Pope John XXIII (November 25, 1881-June 3, 1963)
served 1958-1963

"See everything; overlook a great deal; correct a little."

Pope John XXIII was the most popular Pope of the 20th century, and perhaps any other, beloved by both Catholics 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 in Bergamo, Italy, 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 witchhunts 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 and Greece.

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 terror.

In 1944, Roncalli was appointed papal nuncio to Paris, 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.

In 1953, 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 in 2000, but his canonization is in doubt despite his intense popularity because the conservative elements in the church see him as a symbol of liberalism.

Editors Note:

On Sunday, 27 April 2014, John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were declared saints on Divine Mercy Sunday.

On November 25, 1881 Angelo Roncalli was born in a town in Northern Italy called Sotto il Monte, which is near Bergamo. Born to a rather large family of farmers, little Angelo learned honest family values. After Angelo had worked the fields for some time, he went off to nearby Bergamo and entered the seminary there to study for the priesthood. Later in 1901, Angelo received a scholarship from the Cerasoli Foundation so that he could travel to Rome and study at the Pontifical Seminary. Father Angelo Roncalli joined the medical corps of the Italian Army as a Sergeant, temporarily postponing his studies for the priesthood. He returned from the army and worked towards his doctorate of Theology. He was ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church in 1904 and said his first mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Following his ordination he returned home to serve in his home diocese. He was given the position of the secretary to Bishop Radini-Tedeschi, who was also the Professor of Church History and Apologetics at the Bergamo seminary. He also worked in a residence hall for students, and was a member of a organization of Catholic women in the diocese.

With the onset of World War I and the involvement of Italy, Father Roncalli once again returned to the Italian Army, but this time was promoted to Lieutenant and joined into the Chaplain’s corps.

Shortly afterward his completion of a tour of duty in World War I, he was appointed spiritual director of the seminary in Bergamo. Right around this time Angelo also started researching the episcopal visitation of Bergamo by St. Charles Borromeo. While at this position, Pope Benedict XV sent word to Roncalli that he was to move to Rome and become part of the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith, a significant post. In 1925 and under the authority of Pope Pius XI, he was designated an Archbishop, the titular Archbishop of Areopolis, and was assigned to be the Apostolic Visitor to the country of Bulgaria. In 1935, his appointments moved to other countries and he became the Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece and then moved to Istanbul. World War II started brewing with Father Roncalli working in the neutral city of Istanbul where he managed to fare well. He assisted Greeks who had to deal with the occupying armies and the lack of proper supplies and food. Roncalli even got along with the Turkish peoples. Father Roncalli also managed to experience the Eastern Churchs who had gradually become detached from the Roman Catholic rite. These experiences inspired him to help reconnect the Eastern Catholics back with the Roman See. He was doing quite a well job in Istanbul and his work was quite noteworthy.

Regarding this, Pope Pius XII appointed Bishop Angelo Roncalli to the position of nuncio to the country of France. France was experiencing the hardships of World War II at the time and Bishop Roncalli arrived in the beginning of 1945. His warm and gentle personality helped him calm tensions and he used his charisma to interest politicians and win friends for himself and the Holy Mother Church. He also used these talents of his personality whilst he was an observer at meetings of UNESCO. Pope Pius XII saw his accomplishments and personality as quite exceptional so he had Bishop Roncalli raised to Cardinal in 1953. He was adorned with the scarlet zuchetto and cloak signigfying his office. His official position was cardinal-patriarch of Venice, and it was assumed that he would ride out the remainder of his pastoral career serving in that capacity.

Roncalli made a wonderful Cardinal, always present and accessible to his people and a cheerful man. He was appointed to an apostolic conclave - the same one that later elected him to be Supreme Pontiff on October 28, 1958. Cardinal Roncalli chose the name of John, becoming Pope John XXIII. Unfortunately, a short time after this, he was diagnosed with a fatal illness. He spoke out on issues important to him, such as the unicity of the church worldwide, as well as removed restrictions on the size of the College of Cardinals created by Pope Sixtus IV. He, regardless of his impeding illness, announced on January 25, 1959 that there was to be a general ecumenical council called “The Second Vatican Council,” after he called a synod of Bishops in Rome (a first ever), that would converge and discuss the universal Church and modify the church’s Canon Law. October 11, 1962 Pope John XXIII convoked the Vatican Council II. In the process of his pontificate he published Mater et Magistra in 1961 which honored Pope Leo XIII’s publication of his encyclical: Rerum Novarum.

Unfortunately this exceptional man expired from his painful affliction on June 3, 1962 - A man who created remarkable accomplishments when he was only expected to be a “transitional pope” (as he was not expected to live long - He was 76 when he was elected Pope). John XXIII is regarded as a very warm and holy man, and is even under consideration for canonization as a Saint. He made great changes in the Catholic church in calling the first ever synod of Bishops in Rome as well as calling together the Second Vatican Council which modernized and transformed the Catholic Church’s interaction with its people, all unexpectedly through his short pontificate. What amazed people oftentimes more than his long history of accomplishments was his personality - always amiable, pleasant, and down to earth with his peoples.

His strong will to unite the Catholic church, especially from Eastern Churches, was quite intriguing and admirable. There stands to be learned a great deal from this man’s journey through life.

Editors Note:

On Sunday, 27 April 2014, John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were declared saints on Divine Mercy Sunday.

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