The Curious Case of John XXIII

Pope St. John XXIII was a pope of many surprises

De Agostini, “John XXIII”
De Agostini, “John XXIII” (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Sometimes history looks a little more like spaghetti than a straight timeline of events. And the case of Pope John XXIII — and the case of the Johns before him — can be no different. I’m thinking of my brother who used to say, “History is the most boring subject. You’re living in the past!” Well, sometimes the past is more interesting than it looks. 

Pope John XXIII was a pope of many surprises. I think it’s fairly well known that he was expected to be a “stop-gap” pope who wouldn’t really shake up things in his old age. Yet, as the Holy Spirit would have it, John XXIII was elected and quickly initiated the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Pope Paul VI — who would close the council — remarked that “this holy old boy doesn't realize what a hornet's nest he’s stirring up” according to George Weigel.

It gets better.

Oddly enough, that wasn’t the first hornet’s nest to do with a Pope John XXIII. Yes, there was another. The antipope John XXIII shared a four-way standoff of claimants to the throne of Peter in 1410. A council was held to resolve this and bring an end to the Western Schism.

It gets better.

After being opposed so thoroughly in the Council of Constance (1413), he attempted an escape dressed as a mailman! Eventually, they caught up to him and stripped him of rank, charged him, and found him guilty of heinous crimes such as murder and rape. Historians debate the veracity of these accusations. Still, he was an antipope.

So, 500 years later when the elder cardinal and Patriarch of Venice was elected to everyone’s surprise, he made another surprising decision. “I will be called John.” A gasp must have leapt from the mouth of his French attendant, Cardinal Eugène Tisserant. He’d be choosing a name that was a bad memory in the history of the papacy.

It gets better.

We call him John XXIII, but there were not 22 Pope Johns before him — and I’m not referring to the aforementioned antipope. There was actually no Pope John XX … ever. And it wasn’t intentional, either. Sadly, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, what happened was that when Pope John XXI (1276–1277) chose his regnal name, he decided to skip the number XX on the faulty account that that there had been another John between XIV and XV. When in reality, John XIV had been counted twice because of a mistaken reading of Liber Pontificalis.

In the mind of John XIII, it might not have been so odd of a decision to choose the name of John. It’s a common name for popes — the most popular, actually. The regnal papal name of John is followed in frequency by Gregory (16), Benedict (16) and Clement (14). At the pace it had been going before the antipope of the early 15th century, we might have had another nine Pope Johns to speak of. And perhaps Angelo Cardinal Roncalli — his name before becoming John XXIII — wouldn’t have chosen this name, being a pope who clearly loved to surprise his critics.

Considering all of this, it actually makes me appreciate John XXIII — the real one. Here’s a clergyman who probably understood perfectly well the situation he’d been lumped in. I like to think he thought all of this through just in case he was actually elected. I imagine him telling himself, “I’m going to set this one straight.” In this move, he affirms the antipope status of Cardinal Cossa, and rights the barque of Peter on a course that allows future popes to choose “John” with no fear of shock, reprisal or scandal.

He must have thought, “It gets better.”

The Pope later offered commentary on his decision:

“I choose John … because it is the name of the humble parish church where I was baptized, the solemn name of numberless cathedrals scattered throughout the world, including our own basilica (referring to St. John Lateran). Twenty-two Johns of indisputable legitimacy have been Pope, and almost all had a brief pontificate. We have preferred to hide the smallness of our name behind this magnificent succession of Roman popes.”