John XXIII: A History

Catholic historian James Hitchcock examines the life and legacy of the saintly pope.


Angelo Giussepe Roncalli was born at Sotto il Monte, in northern Italy, on Nov. 25, 1881, the son of a relatively prosperous peasant family. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Bergamo in 1904 and served as secretary to Bishop Giacomo Maria Radini-Tedeschi, whom he revered.

After Bishop Radini-Tedeschi’s death, Father Roncalli was drafted into the Italian army, serving in the medical corps during the First World War, in which Italy was an ally of the United States. After the war, Father Roncalli served in Rome as head of the Italian office that raised funds for the foreign missions.

In 1925, he was consecrated archbishop of Areopolis and began a decade-long assignment as papal nuncio to Turkey and Greece, followed by nine years as nuncio to Bulgaria. It was here, in countries populated primarily by non-Catholics, that he developed the ecumenical sensitivities that would be so important during his pontificate.

In a surprise move, Archbishop Roncalli was named papal nuncio to France at the end of 1944, just after that country had been liberated from the Germans.

Archbishop Roncalli was perhaps chosen because of his amiability and his talent for defusing conflicts.

In 1953, he was made patriarch of Venice and a cardinal — presumably an uneventful climax to a long life spent in faithful, but largely uneventful, service to the Church.

When Pius XII died in 1958, the Church, having survived 170 years of revolutions, wars and hostile governments, appeared to be stronger than it had been for a long time, and there was no reason to anticipate that the next papacy would be particularly notable.

In many countries, the rate of church attendance was remarkably high, religious vocations were abundant, Catholics seemed very serious about their faith, and clerical scandals were rare.

In the papal conclave of 1958, John XXIII was elected after 11 ballots, which was unusually long for modern times and which indicated a divided College of Cardinals and the selection of a "compromise candidate." John was old for the office (76, the same age of Pope Francis at his election), and conventional wisdom assumed that he had been chosen to be a brief, transitional pontiff.

In a sense, the "style" of the new pope was more important than his specific policies. He immediately effected a revolution in the public image of the papal office, from the pope as ruler to the pope as pastor. Whereas Pius XII was tall, aloof, austere and aristocratic, John was short, stout and informal, given to making jokes at his own expense, and he deliberately departed from papal protocol by the kinds of guests he received — the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury (see story on page 7) and the atheist son-in-law of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

John signaled that he would no longer be the "prisoner of the Vatican," as popes had considered themselves to be ever since the state of Italy seized the city of Rome in 1870. His first trips outside the Vatican were to a prison and a hospital, acts meant to exemplify the ancient papal title of "Servant of the Servants of God."

Before the age of papal world journeys, John broke further precedent when he left Rome to visit Assisi and the Marian shrine of Loreto in Italy.

Because of John’s style, many myths were woven about him, such as that he secretly left the Vatican at night to walk through the city. He was dubbed "pastoral," although he had spent most of his career in administration and diplomacy, and, although in some ways he was a simple man, he was politically sophisticated.

Although he had spent little time as an actual pastor, he had a pastoral spirit, in that he had wide sympathies and saw the mission of the Church as that of providing help to struggling human beings.

He was not theologically sophisticated. His spiritual diary, Journal of a Soul, revealed a man of deep traditional piety. He mandated the teaching of Latin in all seminaries, at a time when it was being phased out in many places, and mandated the inclusion of St. Joseph in the Canon of the Mass after the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had shown no interest in the matter.

He suppressed the "worker-priest" experiment in France and at various times forcefully reiterated the Church’s teachings about abortion, divorce, contraception and homosexuality. He established a special commission to study birth control because he did not want the issue discussed on the floor of the Second Vatican Council.

John began the Catholic ecumenical initiative even before the Council, largely by his personal openness to non-Catholics, whom he addressed as brothers. He established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and Protestants sent observers to the Second Vatican Council. As a papal nuncio prior to and during World War II, John had made efforts to help persecuted Jews, and as pope, he warmly greeted Jewish visitors and ordered the expunging of the term "perfidious Jews" from the Good Friday liturgy.

John’s pontificate was one of the most momentous in the history of the Church, primarily because of the Council, which, to the surprise of everyone, he announced less than a year after his election, at a time when most Catholics had probably never even heard of such a thing. Although Pius XII had considered the possibility, there had been no such gathering since the Vatican Council of 1870 (Vatican I), which had never been officially dissolved. Some of John’s advisers urged caution, but he brushed aside all misgivings.

John announced its goals as "the renewal of the spirit of the Gospel in the hearts of people everywhere and the adjustment of Christian discipline to modern-day living." He spoke of a "new Pentecost" and stated serenely that, since the teachings of the Church were firm and not in doubt, the Council would not concern itself with doctrine, but would be primarily a "pastoral" council.

It is likely that John thought that the "new Pentecost" would build on that firm foundation to bring Christ to the nations, to prepare for nothing less than the conversion of the world, something that required Catholics to put aside the defensiveness that had characterized the Church since the Protestant Reformation.

In his opening address to the Council in 1962, John called on it to take account of the "errors, requirements and opportunities" of the age and regretted that some people ("prophets of gloom") seemed unable to see any good in the modern world. At the same time, he affirmed the infallibility of the Church and said that its dogmas were settled and "known to all."

As Council Fathers gathered, many of them objected to the work of the various preparatory commissions — mainly, members of the papal Curia — that had been set up to formulate the agenda.

John acquiesced in the demands for a new agenda, which was formulated mainly by the Council Fathers themselves. This procedural squabble was in many ways the decisive event of the Council, representing a crucial victory for those fathers who desired changes.

Independent of the Council, John, through his encyclicals, continued the tradition of papal social teaching, expounding Catholic principles as the basis of a good society. His encyclicals were a bid for the Church to play a formative role in the world, and they attracted a great deal of favorable response.

His 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra (Christianity and Social Progress), moved beyond the obligations of charity and insisted that the sufferings of the poor were the result of systematic injustices. Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), in 1963, called on the world to achieve lasting peace by transcending national and ideological differences and affirmed the obligation richer nations have to poorer ones.

John specified that the renewal of the Church should be achieved primarily by the recovery of its roots in the Gospel. But at the same time, he himself used the word aggiornamento ("updating"), which became the favored term of those who measured renewal in terms of accommodation to modern culture and who often tried to claim the pope as their own.

Although it was written after his death (he died on June 3, 1963), Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) in a sense embodied John’s spirit, in that it did not primarily warn or condemn, but expressed sympathy and understanding for a world that possessed an unfulfilled longing for truth and justice.

John also attempted to mediate between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Just as the Council ended, the worldwide cultural revolution called "the ’60s" began — nothing less than a frontal assault on all forms of authority, which deeply affected the Church. John XXIII in no way foresaw the steep decline in religious vocations and Mass attendance, the sexual revolution and the open rebellion against Catholic doctrine that followed his death.

He died after the first session of the Council, when most of its major work still lay ahead. No pontiff had ever been more popular and more loved, recognized as a saint not for his ideas or his policies, but for his charity, humility and piety — one of the modern world’s greatest exemplars of heroic virtue.

James Hitchcock is a

Church historian and professor emeritus of history at

Saint Louis University.