Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) was one of the most influential popes in history, despite his short reign from 1958 to 1963. He called the Vatican II Council, which modernized the Roman Catholic Church. Renowned for his simplicity, humor, and charity, he was one of the most beloved popes of modern times.
He was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the son of a farmer, in a poor village near Bergamo, in northern Italy. At the age of 11 he was sent to the Bergamo seminary and eight years later to the Pontifical Seminary in Rome. He graduated as a doctor of theology in 1904 and was ordained a priest. He was on the staff of the Bishop of Bergamo until he became a chaplain in the World War. He then taught at the Bergamo seminary and wrote several books of religious history, including a multivolume biography of St. Charles Borromeo, who became his role model as an ideal bishop.
His brilliant diplomatic career began in 1925 when Pope Pius XI made him archbishop and apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. In 1934 he moved to Istanbul as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece. His pastoral initiatives and his ecumenical approach, particularly to the Greek Orthodox Church, combined with his diplomatic activities were of fundamental importance to the development of his thinking and as experimentation for the many innovations he implemented during his pontificate.
He cooperated with Chaim Barlas, head of the rescue delegation of the Jewish community in Palestine in order to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazis. Roncalli held an intense correspondence with the Vatican and its various offices, constantly warning the Holy See and urging it to act. In his conversations with Barlas, Roncalli expressed criticism of Pope Pius XII's slow response to the Holocaust and that Roncalli was the first to send to Rome the 'Auschwitz Protocols,' which he had received from Barlas.
After France was liberated by the Allies, Pope Pius XII named him papal nuncio to France in late 1944. Roncalli remained neutral in French politics, except when criticizing nationalism or Communism and pleading for Catholic unity. Roncalli took the ultramontane position in opposition the Gallicanism when he rejected the French government's request for power to dismiss and appoint bishops.
When Pope John was elected, it was widely assumed that he would be an interim, caretaker pope. Instead, his reign of four and a half years was marked by several important departures from the policies of his immediate predecessors.
John also created 31 new cardinals, bringing the Sacred College to its greatest size in history, and instituted the first change in the text of the Canon of the Mass since the seventh century by inserting the name of St. Joseph after that of the Virgin Mary.
The 'Diaries,' which he kept throughout the five years of his papacy reveal how he was able to make his own personal impression on the institution of the papacy after the long and authoritative reign of Pius XII. The 'Diaries' reveal his commitment to creating a human papacy, consistent with the pope's full participation in the common human condition. This commitment is expressed in the rediscovery of the Christian community and in his efforts to portray the papacy as a service, rejecting the dominant adversarial culture and bearing witness to the abilities of a Christian to live the faith in history. The 'Diaries' confirm that his attempts to present the Church as the humble champion of the poor underpinned this commitment, as did his insistence of the central importance of peace and his negation of the applicability of the concept of 'just war' to military conflicts involving atomic weapons.
His most notable act was the convening of the 21st Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, which opened in 1962. Essentially a pastoral pope, deeply concerned with the problem of Christian unity, John nevertheless encouraged liberal trends in Roman Catholic thought which were debated at the Council. He accepted the need to collaborate with factions inside the Church and the Curia while still being fully aware of their limitations and weaknesses. He did not use his authority in a dictatorial way against his main opponents in the Curia, such as the stand-pat Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (1890-1979).
The Council dramatically modernized and transformed church policies, with major changes to official theology and liturgy. Liturgical changes included the introduction Mass in local languages instead of Latin. Theologically, the council deemphasized somewhat the centrality of Mary while also adding a new emphasis on individual and personal holiness. It recognized the possibility of salvation for Jews, Muslims, and Protestants.
Of his eight encyclicals or official pronouncements, the most important were: Mater et Magistra (1961), which dealt with the problems of labor and colonialism, and Pacem in Terris (1963), a plea for world peace and international cooperation.
Building on his wartime experiences, he began a new era in relations between the Catholic Church and Jews that opened new channels of understanding and tolerance after centuries of denigration, prejudice, and religious persecution.
It was his concern for world peace at the height of the Cold War and his effort to reach beyond Catholics to address all people of good will that won Pope John XXIII universal praise and affection. His death was mourned in editorials throughout the English-speaking world, including journals that previously had shown little interest in or support for leaders of the Catholic Church.
- Cahill, Thomas. Pope John XXIII (2002) excerpt and text search
- Hebblethwaite, Peter, and Margaret Hebblethwaite. John XXIII: Pope of the Century (2005) excerpt and text search
- Alberto Melloni, "Review: Pope John XXIII: Open Questions for a Biography," Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Jan., 1986), pp. 51–67 in JSTOR
- Hoffmann, Peter. "Roncalli in the Second World War: Peace Initiatives, the Greek Famine and the Persecution of the Jews," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1989 40(1): 74-99
- Dina Porat, "Tears, Protocols and Actions in a Wartime Triangle: Pius XII, Roncalli and Barlas," Cristianesimo Nella Storia 2006 27(2): 599-632 34p.