Pope John XXIII

If acclamation by the crowd were still the Church’s policy, Angelo Roncalli (1881-1963) would have been declared a saint at his funeral in 1963. Instead, Pope John XXIII was beatified in 2000 and will be canonized on April 27, 2014.

When Roncalli was elected pope, I was nine, and when he died, I had just finished freshman year of high school. So my first memories of him are those of a child. Now that I’ve learned more about his life and issues of his times, I love him dearly.

He Chose Cheerfulness

Smiling came naturally to him. By all accounts he was a happy baby and a sweet-tempered child. He also always found great consolation in prayer. His diary entries reveal a man in touch with the Lord. Natural humility kept him grounded. He was determined to see the best in everyone whom he met.

Pope and Kennedy
Pope John and “Jacqueline.” They spoke for almost an hour, just priest and Catholic wife and mother. OSV file photo

He looked for saintly models like Francis de Sales and Thérèse of Lisieux to emulate. His postgraduate work editing the letters of St. Charles Borromeo turned into a 40-year labor of love for him, and he thought that these five volumes would be his main legacy.

As with everyone he was the product of his experiences. Angelo Giuseppe was born Nov. 25, 1881, the fourth child and firstborn son of peasants, Giovanni Battista and Marianna, in Sotto il Monte in the diocese of Bergamo in Italy.

Peasants then were basically sharecroppers, with the landlord taking half of their crops. (The major cash crop of the Roncalli family was silkworms.) The family eventually had 13 children (10 of whom survived beyond childhood) and lived with various uncles, an aunt and cousins. Often meals were stretched to feed 25 people, but when a beggar would come to their door, the devout Marianna always found more food.

Angelo dreamed of becoming a priest. Somehow the family elder, Great-uncle Zaverio, funded Angelo’s schooling. While at the seminary in Bergamo, inspired by his great-uncle, he joined as a lay member the Salesians, a Marian confraternity and the Third Order of St. Francis. It left marks on Angelo’s spirituality: Salesian self-giving, Franciscan poverty, and Marian gentleness, zeal and surrender to God.

As a 23-year-old priest, Roncalli served as secretary to Bishop Giacomo Maria Radini Tedeschi of Bergamo. Roncalli always referred to Tedeschi as “my bishop.”

Bishop Tedeschi was a great organizer, updating many of the physical properties of the Church and being very involved in Catholic Action, especially in behalf of peasants and women. In four years he traveled to each of his 352 parishes, always accompanied by “his shadow,” Roncalli. From this information-gathering, Tedeschi organized a diocesan synod in 1910, and Roncalli first saw a collegial Church at work.

During these years Roncalli, who had earned a doctorate in canon law, taught Church history, apologetics and patrology. His love, and grasp, of Church history continued throughout his life. He also was chaplain to a number of women’s groups — sisters’ communities and laywomen involved in social action.

War and Peace

Roncalli was twice in the military. Although priests could be exempted from Italian conscription, Father Angelo felt obliged to take his brother’s place to leave the brother free for the family business.

From 1901 to 1902 he was an ordinary soldier, later promoted to corporal and eventually sergeant.

In World War I he was recalled to military service and ended up as chaplain in the reserve hospital in Bergamo. There he washed a lot of sheets, but also comforted wounded and dying men. Two of his brothers died in the war. Another was missing in action. Angelo concluded that there was nothing more evil than war.

After WWI, Father Roncalli became spiritual director of the seminary at Bergamo, helping students who themselves had seen so much in the war.

In 1920 he was attached to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome where he met Giovanni Battista Montini, who would become his successor, Pope Paul VI. Roncalli more than doubled collections, perhaps because he was so enthusiastic about carrying the faith to the ends of the earth.

Then, in 1925, Pope Pius XI named Roncalli an archbishop and apostolic visitor to Bulgaria, a largely Orthodox country.

On the Shelf in Bulgaria

Roncalli did not want to go, not wanting to move away from his family in Italy.

In Bulgaria, the Orthodox at first scorned him as a representative of Latin imperialism in their country. Roncalli attempted to lessen their fears. He took an interest in the country and its people, among whom not all was peace and harmony. Muslims argued with the Orthodox, Greek Catholics with Latin Catholics, Latin Catholics with each other.

Just weeks before Roncalli’s arrival, Bulgarian King Boris III had been the victim of an assassination plot, although the king survived. In the incident, however, many were injured, and some killed. The new Vatican envoy visited those wounded in the attack. His long past hospital experience made him comfortable in such circumstances.

Without the diplomatic status of an apostolic nuncio, his charge was the small community of 48,000 Latin Catholics and 14,000 Eastern Catholics. Many were poor. Many were refugees, displaced after the Balkan wars.

Remembering the time, he later said, “I entered their modest homes and became their neighbor.” He invited Orthodox clergy to dinners at his residence, a pioneering effort in ecumenism.

He also learned that ecumenism can be thorny. King Boris III, born of Roman Catholic parents, baptized Catholic but reared Orthodox, and considering himself Orthodox, proposed to Princess Giovanna, the Roman Catholic daughter of Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III.

Obvious questions followed. In what religious ceremony would the marriage occur? Would children, if any, born in the marriage be Catholic or Orthodox?

It attracted worldwide attention. Inflexible, the Vatican said a dispensation for a mixed marriage would be required, and it had to include a pledge by the king and the princess that their wedding would be a Catholic ritual, and nothing else, and their children would be baptized, and reared, as Catholics.

With the dispensation granted, the couple were wed in a splendid Catholic ceremony in Assisi. All was fine, but when they reached Bulgaria, the king organized a second marriage ceremony in Sofia’s Orthodox cathedral. Pope Pius XI was furious.

In due course, two children were born in the marriage — and both were baptized Orthodox. Archbishop Roncalli never sanctioned breaking with what had been promised, but he urged Queen Giovanna to continue attending Catholic Mass. He even invited her to come to his Mass in the delegation chapel each Sunday.

None of this helped his image at the Vatican, but relations, official and otherwise, between the Catholic Church and Bulgarians improved.

Off to Turkey and Greece

Time passed. In 1935 Roncalli was appointed apostolic delegate to Turkey, secularized 15 years earlier by Mustafa Kamel, called Ataturk, but still overwhelmingly and historically Muslim.

To emphasize Turkey’s new secular character, Ataturk had forbidden the wearing of any special religious garb, Muslim or otherwise. The papal delegate exchanged his cassock for a business suit and tie, for the sake of the 35,000 Latin and Eastern Catholics who lived in metropolitan Istanbul and who had to be in harmony not just with Muslims but with 100,000 Orthodox Christians.

“What does it matter if we wear the soutane [cassock] or trousers as long as we proclaim the word of God?” Roncalli wrote an Italian friend.

The Vatican asked Roncalli to be more involved in Greece in 1940 when Italy invaded and occupied Greece. His interest focused his attention on severe human misery. He aggressively moved to meet the needs. He raised money, soliciting, and helping Muslims and Orthodox, as well as Catholics. He tried to locate prisoners of war.

After the war, the State of Israel gave Roncalli a special citation for assisting Jews persecuted under Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic policy.

The future John XXIII saw combatting the persecution of Jews as a religious imperative. Once, after viewing films of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” he exclaimed, “How can this be? The Mystical Body of Christ!”

In a papal decree, John XXIII ordered that the Good Friday prayers no longer cite “the perfidious Jews” as culprits in the death of Jesus. In one of his first papal audiences, he met a group of Jewish visitors with open arms, and with biblical echoes, said, “I am Joseph, your brother!”

In Turkey, Roncalli made friends with German Ambassador Franz von Papen and his wife. Never fully trusted by the Hitler government, Papen was able to keep some friends in Berlin. The friendship between Archbishop Roncalli and Papen became an agent for eventually saving an estimated 24,000 Jews from Nazi death camps. (Roncalli never forged baptismal certificates for Jews, but he helped them in other ways, aided by his relationship with Papen.)

When the war ended, Papen’s less than total acceptance in high German circles did not spare him from the Nuremburg trials. Roncalli wrote a letter on behalf of his friend. Papen was acquitted. Later, John XXIII restored Papen’s Church titles, removed after the war.

The Bright Lights of Paris

After the allies liberated Paris, the Holy See assigned Angelo Roncalli as apostolic nuncio to France.

For Vatican diplomats, Paris was a plum diplomatic posting, but Roncalli’s nomination may have happened to send an opposite signal. Accusing the preceding nuncio of playing ball with the Vichy government, a puppet of the Germans, the new French head of state, Charles de Gaulle demanded the nuncio’s recall. Pius XII rejected this charge. Pius XII sent Roncalli from the backwaters of Bulgaria and Turkey to Paris.

Underway in Paris was a virtual witch hunt seeking to find, and to deal with, French men and women accused of cooperating with, or even tolerating, the German Occupation. Many bishops were suspected.

Nuncio Roncalli had to recommend to Rome, or not, dismissing bishops guilty of collaboration. The government was adamant. Offending bishops had to go. In the end, a third of the French bishops serving during the war were “persuaded” by Church authorities to retire. This was the point. The Church would listen, but the Church, and it alone, oversaw, evaluated, appointed and removed bishops.

Another sticky question for the new nuncio was the “Worker–Priest Movement” in which priests worked in factories to be close to people. Roncalli urged Pius XII to approve this system, but not until 1964, with Paul VI in the papacy, was the movement allowed.

Nuncio Roncalli loved Paris. To Paris he brought his trademark eagerness to know one and all. He walked every morning to buy newspapers and magazines at a local newsstand. He greeted and chatted with whomever he met along the way.

The post-war era saw great intellectual ferment in France among scholars like Jacques Maritain, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Etienne Gilson, Yves-Marie Congar, Henri de Lubac and Teilhard de Chardin. The nuncio only observed most of the debates, but he heard what these thinkers were saying, and he met them.

Venice: His Own Diocese

In 1953, Roncalli was named a cardinal — and patriarch of Venice. After so long, he again was a pastor.

In Venice, Cardinal Roncalli applied all that he had learned from Bishop Tedeschi, along with insights gained from all the situations in which he had been involved over the years. To start, he called a synod. It prepared a pastoral plan, which Patriarch Roncalli adopted. He looked for the right person for a job and then let this person do the job.

In Venice, he first used the term aggiornamento, which means updating. By the time of the Second Vatican Council, he had added to it the idea of Church reform. The Venetians loved him.

Back in Rome, Pope Pius XII was declining. He died on Oct. 28, 1958.

To succeed him, the cardinals elected the poor boy from Bergamo as Pope John XXIII, giving Roncalli 38 votes, three more than necessary. He chose “John” as his name. It honored St. John, of course, but it was the most frequent name among the popes. He saw himself as no unique figure.

Present at his inaugural, but unnoticed, was the once Queen Giovanna, exiled from Bulgaria by its post-war Communist masters. Banished also from Italy as the sister of its dethroned king, she pleaded with Italy’s republican leaders for permission to be in Rome for just one day — to honor her friend of long ago as he became Pope John XXIII. She had never forgotten his kindness.

The rest is history. Roncalli enlarged the College of Cardinals, increasing its number to 73. During his papacy the cardinalate became truly international; John XXIII nominated the first cardinals from Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela, Japan, The Philippines and Tanzania. Never resenting opposition, because he respected everyone, John nominated several talented men who, it was said, had less than high opinions of him.

Twice as Heavy

Conscious of human needs, he raised the salaries of all the lay staff at the Vatican, telling the porters that he had doubled their wages because he was twice as heavy as his predecessor. He visited hospitals and prisons. He met, and often impressed, the great and mighty — including adversaries of the Church and of religion. He obtained a release from 10 years in a gulag of Archbishop Josef Slipyi, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

In 1963 he wrote his great encyclical, Pacem in Terris, drawing on all that he had seen. Preoccupying this encyclical, his sixth, was the nuclear threat that hung over the entire world following the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Addressed to “all people of good will,” it pleaded for peace in an anxious world.

Few papal statements, before or since, have been so universally well received. U.S. President John F. Kennedy said that this encyclical made him proud to be a Catholic. Even Soviet Premier Nicolai Krushchev lauded it.

Three months after its release the pope died. Two months after that, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a nuclear test ban. It had set an ideal and insisted that the ideal could be achieved.

He ordered a revision of the Code of Canon Law, finally completed under John Paul II.

Soon after his election, Pope John XXIII announced an ecumenical council. He invited to preparations, and to the Council itself, representatives from different Christian denominations.

After pilgrimages to Loreto and Assisi, he opened the Council on Oct. 11, 1962, with a still-inspiring discourse.

For Catholics around the world — indeed for many people of other religions, or no religion — his pontificate was revolutionary. In 1962, Time magazine named him “Man of the Year.” He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Always, the pope met people just as people, regardless of their status or philosophy. When he was to receive U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Vatican protocol figures urged him to be quite formal. She entered the room. He stood and said, in French, her second language, with outstretched arms, and a broad smile, “Jacqueline!” She was charmed.

Shortly before the Council’s opening, the pope’s physician diagnosed inoperable stomach cancer, the same disease that took his father and two sisters. The prognosis was bleak.

“Good Pope John” knew that he would not see the Council’s conclusion. As with so much of his life, he just put everything, including the Council and his own health, in the hands of God.

Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli, went home to God on June 3, 1963. All the world mourned his death.

Theretofore, the United States officially had paid slight attention to the passing of Catholic popes. Utterly without precedent, President Kennedy announced that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, the nation’s second-highest-ranking elected official, would represent this country at John XXIII’s funeral. It was a bold statement about John’s imprint upon the world.

Indeed, because of him, the world had changed. The Church had changed.

Canonization, ultimately, will not celebrate his imprint upon the world, or the Church, but the basic, constant and simple sanctity that formed his person — and prompted his deeds.

BARBARA BECKWITH is the retired managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, a publication of Franciscan Media in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2004 as part of a Franciscan Pilgrimage she visited Sotto il Monte, Pope John’s birthplace in Italy, and was a reader at a Mass at his tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica.