John XXIII

Pope from 1958. Elected following a conclave of three days with eleven ballots, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli had previously served as a secretary to the bishop of Bergamo in N Italy, directed the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Italy, and then been apostolic delegate until in 1953 he became a cardinal and patriarch of Venice. It was thought at first that he would be only a “transitional” pope.

Of medium height, sturdy and stout, he looked very different from his predecessor, Pius XII. His whole approach was also different from other modern popes. He chose the name “John,” a title not used for five and a half centuries; at the Christmastide following his election he made lengthy visits to two hospitals, caused sick and crippled children to visit him, and also visited the Regina Coeli prison. Soon he gained the love of Christians everywhere; beneath the vestments of the pope they felt there still existed the soul and heart of a country priest. An all-important day in his pontificate was 25 January 1959. To a stunned extraordinary congregation of seventeen cardinals who were in Rome he announced he would do three things: (1) call a synod of the church in the city and diocese of Rome; (2) summon an ecumenical council to promote Christian unity; (3) promote the reform of canon law. There had not been a Roman synod since medieval times, and the last council had met in 1869-70. If there was opposition to his ecumenical ideals within the Vatican, leaders in other churches were most gratified. Athenagoras, Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, was delighted; and Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury even called upon the pope, an event that caused a great stir in England.

Pope John made two famous speeches in 1962, one on the relationship between the church and the world, and another at the opening of the council. The latter urged the church to respond to the twentieth century and make the depositum fidei relate to the world and its needs. As the council progressed in its first session, he took a lively interest in it and prodded often in order to facilitate progress. Both during and after the first session John XXIII was a sick man, but he continued his work unabated. His visits to hospitals and parishes in Rome continued. Statesmen—e.g., Harold Macmillan of Britain—and church leaders—e.g., the prior of the Protestant community of Taizé—were given audiences.

On 29 March 1963 he set up the Commission of Cardinals to revise the Code of Canon Law. During this same period he showed great concern for a happy relationship of the church with Communist governments. He saw the release of the archbishop of Lvov in the Ukraine from prison, and he received at the Vatican the son-in-law of Nikita Kruschchev. Furthermore, bishops from Poland, Hungary, and other countries behind the Iron Curtain were allowed to attend the council. His encyclicals included: Ad Petri Cathedram, which related to the council; Princeps Pastorum, which dealt with missions; Mater et Magistra, which looked at social questions; and Pacem in terris, which dealt with peace on earth. Part V of the latter was concerned with the relationship of the church to Communist governments.

The last week of his life was followed intensely by the press of the free world, for his warm, irradiating humanity had endeared him to many who did not share his religious views.

Bibliography: L. Algisi, Giovanni XXIII (1959); F.X. Murphy, Pope John XXIII Comes to the Vatican (1959); E. Balduci, Papa Giovanni (1964); E.E.Y. Hales, Pope John and His Revolution (1965); G. Lercaro and G. De Rosa, John XXIII, Simpleton or Saint (1967); M. Trevor, Pope John (1967). See also John XXIII, Journal of a Soul (ET 1965), and bibliography under Vatican II.