Angelo Roncalli was the firstborn son in a family of 14 children in late 19th century Italy. Pegged as an intellectual at an early age, he went to work as the personal secretary for Bishop Radini-Tedeschi of Bergamo and taught in the seminary there.
He eventually was called to Rome and went on to have a distinguished diplomatic career, representing the Holy See in a chain of foreign posts, including Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and perhaps most importantly, in post-war France.
In 1953, he returned to Italy, was elevated to the Patriarchate of Venice and accordingly made a cardinal. In a fascinating gesture of respect, the socialist French President Vincent Auriol bestowed the red hat on Roncalli in a Parisian ceremony honoring the prelate’s dedication to French Catholicism, often called the “eldest daughter of the church.”
Roncalli was a beloved pastor to the Venetian people. The Peter Hebblethwaite cites Roncalli’s affinity for the city. “Venice took to the patriarch, and the patriarch took to Venice. He loved its traditions and the links with Byzantium…. Over the door to his study he placed the words ‘Pastor et Pater’ (Shepherd and Father) as a reminder of how his authority should be exercised” (Pope of the Century, 118-9).
When Pius XII died in 1958, Roncalli purchased a roundtrip train ticket to Rome for the conclave. It is unclear what ever became of that unused return stub.
The cardinals, small in number and advanced in age (Pius had held very few consitories during his pontificate) chose Roncalli largely because of his diplomatic ties to Italy and France. His chief competition in the discussions was Guiseppe Siri, the 42 year old archbishop of Genoa. If elected, he could reign for a number of decades. One prominent prelate is recorded as asserting, “What we need is an old man, a transitional pope. He won’t introduce any new innovations, and will give us time to pause and reorganize. In that way the real choices that cannot be made now will be postponed.” If the electors’ hope was to achieve such a goal, it is nearly impossible to conceive of a more inefficient selection.
An erudite historian, Roncalli sought to restore the most chosen papal name through the centuries, that of two of Christ’s intimate disciples, John. The choice was a foretaste of the shocking decisions that were to follow; the name had been thought previously unusable after the last antipope to employ it, Baldassare Cossa, chose to leave his life of piracy to murder and lie his way into ecclesiastical power. Even moments after this most recent John XXIII’s election, the pope displayed his disregard for such pretenses and capricious customs. He wanted to honor his father and the cathedral of Rome, St. John Lateran, and so he willfully chose the name despite its perceived unsuitability.
“Good Pope John” was an immediate and substantial shift from the more austere Pius XII. He was gregarious and paternal, telling local Romans to “go home tonight, give your a children an embrace, and tell them this hug is from the pope.” His joviality and quick wit were almost always on display. When asked how many people work in the Vatican, his sardonic response has become legendary — “About half of them.”
John famously decided the time had come to throw open the windows of the Vatican to let in some fresh air. In this light, he shockingly decided to convoke the Second Vatican Council. It’s intertwined themes of aggiornamento (updating) and ressourcement (re-appropriation of ancient practices) sought to articulate the doctrines of the church, with their enduring content, into more modern articulations that reflected dialogue with men and women of the present day. While he did not live to see the end of the Council, it was his sudden inspiration, “like a flash of heavenly light,” which led to it. He had come to realize that the “substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another” (Opening Speech of the Council, 1962). ]
The church we know and love today continues to re-present the Truth of the Gospels for humanity in every age and situation, and Vatican II has much to do with the prayers, practices, and ways in which 21st century Catholics continue to self-identify.
As John’s health declined from a painful form of stomach cancer, he continued to shepherd the church through the labyrinthine and thorny paths of a widespread and institutionalized examination of conscience. One of his last acts was to publish the encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). It was addressed not to the Catholic community, but to “all men and women of good will.” The pope sought to strengthen true and lasting fraternity between peoples and nations.
After his death, Roncalli’s good friend Giovanni Battista Montini would bring the Council to completion and implement many of its decisions and pronouncements. John Paul II beatified Good Pope John along with his predecessor Pius IX in 2000. Instead of honoring Blessed John XXIII on the date of his death which is normal for venerating church figures, he is so linked with his life’s work that his memorial day is on the anniversary of the opening of the Council, Oct. 11.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.