Pope John XXIII: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Staysniak

Chris has taught college history and has a doctorate in American history.

In this lesson you will learn about the life and legacy of Pope John XXIII, who came from a humble background and ultimately helped lead significant changes within the Catholic church.

Humble Beginnings

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born November 25, 1881, to humble beginnings. He came from Sotto il Monte, a small village in the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy. The fourth of fourteen children, Roncalli was the son of a tenant farmer who worked land owned by wealthy families, giving them half his crop in return as payment. His family was poor but generous. If a beggar passed by, he later recalled, ''There was always room for him and my mother would hasten to seat the stranger alongside us.''

Priesthood and Early Career

Roncalli was a bright student who entered the local seminary in 1892, and eventually won a scholarship to study in Rome. Once ordained, he became secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo, a pastoral and more liberal member of the hierarchy. He deeply influenced Roncalli, who called him ''My spiritual father.''

After serving Bergamo, and a brief stint serving in the Italian army as a hospital orderly and chaplain during World War I, Roncalli was chosen to be the head of the Propaganda Fide, a society that funded Catholic missions that had branches all over Europe.

Diplomatic Service and Venice

Roncalli was made an archbishop and sent to be the Vatican's representative in Bulgaria in 1925. The diplomatic posting had little prestige as Bulgaria was a relative backwater with few Catholics. In 1934, he was named delegate to both Turkey and Greece, two nations that also had small Catholic populations relative to their respective Muslim and Greek Orthodox majorities.

In these postings, Roncalli built a reputation for his ecumenical outreach, pastoral ministry, jovial attitude, and care for others. During World War II, he spent most of the time in Istanbul, working with the Red Cross to provide relief, and helping to coordinate paperwork that helped thousands of Jews escape the Holocaust to Palestine. As he wrote around that time, ''I live in the exercise of charity, charity for all.''

In recognition of his talents, in 1944, Roncalli was sent to Paris to help smooth over the fraught politics at play in a city only recently liberated by the Allies from German Nazis. Roncalli built a reputation for being friendly, engaging, and fair. In 1953, he was named Patriarch of Venice and made a Cardinal.

Election to Pope

In October 1958, a conclave was held to elect a new pope following Pope Pius XII's passing. Roncalli was no insider, and was, by that point, at the advanced age of seventy-six. He was not the favorite to take Pope Pius XII's place, but he was well-liked and had no enemies. After eleven votes, the outsider who had spent years in Catholic backwaters procured the two-thirds support needed to become pope, and subsequently chose the name John XXIII.

Papal Achievements

Whereas his predecessor was skinny and dignified, John was short, squat, less formal, and far more easygoing. He was largely humble, prayerful, and quick to make a joke to lighten the mood.

On January 25, 1959, he gave the announcement that he wanted to convene a church council, a decision that took the Catholic Church, and indeed the world, by surprise. This ultimately led to the start of the Second Vatican Council, better known as Vatican II, in October 1962. The Council, which would run several sessions and last until 1965, conducted important meetings that resulted in the Catholic Church updating many of its teachings, and taking a more conciliatory stance towards the modern world.

Pope John XXIII helped set the tone with his embracement of the idea of aggiornamento, Italian for ''updating'' or ''modernizing,'' so that the Church would be more positive and forward-looking than in previous decades.

While Vatican II was Pope John XXIII's most important act as Pope, he also wrote an important encyclical, or teaching document, Pacem in terris (''Peace on Earth'') in 1963, which argued for nuclear non-proliferation, and urged nations to work towards world peace.

Pope John XXIII was exceptionally popular among both Catholics and non-Catholics, and, as a result, was named Time magazine's ''Man of the Year'' in 1962.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII was named

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