Feast Day : June 3
Also known as: Il Papa Buono (The Good Pope)
The man who as pope would take the name John XXIII was born on November 25, 1881, at Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo, in the foothills of the Alps of northern Italy. He was baptized Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. His parents were farmers. As a youth, after helping out in the fields, he went to a seminary in Bergamo to study for the priesthood. He won a scholarship to the Pontifical Seminary Seminario Romano (called the Apollinare) in Rome, where he completed his studies. He was ordained in Rome in 1904 and said his first Mass at St. Peter’s. Now Father Roncalli, he returned to his home diocese with the positions of professor of Church history and apologetics at the Bergamo seminary and secretary to Bishop Radini-Tedeschi. Radini-Tedeschi was a socially involved bishop with liberal views who ran afoul of Pope St. Pius X (r. 1903–14) and his campaign to suppress modernism. Roncalli himself came under suspicion for a time, but survived. During this period, he wrote scholarly works, beginning a five-volume life of St. Charles Borromeo (published between 1936 and 1952). He also worked for a diocesan organization of Catholic women and a residence hall for students. During World War I, Roncalli was drafted into the Italian army, serving first as sergeant in the medical corps and later as lieutenant in the chaplains’ corps. After the war ended in 1918, he returned to Bergamo and worked there until Pope Benedict XV (r. 1914–22) called him to Rome to reorganize the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. In 1925, Pope Pius XI (r. 1922–39) made Roncalli an archbishop and appointed him apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. Ten years later, Pius XI made him apostolic delegate to Greece and Turkey, and he moved to Istanbul, where he remained throughout World War II. He did what he could to help the Greeks suffering from famine and made contact with members of the Eastern Orthodox churches, long separated from Rome by schism. During the war, Hitler’s ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen, gave him money that had been sent to bribe the Turks to side with Germany, which he then used to support Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, Pope Pius XII (r. 1939–58) sent Roncalli as nuncio to France, where he mediated both between conservative and liberal clergy and between church and the state. He dissuaded Charles de Gaulle from forcing the Holy See to remove 25 French bishops who had cooperated with the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime during the war. As an unofficial observer at UNESCO, he showed that he understood the need for international understanding. Thanks to his ministry and diplomatic skills, he continued to advance in the Church, Pius XII creating him a cardinal and patriarch of Venice in 1953. When Pius XII died in 1958, Roncalli was put forward as a compromise candidate for the papacy. He was elected on October 28, 1958, and took the name John XXIII. Although he was then 77, he soon showed himself to be an energetic man with a vision. In a 1961 encyclical, he advocated social reforms and assistance to underdeveloped countries. He broke the tradition of the pope as “prisoner of the Vatican,” travelling outside Rome, and advanced cooperation with other religions and even atheistic communist states. Among his visitors were many Protestant leaders, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, and a Shinto high priest. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, he helped ease tensions between President Kennedy and the Khrushchev regime. At the same time, he did not neglect his pastoral duties, and his humble personality had an effect on Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In 1959, John announced his intention of calling an ecumenical council to consider the renewal of the Church in the modern world, embracing reforms that were being promoted by ecumenical and liturgical movements within the Church. This council, known as the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II, was convened on October 11, 1962. The council introduced many important reforms, such as the Mass said in the vernacular rather than in Latin, but John was not to live to see its work completed. He died of cancer on June 3, 1963. Devotion to John began almost immediately. His tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica has become a favorite pilgrimage site, and letters beseeching his intercession arrive from all over the world. He is credited with several miraculous cures, including one in Naples in 1966, in which a nun was healed of multiple stomach ulcers and serious intestinal disorders, and another in Sicily in 1967, in which another woman was healed of tubercular peritonitis and a heart condition. Some at the Second Vatican Council wanted to canonize John by acclamation, as had been the practice in the early centuries of the Church. However, others believed that this would unfairly elevate him above his more conservative predecessor, Pius XII. In the end, Pope Paul VI (r. 1963–78) ruled that the process would begin for both popes simultaneously. The cause of Pius XII has since been dropped, but John was finally beatified in 2000 along with another conservative pope, the controversial Pius IX.