John XXIII (1881–1963)

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JOHN XXIII (1881–1963)


Pope from 1958 to 1963.

Pope John XXIII was born Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli in Sotto il Monte, Bergamo, on 25 November 1881 to a large family of poor peasants. After attending sseminaries in Bergamo (1892–1900) and Rome (1901–1905) he graduated as a doctor in theology. He was ordained a priest on 10 August 1904. From 1905 until 1914 he was secretary to the bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Radini Tedeschi (1857–1914), who became his mentor in pastoral leadership. In those years he also lectured on church history in the priestly seminar of Bergamo and did historical research on the life of Carlo Borromeo (1538–1584), the sixteenth-century archbishop of Milan who played a model role in the implementation of the decrees of the Council of Trent. During World War I Roncalli served as a hospital orderly and as a military chaplain. In 1921 he went to Rome as director of the papal missionary works in Italy. In 1925 he was ordained a bishop and appointed (until 1952) to the diplomatic service of the pope. First he was apostolic visitator (later apostolic delegate) in Bulgaria, next from 1935 until 1944 apostolic delegate in Greece and Turkey. In 1944 he became papal nuncio in Paris. In 1953 he was created a cardinal and named as patriarch in Venice.

Following the death of Pius XII (r. 1939–1958), Roncalli was elected as pope on 28 October 1958 at the age of seventy-seven. He was expected to be a transitory pope with a short reign. His diplomatic experience and his moderate position within the conclave (he did not belong to the outspoken progressive or conservative wing) contributed to his election. Most of all however he was elected because of his contrast with the hieratic and rigid profile of his predecessor. Being a good pastor and a cordial and discreet personality, he was able to provide the church leadership with a new image. It was hoped that he would free the church from the stagnation that had characterized the last years of the pontificate of Pius XII, but at the same time it was generally expected that his church policy would mostly line up with that of Pius XII.

To some extent John XXIII met those moderate expectations. He normalized and reactivated the Curia by filling long-standing vacancies and reinstating regular audiences with the curial functionaries. Decentralization, deliberation, and shared responsibility were features of his governing style. By creating new cardinals (exceeding the traditional number of seventy) he rejuvenated and internationalized the consistory. But he entrusted key positions within the Curia to intimates of Pius XII. He appointed his former chief and opponent Domenico Tardini (1888–1961) as Secretary of State while Alfredo Ottaviani (1890–1979) retained his powerful position as head of the Holy Office. Mainly due to the initiative of the latter Roman congregation Pius XII's decisions and directions were reaffirmed, sometimes even strengthened: the condemnation of the worker-priests, the excommunication of communists, the warning against critical bible exegesis and against the evolutionary vision of Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955). The apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientiae of 1962 underscored the importance of Latin as the language of the liturgy. The pope was a devout man, with a traditionally oriented spirituality.

From the onset of his pontificate, however, John XXIII showed a readiness to stress the character and goals of his pontificate. The choice of his name marked a break with the Pius tradition: since the fifteenth century no pope had been called John. More than his predecessors John XXIII regarded himself as Bishop of Rome and demonstrated this by solemnly taking hold of the Bishop's Church (St. John Lateran) and making visits to Roman hospitals and prisons. He kept a distance from the interference of the Vatican in Italian politics. On 25 January 1959 he astonished his church and the world with the announcement of an ambitious threefold program for his pontificate: the convening of an ecumenical council, the organization of a Roman synod, and the revision of canon law.

The convening of the Second Vatican Council was the most important achievement of the pontificate of John XXIII. Its goal, as put forward by the pope, was an aggiornamento, an adaptation of the church to "the signs of the time." After the announcement, the preparation was started in the summer of 1959. John XXIII solemnly opened the Council on 11 October 1962 and watched (with reserved distance and respect for the freedom of the Council fathers) the progress of its first session until 8 December 1962. The next three sessions (1963, 1964, and 1965) proceeded under the pontificate of his successor Paul VI (r. 1963–1978). The Council was one of the most outstanding events in the twentieth-century Catholic Church. It provoked not only a "new Pentecost" within the church itself, but also furthered its rapprochement to the other Christian churches and its openness to the world.

John XXIII devoted his pontificate to unity and peace. He proclaimed himself a shepherd of his flock but also of all humankind. In 1960 he established within the Curia the Secretariat for Christian Unity, in order to promote good relations with the Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches. The pope contributed to the détente between East and West by intervening at crucial moments in the Cold War (the Berlin Crisis in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962). He improved relations between the Vatican and the Soviet Union. In spring 1963 the daughter and son-in-law of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (r. 1953–1964) were received in papal audience. Peace, social welfare, human rights, and just treatment of the developing countries were central themes in his most important encyclicals: Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963). The pope opened the way for peaceful cooperation between Catholics and communists by making a distinction between a heretical philosophical system and its possible practical goals and between error and those who err. Pacem in Terris was the first papal encyclical directed not only to the Catholic believers, but to "all men of good will." It appeared a few weeks before the death of the pope on 11 April 1963. The pontificate of John XXIII left a deep impression on the Catholic Church. He is remembered as "the pope of the council" and "the good pope." He was beatified in September 2000.

See alsoCatholicism; Vatican II.


Primary Sources

Pope John XXIII. Journal of a Soul. Translated by Dorothy White. New York, 1965.

Secondary Sources

Alberigo, Giuseppe . Johannes XXIII: Leben und wirken des Konzilspapstes. Mainz, Germany, 2000.

Alberigo, Giuseppe, ed. Jean XXIII devant l' histoire. Paris, 1989.

Benigni, Mario, and Goffredo Zanchi. John XXIII: The Official Biography. Boston, Mass., 2002.

Cahill, Thomas. Pope John XXIII. New York, 2002.

Hales, E. E. Y. Pope John and His Revolution. London, 1965.

Hebblethwaite, Peter. John XXIII: Pope of the Council. London, 1984.

Trevor, Meriol. Pope John. London and New York, 1967.

Zizola, Giancarlo. The Utopia of Pope John XXIII. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1978.

Lieve Gevers

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John XXIII (1881–1963)

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