Jovial, plump and a superb communicator, Angelo Roncalli took the name of John XXIII when he was elected pope in 1958, at the age of 77. It was commonly believed that, given his age, he would be a ‘transitional’ pope, an interim pontiff until a more long-term occupant could be found for the job. Few foresaw that in the four short years that Pope John XXIII was to reign he would become one of the most innovative and best-loved leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.
He would modernise the Church by carrying out substantial reforms within the Vatican which, since losing the Papal States in 1871, had become introspective and resistant to change. And he would bring it into the modern world by establishing an important diplomatic role for the Church during the tense years of the cold war.
Born on November 25, 1881 in Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo, Roncalli was the third of the 13 children of a very poor but extremely devout peasant farming family. Seeing that he was an intelligent boy, the local priest and his father’s land-owning employer sponsored his education at the seminary in Bergamo.
Upon his ordination as a priest in 1904, he became secretary to the aristocratic bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, a strong social reformer. When Radini-Tedeschi died—about the time of Italy’s declaration of war on Austria and Germany and the beginning of WW I—Roncalli was conscripted and served in the medical corps.
After the war, he was called to Rome and taught at the Pontifical Athenaeum of the Lateran, where his views were often considered too ‘modernist’. Within three months of arriving at the Pontifical university, he was relieved of his teaching post, consecrated as bishop and sent into near-exile as papal emissary to Bulgaria.
After 10 long, frustrating years in Bulgaria, Roncalli was named delegate to Turkey immediately before WW II broke out. There, he helped save thousands of Jewish refugees by obtaining transit visas for them or by issuing false baptismal certificates so they could pass as Christians.
The end of war finally brought an end to Roncalli’s anonymity. Because the papal nuncio to France had collaborated with the pro-German Vichy government, the Vatican was forced to find a replacement for him—quickly. If it didn’t, the traditional New Year’s greeting to the French president in 1945 would have had to be given by the ambassador of the Soviet Union, the next-highest-ranking ambassador. So, distant from any kind of controversy or objections, Roncalli was appointed nuncio to France just in time to present the traditional greetings to De Gaulle.
In 1953, Roncalli, now a cardinal, was appointed patriarch of Venice. When, in October 1958, Pope Pius XII died, he was elected pope on the 12th ballot of the conclave. Within two months of his election, he memorably ventured outside the walls of the Vatican at Christmas to visit the sick children at the Roman Hospital of Bambino Gesù and then to visit the prisoners at the Regina Coeli prison.
In January 1959, he announced the formation of the Second Vatican Council to ‘update’ the Church in an attempt to bring it into the present. He also established relations with the Protestant and Orthodox Churches and the Jewish faith. Overall, he nominated 37 new cardinals, including, for the first time, one each from Tanzania, Japan, the Philippines and Mexico. He acted as bishop of Rome by personally visiting many of its parishes. His pilgrimages to Loreto and Assisi made him the first pope to leave Lazio since Rome was annexed to the Italian State in 1870.
His Encyclical or papal letter ‘Pacem in terris’ on establishing universal peace, in which he states that war is always to be considered an error and solutions have to be found through dialogue, is one of his most lasting achievements. In keeping with these decidedly new ideas for the Church at that time, he re-established contacts with Eastern Europe during the cold war and played a key role in solving the Cuban missile crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union. For his diplomatic efforts for peace, he was awarded the Balzan International Peace Prize in May 1963.
The world mourned when, after prolonged agony, Pope John XXIII died on June 3, 1963, of stomach cancer. In 2000, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II.