The journey to the papacy of Angelo Rocalli, born near Bergamo in Lombardy in 1881, the first son in a large family of peasant farmers, was an unlikely one. A papal diplomat of no great rank, he found himself suddenly in high church circles after a surprise appointment as nuncio to France. Part of John XXIII’s charm was that he never forgot his humble origins, and managed to be wonderfully unaffected by pomp and status.
He began studying for the priesthood at the age of 12 and was ordained a priest in 1904, spending the next 10 years as the local bishop’s secretary and lecturing in church history in Bergamo’s seminary, where – after serving in Italy’s ambulance corps during the First World War – he became spiritual director.
In late 1921 he was appointed national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and joined the Vatican’s diplomatic service. In Rome he befriended the young Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, who was working in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
These were the early years of Mussolini’s reign. In a homily at Bergamo cathedral in September 1924 Roncalli pointed out that a country’s greatness was best displayed not by military adventures or economic success but by ‘justice embodied in law’. The basic laws of civilization, he said, were to be found in the Ten Commandments and the Gospels, not passing fads and ideologies.
A few months later, to Il Duce‘s dismay, Roncalli was ordained bishop and appointed apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. He took as his episcopal motto Obedientia et Pax, ‘obedience and peace’, and wrote in his journal of his episcopal robes that they would always remind him of ‘the “splendour of souls” which they signify and which is the bishop’s real glory – “God forbid’, he said, ‘they should ever become a motive for vanity!”
The first papal representative to live in Bulgaria in centuries, Roncalli was initially viewed with suspicion by the Orthodox Bulgarians, but his extraordinary gift for friendship led to close ties among them — not least the king, who was struggling at the time to hold his country together. His principal role, though, was to support Bulgaria’s tiny Catholic minority, both the Latin-rite Catholics who lived in larger towns and the Uniates in the country’s rural backwaters.
The Uniates, mostly impoverished refugees, had married clergy and other Orthodox customs, and celebrated Mass in their own languages according to Orthodox rites. Roncalli travelled constantly to minister to them, earning himself the nickname Diando or ‘Good Father’; through spending time with Catholics so different in culture, began to feel “more catholic, more truly universal”.
In late 1934 Roncalli was made apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece. He arrived in Istanbul in January 1935 and though troubled by the impact of Atatürk’s secularisation on the tiny Catholic minority, which found itself deprived of many schools and its diocesan newspaper, made a point of befriending those diplomats he met and working hard to overcome needless divisions between Catholics and Orthodox.
During World War Two, Roncalli issued thousands of documents to help Jews escape from occupied Greece. When the German ambassador to Turkey was tried at Nuremburg, Roncalli wrote to say that while he did not wish to interfere with any political judgments, Franz von Papen had given him ‘the chance to save the lives of 24,000 Jews’.
Roncalli was astonished in 1945 to be appointed papal nuncio to liberated France. General de Gaulle had demanded the removal of the wartime nuncio, and Pope Pius XII needed a diplomat wholly free of any stain of collaboration or Nazi sympathies. Roncalli smoothed the path for the French Catholic philosopher and founder of Christian democracy, Jacques Maritain, to become France’s ambassador to the Holy See, was able to reduce the number of bishops de Gaulle wanted replaced from more than two dozen to a mere seven, mingled in the streets with ordinary people, and encouraged Catholics in the newly-established UNESCO to engage in dialogue with atheists, agnostics, and those of other faiths.
Made cardinal in 1953, he returned home to Italy at last as Patriarch of Venice; it is one of the more striking ironies of Roncalli’s life that a man who would become known as a pastor and father to the whole world had no formal pastoral appointment until he was 71.
Announcing to the Venetians that he wanted simply to be their brother – “kind, approachable, and understanding” – Roncalli was struck by the plight of Venice’s poor and encouraged local businessmen into building and restoration projects to boost employment. His door was famously open, and he never refused visitors, telling his secretary: “Let them come in – perhaps they want to go to confession.”
Pius XII died in October 1958 at the end of a pontificate lasting almost 20 years, and Roncalli set off for Rome with just an overnight bag. Pius’s natural successors all seemed too young or too unacceptable to one or other party. Eventually, after 11 ballots, Roncalli emerged, a compromise candidate elected as a transitional pope. His electors were in for a surprise.
Taking his father’s name, he was the first pope to be called John since the fourteenth century, and the last pope whose papal inauguration ran for the traditional five hours, culminating in his coronation with the papal tiara. The ceremony in which John XXIII took possession of the Cathedral of Saint John Lateran likewise ran for the same length of time. John saw nothing wrong with such elaborate ceremonies.
Aware of his own inexperience with how things worked in Rome, he largely left alone the curia he inherited from Pius XII. But he built on the internationalising of College of Cardinals begun by his predecessor by awarding the first ever red hats to Japan, the Philippines, Mexico, and Africa. His most significant Italian appointment, however, was his old friend Giovanni Battista Montini, the Archbishop of Milan, who would succeed him as Pope.
He gave history’s first papal press conference and on his first full day as pope gave a speech on Vatican radio emphasising Christian reunion and world peace. That Christmas he became the first pope since 1870 to make pastoral visits in his diocese of Rome, starting by visiting children in the Bambino Gesù hospital on Christmas Day, the following day going to the Regina Coeli prison, where he told the inmates: “You could not come to me, so I came to you”.
In January 1959, John announced a three-point programme for his
pontificate: a synod for the priests of the diocese of Rome, an updating of the Code of Canon Law, and an ecumenical council. The synod achieved little, and the updated Code would not be completed until 1983, decades after John’s death. But the Second Vatican Council turned out to be one of the most transformative decisions ever made by a church leader.
In the almost four years it took to lay the groundwork for the council, Pope John had a prodigious teaching output – a total of seven encyclicals, the most startling of which was Mater et Magistra, on Christianity and social progress. John lived to open the Council, but having been diagnosed with stomach cancer shortly before its first session, he died on 3 June 1963, just weeks after his eighth encyclical Pacem in Terris, which addressed all people of good will in the context of the Cold War.
One day soon, if God wants it, we’ll stop referring to John XXIII as “His Holiness” and speak instead of his holiness, including in an official and canonical way. We hope no one will feel the need to demand from him one of the ritual miracles necessary for canonization.
This feeling was far from unusual at the time, and was shared by many of the Council Fathers, according to Italian journalist Stefania Falasca, editor of 30 Giorni. Falasca noted last July in Avvenire, the Italian bishops’s official newspaper, that the Dominican theologian Yves Congar recorded in his diary of the Council that the Belgian Cardinal Lèon Joseph Suenens had at one point planned to close a speech on the council floor with a request for Pope John XXIII’s immediate canonisation ‘by acclamation.’
In 2000, following the miraculous 1966 curing of an Italian nun, Sister Caterina Capitani, Pope John Paul II presided his beatification, and in July 2013, a month after the 50th anniversary of John’s death, Pope Francis announced that John XXIII would be canonised without waiting for a confirmed second miracle.
The two main reasons for this decision, according to the postulator for John’s cause, Father Giovangiuseppe Califano, were the fact that John XXIII was already treated as a saint throughout the Catholic world with numerous signs and miracles being attributed to his intercession, and that during the Council there had been a request for John’s immediate canonisation – regardless of the usual protocols – with this to be included among the Council acts.
There is a sense, then, in which tomorrow’s canonisation of Pope John XXIII should be regarded as the last act of Vatican II. It is fitting that John’s feast day is 11 October, marking the date on which the Council began.