1958 to 1963, John XXIII was one of the most popular of all pontiffs, and best
known for launching the ecumenical council Vatican II (1962-1965). He was born Angelo Roncalli in 1881 in Sotto
il Monte, near Bergamo, Italy, to a family of peasant farmers. He studied at the seminary St. Apollinare in
Rome, was ordained in 1904, and went on to teach Church history.
At the start of World War I, in 1914, he was conscripted, eventually serving as army chaplain. After the war, Pope Benedict XV appointed him national director of the Congregation for the Propaganda of the Faith. In 1925, Pius XI made him titular archbishop of Areopolis and apostolic pro-nuncio to Bulgaria, holding the same functions in Turkey and Greece.
Having acquired an excellent reputation for his dealings with the Orthodox Church, he was transferred in 1944 to the very difficult post of nuncio to France. The president, General Charles de Gaulle, confronted him with the demand of the recently constituted French government that 33 bishops resign for collaboration during the German occupation. Roncalli assured the president that he would obtain the order from Rome. After a long time and nothing had happened, De Gaulle was furious. The nuncio replied: “My General, I sent the file to Rome but, as you know, Rome is eternal.” In fact, he had not submitted the request and, with De Gaulle’s term as president ended, the bishops remained.
From Paris, Roncalli was next appointed Patriarch of Venice, and it is here that my personal contact with him began. Very secretly, Pius XII had been planning to visit Lourdes for the centenary of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He proclaimed 1958 as a Marian Year. Roncalli was to open the centennial celebrations and Pius XII would close it. Air France offered its newest airplane, La Caravelle, for the papal delegation.
A commission was created for the visit: Cardinal Eugene Tisserant as its president, Archbishop Maurice Feltin of Paris as vice-president, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the papal delegate, and I was the secretary. I went to Venice to meet with Roncalli. I called him from my hotel and he asked me why I was not staying at his rectory. I answered that there was no heating there, and I did not want to catch a cold. “Come tomorrow and celebrate Mass, and then we will have breakfast together,” he said.
I went there the next morning, and as I
started saying Mass I was shocked to discover my altar server was the
Patriarch. Little did I know he would become Pope just three months later after Pius XII fell sick and died, his
wish to go to Lourdes unfulfilled. Once
again Cardinal Tisserant stepped in and closed the Marian Year.
death of Pius XII on October 9, 1958, Roncalli was not considered a strong
contender for succession, but on Oct. 28, he was elected on the 12th ballot. It was my first experience of
assisting at a conclave, accompanying Cardinal Tisserant.
The new Pope proved full of surprises.
From the start, the new Pope proved full of surprises. One of his first acts was to rescind the regulation followed since the time of Sixtus V (1585-1590), which fixed the number of cardinals at 70. John XXIII’s subsequent appointments internationalized the college of cardinals and brought the number up to 87.
In January 1959, he declared his three main goals – a diocesan synod, a revision of canon law, and an ecumenical council. Cardinal Tisserant expressed his disapproval of an ecumenical council because there were no dogmas to define, but Cardinal Secretary of State Domenico Tardini was enthusiastic.
The synod was held in January 1960 and its effort to revitalize the life of the Roman diocese was a foreshadowing of the greater council to come. Canon law revisions were to be the task of a pontifical commission and began in March 1962. The ecumenical council, called the Second Vatican Council (in answer to suggestions the First Vatican Council simply be reconvened since it had never been adjourned), was to prove the most important event in the history of the Church since the Council of Trent.
John XXIII was inspired by the Holy Spirit to make the changes.
The cardinals were initially skeptical when they read the agenda to be approved by the fathers of the council – “Mass of anticipation on Saturday? Saturday is the Jewish, not Christian, Sabbath. Mass in Japanese? Never! It must be in Latin!” – and so on, but John XXIII said he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to make the changes. The council was the fullest expression of the Pope’s vision of the aggiornamento (renewal), and was a new vibrant presentation of the faith.
Apart from the council, the good Pope made numerous other efforts to bring about reform and revitalization. He issued several encyclicals, two of which were my favourites – Mater et Magistra (1961), and Pacem in Terris (1963) which preached universal peace in truth, justice, charity and liberty.
He thereby took the first steps toward a dialogue with the Soviet bloc that was to become the Ostpolitik. In ecumenical affairs he established the Secretariat for Christian Unity (1960) under Cardinal Augustin Bea.
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