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Blessed Pope John XXIII: An ‘Ordinary’ Holiness

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

What makes the September 3, 2000, beatification of Pope John XXIII extremely interesting, besides the fact that he lived mostly in the 20th century, is that not everyone considered him very “saintly.” The portly John XXIII was sandwiched between two slim and trim popes, Pius XII and Paul VI, whose figures and faces suggested that life is difficult, a cross to be borne patiently until happiness comes in the next world.

“Good Pope John,” as the press quickly christened him, had a grin and a girth that suggested this world is only a foretaste of a better one. Indeed, he once told a group of pilgrims: “We will pray for you….And you, pray for your pope. For, to be frank, let me tell you that I want to live a long time. I love life!”

In the Church’s early centuries, the vox populi (voice of the people) declared someone a saint. Since the 13th century, the beatification-canonization process has included a formal investigation to see if the person’s life is indeed worthy of imitation. Unfortunately, it usually takes centuries for the Church to beatify or canonize people. By then, people may wonder: How can this person still serve as an example? In the case of beatifying a pope, people may ask: What’s in this life to be imitated by all those who will never become Bishop of Rome?

‘Always Close to the Suffering and the Poor’

On December 20, 1999, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints issued a decree officially recognizing the “heroic virtues” of John XXIII. On that occasion, Archbishop José Saraiva Martins, secretary of the congregation, said:

“With the recognition of the heroic virtues of Pope John XXIII, one’s mind turns immediately to the exhilarating days of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council and all that came after it—and is still being accomplished in the Church in our day. This pontiff promoted ecumenism, was concerned about fraternal relations with the Orthodox of the East, whom he knew for a long time in Bulgaria and in Istanbul, undertook more intense relations with the Anglicans and the diverse world of the Protestant Churches. In every way, he set about to lay the foundations for a new attitude in the Catholic Church toward the Jewish world, decisively opening up the Church to dialogue and collaboration.

On June 4, 1960, he created the Secretariat for Christian Unity. He promulgated two significant encyclicals, Mater et Magistra (May 20, 1961) on society’s evolution in the light of Christian teaching and Pacem in Terris (April 11, 1963) on peace among all nations. He visited hospitals and prisons and in his charity was always close to the suffering and the poor of the Church and the world.”

These succinct words sum up John XXIII’s accomplishments: ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, justice and peace and, most of all, charity. Yet they tell us little about his passions—and he was certainly a man of passion!

Some biographers give the false impression that his advancements and “career”—even his pontificate—were accidents or tricks played upon the world by a God with a sense of humor, advancing this humble peasant to the Church’s most prestigious position.

Humble Beginnings

Pope John XXIII was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in Sotto il Monte, in the Diocese of Bergamo, Italy, on November 25, 1881. The fourth child of Giovanni Battista Roncalli and Marianna Mazzola, he was the first boy, the primogenito, placing him in a special position, even in that poor peasant family.

The most important person in his early life, however, was not his father or mother but his great-uncle and godfather, Zaviero Roncalli, head of the extended family. This unmarried, pious and literate man took little Angelo under his wing, showering upon him attention and affection, slowly encouraging him toward a priestly vocation.

Angelo’s seminary days in Bergamo and in Rome were marked not by academic distinctions but by homesickness, plus an acute awareness of his poverty and lack of brilliance compared to many of his classmates. Years later he could say, in all humility, that “the sense of my littleness and nothingness has always been my good companion, keeping me humble and content and granting me the joy of consecrating myself as best I can to the uninterrupted exercise of obedience and charity.”

Reinforcing that spirit of “littleness” or minority was Roncalli’s reception and profession as a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis (now called the Secular Franciscan Order) at the Bergamo seminary.

A New Interest

During his Roman seminary days, Angelo Roncalli developed another passion, a love for learning, especially history. Delving deeply into that subject, he fostered a sense of pragmatism, an assurance that God’s hand guides humanity through the ups and downs of life. This was long before Catholic catechists began emphasizing “salvation history.” Angelo’s sense of history confirmed his innate hope, a virtue that characterized his pontificate and constitutes much of his legacy to the Church. This historical perspective certainly reinforced his natural tendency not to take himself or life too seriously.

After his ordination in Rome on August 10, 1904, he visited briefly with his family before returning to the Eternal City for canon law studies. Within a year after ordination, he met Bergamo’s new bishop, Giacomo Maria Radini-Tedeschi, who promptly named the young priest his secretary. The bishop’s pastoral approach, especially his views on social and economic issues, closely reflected those of the late Pope Leo XIII (d. 1903), especially his 1891 social encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

Angelo’s bishop and the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Andrea Ferrari, tremendously influenced the future pope’s thought and spirituality. All three of them were suspected of being “soft” on modernism in the Church. Pope Pius X was particularly suspicious of historical studies and talk about the evolution of doctrine. A miracle of grace—or some political astuteness that Angelo Roncalli rarely showed—prevented his being condemned. While teaching history in Bergamo’s seminary, he published the official newspaper of what was probably Italy’s most activist diocese.

World War I Experience

During World War I, Father Roncalli served as a stretcher-bearer in the Italian army. Because Italy and the Holy See did not officially recognize one another, the Italian government did not directly provide military chaplains. Therefore, able-bodied priests were conscripted into the medical corps.

Angelo experienced the horrors of war firsthand. Years later he noted: “I shall never be able to forget the screams of an Austrian whose chest was torn apart by a bayonet during the war and who was carried to the hospital at Caporetto where I was an attendant. His image became ever more vivid within me as I worked on the encyclical Pacem in Terris.”

In 1921, Pope Benedict XV called Roncalli back to Rome to serve as Italy’s director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In that office Angelo’s horizons were broadened as he worked with influential Italian Church leaders and national directors from other countries. He also taught patristics (study of the Church Fathers) in a seminary in Rome.


When relations between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy were normalized under Pope Pius XI in 1929, not all Italian Church leaders agreed about how political lay Catholics could and should be. Some historians suspect that Roncalli’s more tolerant political stance led to his appointment as apostolic visitor in Bulgaria, where he served for 10 years. Before his ordination as an archbishop, he chose the motto “Obedience and Peace.”

Angelo’s years in Bulgaria offered him a good deal of spare time, which he filled with pastoral ministry, reading and observing. He also made new friends, including heads of state, government officials and Orthodox Church leaders.

In 1934, he was transferred to the Apostolic Delegation for Turkey and Greece. There he continued doing his best to promote the cause of peace and charity. With the help of the German ambassador, Angelo saved the lives of an estimated 24,000 Jews. In both countries he dealt with leaders of independent Orthodox Churches, learning to emphasize what unites those who believe in Christ. Roncalli’s knowledge of history helped immensely in this area because he could speak out of the Church’s past and use a language that preceded the 11th-century division in Christianity.

In later years he said: “May everyone be able to say of me that I have never sowed dissension and mistrust. That I have never grieved any immortal soul by engendering suspicion or fear; that I have been frank, loyal, trusting; that I have looked into the eyes of others with brotherly sympathy, even into those of persons who do not share my ideals, so as not to hinder the realization, in its season, of the great commandment of Jesus: Ut unum sint! [That all may be one].”

From Eastern Christianity he learned to appreciate more the Holy Spirit’s role, a fact very significant for future events. Late in 1944, Roncalli was appointed papal nuncio to Paris, one of the Vatican diplomatic corps’ most prestigious assignments. In France he walked the proverbial tightrope, finessing and trying to keep good relations among three very disparate entities: the government of Charles de Gaulle, the Vatican of Pius XII and the French bishops. He was made a cardinal in 1953.

When he was immediately transferred, most people were disappointed. His fellow diplomats chose Georges Vanier, the Canadian ambassador, to speak for them. Vanier said that the nuncio’s personality reminded him of Bergamo’s three major products: wine, silk and steel. The wine was Roncalli’s vivacity and warmth, the silk his sense of nuances, which kept him from being “one of those severe, Goya-type cardinals” and the steel represented “the firmness of character which makes no compromise where truth is concerned” (Peter Hebblethwaite’s Pope John XXIII: Shepherd of the World).

A Local Bishop at Last

At the age of 71, the man who had always thought he would be a simple country pastor was named patriarch of Venice. The boy who once walked behind horses plowing the fields was now welcomed to his new home in a procession of flower-garlanded gondolas.

During the ceremony marking his arrival in this prestigious post, a historic meeting place for East and West, he introduced himself by saying: “I am like every other man who lives here below. I am 71 years old; I have been endowed with the grace of good physical health, with a little good sense that enables me to look quickly and clearly into the heart of things, and with a disposition to love people that keeps me faithful to the injunctions of the gospel, respectful of my rights and those of others, and which prevents me from doing harm to anyone.”

When he entered the conclave to elect Pius XII’s successor, Cardinal Roncalli—just one month short of turning 77—justifiably assumed that he would continue living in Venice. Roman gossips—and there are many—report that everyone considered Giovanni Battista Montini, the archbishop of Milan and a veteran diplomat, as the most logical choice for pope. But he was not among the 51 cardinals in that conclave. According to that rumor, the cardinals wanted someone safe and elderly to reign a few years—after naming Montini a cardinal.

On October 28, 1958, the cardinals chose Roncalli, who was slightly below the average age of the voters. He soon made Montini a cardinal and died within five years. The rest of the rumor did not prove true. Calling for the Second Vatican Council, a diocesan synod for Rome and reform of canon law—all announced within three months—was probably not what most people considered “safe.”

A Different Kind of Pope

Papa Roncalli chose the name John, saying that it was his father’s name. It is also the name of the Baptizer and of an apostle. Rome’s cathedral, St. John Lateran, is named for both saints. Pope John XXIII set about to be, not so much the Vicar of Christ, the Pontifex Maximus, as the Bishop of Rome. He later said: “In the first days of this pontificate, I did not fully realize what it means to be the Bishop of Rome, and therefore the pastor of the universal Church. Then, week after week the light dawned fuller and fuller. And I felt very much at home, as though I had done nothing else during my whole life!”

His style differed greatly from his predecessor’s. Captivating the hearts of almost everyone, Pope John XXIII seemed to be uncomfortable “pontificating,” sometimes even forgetting to use the formal “we” in speeches. The things he did so naturally, like climbing down from the sedia gestatoria (the platform carrying his portable throne) to walk down the center aisle of Saint Peter’s during the ceremonies opening the Council (October 11, 1962), shocked his many critics but made him precisely what he wanted to be: a bishop among bishops.

Later that night, when the crowds gathered in Saint Peter’s Square for a candlelight prayer vigil, he made an unscheduled appearance at his window. Speaking briefly about what the Council meant to him, he concluded by noting that it was late, that everyone should go home, and when they did, they should give their children a kiss, identifying it as being from Pope John.

Another quality that endeared him to most people, especially journalists, was his wit and spontaneity. His most famous remark answered a journalist who inquired how many people work in the Vatican. The pope replied, “Oh, no more than half of them.” Some Vatican insiders have remarked that this answer shows why people call him “Good Pope John.” He always erred on the side of charity!

A Tireless Promoter of Peace

Before the Council began, John XXIII learned he was dying of cancer; this gave everything a greater sense of urgency. In October 1962 he was deeply involved in behind-the-scenes initiatives to resolve the Cuban missile crisis. He became more firmly convinced of the need for peace and began working on Pacem in Terris, the first encyclical addressed to all people of goodwill.

John XXIII listened to the theologians at the Council but he never claimed to be one. His favorite theologians were popes, Leo the Great (fifth century) and Innocent III (13th century). Throughout his life Roncalli consulted their works for insight into theology and pastoral approaches. Pope John took the name of his famous encyclical Mater et Magistra from Innocent III’s opening address to the Fourth Lateran Council. Thus, Franciscans can boast, in their humble way, of course, that the pope of Vatican II was inspired by the pope of Francis’ council.

Respect for Each Person

Historians analyzing John’s position on controversial points have shown how this man of God worked. If he liked an idea or a thought, he invited the speaker to explain it more. Roncalli later worked with the idea, regardless of how it was labeled, developed it and made it his own. The idea was always considered on its own merits. Most importantly, every person he met was considered for his or her own merits and dignity as a child of God.

In looking at the life of “Good Pope John,” we ask what he teaches us about Christian living. He has much to say to a society and a Church still marked by divisions. About the Council, he urged the bishops: “Let us look at each other without mistrust, meet each other without fear, talk with each other without surrendering principle.”

On his deathbed he said: “It is not that the gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have…were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.”

He prized Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s advice, “Notice everything, turn a blind eye to much and correct a few things.” Or, as the pope said, administering the “medicine of mercy,” may we too never do harm to anyone.

Sister Nancy Celaschi, O.S.F., is a member of the School Sisters of Saint Francis (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). She has worked in Italy for 16 years, in an Assisi bookstore, on the staff of L’Osservatore Romano’s English edition and now at the International Franciscan Conference of the Third Order Regular. She directs its education department, edits its journal, Propositum, and has conducted workshops for Franciscans in Europe, Asia and Africa. This article first appeared in the September 2000 edition of St. Anthony Messenger.