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John XXIII, St.

A Dictionary of Popes

J. N. D. Kelly,

Michael J. Walsh

John XXIII, St. 

(28 Oct. 1958–3 June 1963)

Third of thirteen children in a family of frugal peasant farmers, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born on 25 Nov. 1881 at Sotto il Monte, 12 km from Bergamo. After attending the village school and the two seminaries at Bergamo, he went with a scholarship to the S. Apollinare Institute, Rome, in 1901, graduating doctor of theology in 1904. Secretary 1905–14 to Bishop Radini-Tedeschi of Bergamo, he also lectured in church history at the diocesan seminary. Conscripted in the First World War, he served first as a hospital orderly, then as a chaplain. In 1921 *Benedict XV promoted him national director of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. In his spare time he wrote monographs on diocesan history and on St Charles Borromeo (1538–84), his researches in the Ambrosian Library, Milan, bringing him into contact with Achille Ratti. It was Ratti who, as *Pius XI, launched him on a diplomatic career, appointing him titular archbishop of Areopolis and apostolic visitor (from 1931 apostolic delegate) to Bulgaria in Mar. 1925, and apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece in 1934. Busy but lonely in the former post, he enjoyed the latter, establishing friendly relations with members of the Turkish government and leaders of the Orthodox churches. During the German occupation of Greece (1941–4) he worked to relieve distress and prevent the deportation of Jews. Appointed nuncio to France on 22 Dec. 1944, he dealt tactfully but firmly with the problem of the many bishops accused of collaborating with the Vichy regime, negotiated with the government over the financing of church schools and the nomination of bishops, and arranged for German prisoners-of-war who were ordinands to follow courses in theology at Chartres. He also looked favourably on experiments with worker priests, and from 1952 was permanent observer for the holy see at UNESCO. On 12 Jan. 1953 he was named cardinal priest of S. Prisca, and on 15 Jan. patriarch of Venice, where he was noted for his pastoral zeal, informality, and firm resistance to communist manoeuvres. In 1958 he completed the fifth and last volume of his studies on St Charles Borromeo. At the conclave of 25–8 Oct. 1958 he was elected at the twelfth ballot; he was crowned on 4 Nov., the feast of his revered Charles Borromeo. Almost 77, many regarded his appointment as a caretaker one, but it proved a decisive turning-point.

At his coronation mass John announced his desire to be above all things a good shepherd, and this was the hallmark of his pontificate. At his first consistory he abolished the rule, dating from *Sixtus V, fixing 70 as the maximum number of cardinals, and by 1962 he increased the college to 87, making it larger and more international than ever before. On 25 Jan. 1959 he proposed three major projects: a diocesan synod for Rome, an ecumenical council, and the revision of canon law. He held the synod, Rome's first for many centuries, in St John Lateran from 24 to 31 Jan. 1960; an overture to the council, its aim was to reinvigorate church life in Rome itself, though in practice it achieved little. His outstanding achievement, however, was the Second Vatican Council, the calling of which he attributed to a sudden inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Its objective, he later explained, was to be a new Pentecost, a means of regeneration for the church, bringing its teaching, discipline, and organization up to date (aggiornamento), and opening a way towards the reunion of the separated brethren of east and west. He set up preparatory commissions and secretariats on 5 June 1960, and opened the council itself in St Peter's on 11 Oct. 1962. Official observers from eighteen non-Roman churches were present by invitation, and in his address he urged the fathers to expound truth positively without relying on anathemas. Although he did not attend the deliberations himself, he intervened decisively on 21 Nov. 1962 to rule that the conservative schema on revelation, which had been rejected by more than half but not the necessary two-thirds of the fathers, should be redrafted by a mixed commission. On 8 Dec. 1962 he closed the first session, adjourning the council for nine months. Already stricken with illness, he did not live to see its resumption.

John set in motion his projected revision of canon law by creating a pontifical commission to deal with it (28 Mar. 1962); he had earlier (22 Feb. 1959) established a new papal commission for cinema, radio, and television. His concern for the liturgy was shown in his approval of new rubrics for the breviary and the missal (25 July 1960), his insertion of the name of St Joseph in the canon of the mass (13 Nov. 1962), and his permission for the use of the vernacular by certain Greek-rite churches. In his teaching a retreat from *Pius XII's emphasis on Mariology was perceptible; but some of his pronouncements, such as advice (20 June 1961) to New Testament exegetes to observe caution, and a warning (30 June 1962) against dangers in Teilhard de Chardin's work, sounded a reactionary note. His encyclicals and other utterances were more pastoral than dogmatic. His major encyclicals were Ad cathedram Petri (29 June 1959), in which he pleaded that truth, unity, and peace should be promoted in the spirit of love, and greeted non-Catholics as ‘separated brethren and sons’; Mater et magistra (15 May 1961), which reinforced and brought up to date the social teaching of *Leo XIII and *Pius XI and called on richer nations to help the poorer ones; and Pacem in terris (11 Apr. 1963), which, the first addressed to all mankind, set out the recognition of human rights and duties as the foundation of world peace and, distinguishing between Marxist ideology and the aspirations of communist regimes, pressed for peaceful coexistence between the west and the communist east. This last created a widespread impression, not least in the Soviet bloc, and led to his receiving Nikita Khrushchev's son-in-law in spring 1963. It also marked an important step in the inauguration by the Vatican of a more open eastern policy. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 John publicly urged both the USA and the USSR to exercise caution, winning the respect of Premier Khrushchev as well as of President John F. Kennedy. Next year the International Balzan Foundation awarded him its Peace Prize.

More than any pope, John wanted dialogue with the world, irrespective of creed. His concern for Christian unity was expressed in his establishment (5 June 1960) of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, with Cardinal Augustin Bea as its president. Other significant gestures were his dispatch of personal envoys to Istanbul to greet Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I (1948–72) on 27 June 1961, and his reception of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury on 20 Dec. 1960 (the first Anglican archbishop to be so received). He also exchanged greetings with Patriarch Alexis of Moscow. In Nov. 1961, with his approval, five official Roman Catholic observers attended the World Council of Churches in New Delhi. He removed words offensive to Jews from the Good Friday liturgy, and on one occasion introduced himself to Jewish visitors with the words, ‘I am Joseph, your brother’.

Warm-hearted and unaffectedly simple in spite of his erudition and command of many languages, attached to his humble origins and always retaining a peasant's shrewdness and jovial humour, John brought a wind of change to his office, relaxing its hieratic stiffness and, after decades of growing centralization, giving the episcopate a new awareness of its importance. Typically, at Christmas 1958 he revived the custom, which had lapsed in 1870, of visiting the Regina Coeli prison and one of the local hospitals. When he died, after a prolonged and painful illness, The Times commented that few pontificates had so captured the imagination of the world. He was beatified by Pope *John Paul II alongside Pope *Pius IX in 1999 and canonised alongside PopeJohn Paul II by PopeFrancis in April 2014. Feast 3 June.

Further Reading

A. G. Roncalli, Gli atti della visita apostolica di s. Carlo Borromeo a Bergamo (Florence, 1936)Find this resource:

    id., Mons. G. M. Radini-Tedeschi, vescovo di Bergamo (3rd edn., Rome, 1963)Find this resource:

      id., Souvenirs d'un nonce: Cahiers de France 1944–53 (Rome, 1963)Find this resource:

        id., Il giornale dell'anima, e altri scritti di pietà (Rome, 1964: ET by D. Whale, London, 1965)Find this resource:

          id., Letters to his Family (ET by D. Whale, London, 1969)Find this resource:

            AAS 50–55 (1958–63)Find this resource:

              E.E. Y. Hales, Pope John and his Revolution (London, 1965)Find this resource:

                M. Trevor, Pope John (London, 1967)Find this resource:

                  P. B. Johnson, Pope John XXIII (London, 1975)Find this resource:

                    P. Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Council (London, 1985)Find this resource:

                      DBI lv. 627–9 (F. Traniello)Find this resource:

                        Histoire xiii. 15–58Find this resource:

                          Levillain ii. 853–7 (G. Alberigo)Find this resource:

                            NCE vii. 932–8 (R. Trisco)Find this resource:

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