Pope John XXIII was born in the small village of Sotto il Monte in Italy. He was the fourth of 14 children born to poor parents who made their living by sharecropping. His given name was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.
He graduated from university with a doctorate in theology and was ordained a priest in 1904. In 1905, Roncalli was appointed to act as secretary for his bishop, Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi. He continued working as the bishop’s secretary until the bishop died in August 1914. The bishop’s last words to Roncalli were, “Pray for peace,” significant at that time as World War I was about to break out. Roncalli was drafted into the Italian army as a stretcher bearer and chaplain and so, had an intimate familiarity with the ravages of war. When he was discharged in 1914, he was chosen by Benedict XV to be the Italian president of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
In 1925, Rancalli was sent on his first diplomatic mission to Bulgaria. He later served as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece and made archbishop of Mesembria. With the rise of racial and ethnic prejudices as well as anti-Jewish movements in 1935, Roncalli started using his influence to save what people he could from the depredation of local authorities and later the Nazis. During his tenure as archbishop, Roncalli saved thousands of Jews, enough that he was named a “Righteous Gentile” following the war.
In 1944, he went to France as Papal Nuncio to facilitate the Vatican’s purge of clergy who had collaborated with the Nazis. In 1952, Roncalli was offered a new position, this time as Patriarch of Venice. At the same time, he assumed his new title, Roncalli became the Cardinal-Priest of Santa Prisca. He assumed his new responsibilities on March 15, 1953.
Upon the death of the pope in 1958, Rancalli was elected pope and he took the name John. He became one of the most influential popes of modern history. He immediately began to change the culture in the Vatican.
On Christmas, 1958, he resumed the papal practice of making visits to the community within the official Diocese of Rome. He visited the sick, the poor and prisoners. He apologized for episodes of anti-Semitism within the church carried on by some of his predecessors.
Pope John’s most influential decision was the call for an ecumenical council which would be known as Vatican II. As a result of this council, many practices of the classic church would be altered with a new emphasis on ecumenism and a new liturgy.
In 1962 he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which was a terminal diagnosis for that time. This did not curtail him from offering to negotiate peace between the Soviet Union and the United States, then at the height of the Cold War. The offer, although declined, was popular in both countries. In the wake of the news, John XXIII was the first pope to be honored as the Time Magazine Man of the Year.
On June 3, 1963, Pope John XXIII died in his bed at age 81. The world mourned John XXIII and he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson in December 1963. On Sept. 3, 2000, Pope John Paul beatified him. Miracles were attributed to him and his body was found to be in an uncorrupted state, a phenomenon consistent with sainthood. His body was put on display for the veneration of the faithful.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini