Today is the feast day for St. Pope John XXIII, the pope who called the Second Vatican Council into session. Normally a saint’s feast day is celebrated on the date of his passing. Pope John XXIII died on June 3, 1963; however, his feast is celebrated on October 11th each year, on the anniversary of the opening of Vatican II. His story is well-known and available on many internet sites.
Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in 1881, he was one of 13 children. His youth was spent poor as the son of sharecroppers in a farming village of the Bergamo province in Lombardy. Yet his family was able to provide an education that eventually led to the seminary.
It is interesting to note that his background and early years could not have been different that his papal predecessor, Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) who came from an ancient aristocratic family long connected to the papacy serving in financial, legal, and advisory roles as well as starting the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano – which still operates today.
One of the interesting aspects of Roncalli as a seminarian is that we took vows as a Secular Franciscan. It is easy to see how the Franciscan spirituality was later demonstrated during his later ministries. Also, he was drafted into the Italian Army for WWI – serving as medic and chaplain. His first hand experience of battle as a soldier and later during WWII as a diplomat were formative in his papacy that began many peace and reconciliation initiatives.
After ordination, Roncalli served at his diocesan seminary as spiritual director for 17 years before being called to Rome and ultimately beginning a career in the Vatican diplomatic corp. He held a series of posts including assignment in Bulgaria from 1925 to 1934, Apostolic Delegate to both Greece and Turkey from 1934 to 1944, and ending as nuncio to France from 1944 to 1953. Especially while serving in Bulgaria and Turkey. Those appointments brought him into close contact with the Jewish and Muslim communities in those countries. During World War II Roncalli, in his assignment in Turkey, used his office to help the Jewish underground in saving thousands of refugees in Europe, leading some to consider him to be a Righteous Gentile. He initiated a policy of Christian–Jewish reconciliation after his election to the papacy in 1959, which focused on the Second Vatican Council producing a document on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews.
In 1958, Roncalli was serving as the Patriarch of Venice, one of the oldest sees in the Church. After 14 rounds of voting, Roncalli was elected pope. It is generally understood that the cardinals chose a man who – it was presumed because of his advanced age – would be a short-term or “stop-gap” pope. They wished to choose a candidate who would do little during the new pontificate. Upon his election, Cardinal Eugène Tisserant asked him the ritual questions of whether he would accept and if so, what name he would take for himself. Roncalli gave the first of his many surprises when he chose “John” as his papal name. This was the first time in over 500 years that this name had been chosen; previous popes had avoided its use since the time of the Antipope John XXIII during the Western Schism several centuries before.
Far from being a mere “stop-gap” pope, John XXIII called for an ecumenical council fewer than ninety years after the First Vatican Council (Vatican I’s predecessor, the Council of Trent, had been held in the 16th century). This decision was announced on 25 January 1959 at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI, remarked to Giulio Bevilacqua that “this holy old boy doesn’t realise what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”
And that is just a little bit about the pope who opened up the doors of the Church to engage the world. St. Pope John XXIII pray for us.