Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, “iL Papa Buono”

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born in 1881 to a tenant farmer family in Sotto iL Monte in the Lombardy Region of Italy. The young Angelo learned early-on how to negotiate varied constituencies and competing interests as the third of thirteen children. These people skills would serve him well when he became the 261st Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in October 1958 as Pope John XXIII. He convened the Second Vatican Council and presided over the first session in October 1962. The feast day of St. Pope John XXIII is celebrated on October 11.

Brief Life History
Angelo left home at age eleven to attend the seminary in nearby Bergamo to prepare for the priesthood, but the location, only 7 miles from his home village, allowed him frequent access to his family. His studies were interrupted more than once by stints in the Italian Army which further deepened his appreciation for the struggles and rhythms of the life of the common man. He was ordained a priest on August 10, 1904. His priestly life ranged from service at the locale level such as opening a hostel for students in Bergamo to being a papal diplomat in the international locations of Bulgaria, Turkey and France. Archbishop Roncalli was appointed patriarch of Venice in 1953 which he expected to be his final appointment – until he was called to Rome and elected Pope on October 28, 1958 taking the name of his father and of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Because of his advanced age (78 at the time of election), he was expected to have a short and uneventful tenure; however, only three months after the vote, he announced the creation of the Second Vatican Council in January 1959 – the influences of which are still felt today.

The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II)
Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in October 1962 with a stated purpose of “modernization of the Church after twenty centuries of life” (“aggiornamento” in Italian). The Pope would attend only the first of four annual sessions due to his untimely death, but the impacts of the Council, later overseen by Pope Paul VI, have reverberated through the Church. The sessions of the Council and 16 documents produced are considered to contain some of the most progressive thoughts of the church up to that time – some of the most visible impacts of Vatican II are considered to be:

  • Changes in the celebration of the Mass (liturgical rite in the Catholic Church) including:
    • More participation by the laity in the Mass;
    • Changing the language of the rite to be in the vernacular, rather than Latin;
    • With the directive to allow more participation and visibility to the Liturgy, the eventual re-design of church seating to a centripetal arrangement in many churches built post-Vatican II.
  • Warmer ties between the Catholic Church and the Jewish faith.
  • Recognition that the Eastern Catholic churches could retain their own traditions and still be part of the Catholic Church.

These impacts occurred over time and continue to evolve and develop today.

A Visible Pope
Pope John XXIII was the first of the recent Popes to show his human side to the public; and to be more visible in world affairs. For example, he was the first Pope to leave the walls of the Vatican and visit hospitals, parishes and prisons in Rome in order to be nearer to the people. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Pope John publicly called for restraint by the Americans and Soviets; and both President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev lauded his efforts. St. Pope John XXIII is still affectionately known in Italy as “iL Papa Buono” (“the Good Pope”) and there are many parishes and schools named for him worldwide.

Pope John XXIII was Pope for less than five years but had a great impact on the Church with his approach reflected in his words, “Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”

Pope John XXIII died on June 3, 1963 of cancer. He was beatified on September 3, 2000 by Pope John Paul II and canonized on April 27, 2014 by Pope Francis.

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