bulgaria
. A decade later, it was Turkey
During World War II
, he conspired with the German ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen
. Adolf Hitler
was funneling a lot of money von Papen’s way to be used to convince (i.e. bribe) the Turks to join the Axis
powers. Von Papen, a Catholic, and Roncalli believed that the Soviet Union
would invade Turkey if they did join up, and they felt that Germany was going to lose anyway. So they used the money to help Jews
and other refugees fleeing the Nazi
, Roncalli was appointed papal nuncio
, a plum posting which usually didn’t go to obscure archbishops stuck in Eastern Europe
. When he heard the news, Roncalli thought there had been a clerical error at the Vatican. The French
made it clear that they wanted the last guy, Valerio Valeri
, sent home because he was a little too chummy with Philippe Pétain
’s collaborationist government. Roncalli traversed a diplomatic and theological minefield with amazing success, and the French were extremely disappointed at his departure.
, he was made a cardinal
and the patriarch
of Venice. At 71, he expected this would be his last church posting. Instead, after the death of Pope Pius XII
, the cardinals could not agree on their choice of a new pontiff
, so on the 12th ballot they forged a compromise and chose a safe candidate who would serve a brief tenure (i.e., an old man who would quickly die) and not upset the status quo. Little did they know that Roncalli would transform the church.
He chose the name John after John the Baptist
and because it was his father’s name. Within the first months of his tenure he was already calling for reform to bring the church up to date (aggiornamento
). Chief among these was Vatican II
, which he began over the objections of conservative clerics, who pushed for delay and wanted to drop the matter once John died.
John XXIII initiated many of the papal actions we take for granted from John Paul II
. John traveled freely, a break from the tradition that stuck the Pope in the Vatican. He was active in world affairs and was a voice of restraint and reconciliation during the cold war
. He built bridges to other religions, inspired by his long contact with the Eastern Orthodox Church
in Eastern Europe. Controversially, he allowed Eastern Orthodox, Anglican
, and Protestant
observers at Vatican II. At the Vatican, he received visitors of many faiths, including Jews and the first Shinto
high priest in history to be received there.
He was also well known for his wit and charm. At an Italian prison, he told the inmates “Since you could not come to me, I came to you.” To a communist
diplomat, he said “I know you are an atheist
, but won't you accept an old man's blessing?” And when a reporter asked how many people worked at the Vatican, he replied, “Oh, no more than half of them.”
John died of cancer
after the first session of Vatican II and many wanted the council to acclaim John a saint
, avoiding the lengthy canonization procedure. Conservative elements objected to this, and Pope Paul VI
announced a compromise, initiating canonization procedures for both John XXIII and his predecessor, Pius XII
, a pontiff beloved by conservatives. John was beatified
by John Paul II
, but his canonization is in doubt despite his intense popularity because the conservative elements in the church see him as a symbol of liberalism.