September 17, 2012

Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli, the pope who convoked the Second Vatican Council, was a pope like no other in the 20th century. He rose to become Pope John XXIII basically under the radar and was formed by a unique set of experiences that helped him understand that the action of the Holy Spirit is not confined to the Catholic Church.

Roncalli was not a radical or even an innovator. Judged by today's standards, his public comments and private correspondence can only be described as quite conservative. While his papacy had a markedly different style than that of his reserved predecessor, Pope John seems to have taken only one off-the-wall action in his life – to convoke Vatican II.

Although he was not the only 20th century pope raised in a poor family, his three immediate predecessors had decidedly bluer blood. Pope Pius XII (1939-58) was from an aristocratic family and spent his entire priestly career in the Vatican system.

Pope John XXIII is seen blessing the crowd in St. Peter's Square following his election on Oct. 28, 1958.


Pope John XXIII is seen blessing the crowd in St. Peter's Square following his election on Oct. 28, 1958.

Pope Pius XI (1922-39) was the son of a silk manufacturer, became an accomplished mountain climber and served the Church as a scholar, librarian and diplomat.

The aristocratic parents of Pope Benedict XV (1914-22) wanted him to be a lawyer. They agreed to let him enter the seminary only if he did so in Rome, rather than his native Genoa, in order to ensure that he would not end up as a humble village priest. Indeed, he served the Church in the Secretariat of State and as the nuncio to Spain.

Roncalli was also a Vatican diplomat. But he managed to bypass the Vatican diplomatic school and spent the bulk of his diplomatic career in the non-Catholic – and hence less important – countries of Bulgaria and Turkey.


When he was named nuncio to France in late 1944, it was only after Gen. Charles de Gaulle had forced out the previous nuncio who was seen as having been too close to the Nazis.

The pope's first choice for the Paris appointment turned him down because of his poor health and so the lot fell to Roncalli. To all who congratulated him on this prestigious appointment, he replied, "Where horses are lacking, donkeys trot along."

Earlier, during a visit to Rome at age 37, he wrote, "I must confess that the older I get, the less I like the Roman atmosphere. I wouldn't want to live here." It would be almost 40 years before he did move to Rome.

The future pope learned a great deal from his 19 years in Bulgaria and Turkey.

Bulgaria was a mainly Orthodox nation that was in a confused state after being on the losing side during the First World War. Roncalli made a point of visiting Catholic parishes in isolated areas despite the primitive transportation. He traveled on horseback or by riding a mule and crossed rivers on makeshift rafts. He came to appreciate the ways of the Orthodox and the value of ecumenical contacts.


In Turkey, Roncalli arrived when the Islamic nation was undergoing a strict secularization. He rolled with the punches of the anti-religious government and rejoiced to have his own flock to minister.

Roncalli's years in France coincided with the era during which some of the leading Catholic intellectuals of the century – Henri de Lubac, Jacques Maritain, Yves Congar and Etienne Gilson – were at the peak of their powers. So were atheist writers Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.

Roncalli, however, seemed to have little real contact with French intellectual life. He always learned his "theology" more from conversations and real-life experiences than from books.

During the First World War Pope John XXIII was a chaplain in the Italian Medical corps.


During the First World War Pope John XXIII was a chaplain in the Italian Medical corps.

What did affect him in France was his role in mediating the controversy over "worker-priests" between the Vatican, which wanted the movement suppressed, and Paris Cardinal Emmanuel Celestin Suhard who supported the priests. The worker-priests were those who took their ministry into the factories and other workplaces to reach out to the working class that had become alienated from the Church.

In France, Roncalli was seen as conventional and conservative. But his amiable ways were well suited to the tense post-war period.

Then, in early 1953, Roncalli was spirited away from Paris, named a cardinal and appointed the patriarch of Venice. He was 71 and it seemed sure to be the last major appointment of his life. Again, he was a happy but conventional shepherd.


In October 1958, Pope Pius XII died after years of illness. Roncalli was quickly seen as one of the leading candidates to be his successor.

Why? First, at age 76, he would be a transitional pope after Pius' long 19-year pontificate. Second, he was not part of the Vatican power structure that had grown too strong in Pius' declining years. Third, he was seen as a bridge-builder, someone who would be accessible to the cardinals and a pastor to the people.

Further, although he was 76, Roncalli was actually one of the younger cardinals. Pius had held only two consistories to appoint new cardinals during his long pontificate. With only 51 cardinals entering the conclave and many of them quite elderly, the pool of likely candidates was small.


Roncalli surged to the lead on the first day of voting, but it took 11 ballots before he was finally elected. Why did the cardinals hesitate? Some, it appears, felt Roncalli did not have the necessary intellectual heft to lead the Church, even for a short period.

Nevertheless, he was elected and chose the name John. Less than three months later, this "transitional pope" did the deed. Without consulting anyone other than the Holy Spirit, he started the wheels in motion for the Second Vatican Council.

The council, he said, would aim at building ecumenical relations and would enable the Church to preach the Gospel in ways better suited to modern men and women. The lessons Angelo Roncalli had learned in Bulgaria, Turkey and France would now be passed on to the universal Church.

(Much of the information for this article came from John XXIII: Pope of the Council by Peter Hebblethwaite.)