Pope John XXIII (1881–1963)

Figure 20-2: Pope John XXIII

He was pope from 1958 to 1963, a warm, friendly man, almost always smiling, in contrast to his predecessor, the usually serious-looking Pius XII. Pope John XXIII has since been called the most beloved pope of modern times, maybe of all time.

Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, he served as a papal diplomat for twenty-five years in Bulgaria, France, and Turkey, then spent several years as patriarch of Venice. As Cardinal Roncalli, he was elected pope just before his seventy-seventh birthday. His was to be a transitional papacy, a few years sandwiched between the brilliant Pius XII and Giovanni Battista Montini, a younger cardinal who seemed likely to follow John.


Pope John XXIII said that while he was drifting off to sleep at night, important thoughts would often come to him. “I must speak to the Pope about that,” he would say to himself. Then, he explained, “I would be wide awake and remember, ‘I am the Pope!’”

Vatican II

But Cardinal Roncalli surprised everyone. He had a brief papacy, but it certainly wasn't a quiet one. After six months in the office, he called Vatican Council II (the first council was held several centuries earlier). This was a meeting at St. Peter's Basilica of the world's cardinals and other high dignitaries. It opened in October 1962 and met in four separate sessions of a few months each, ending in December 1965.

The council did not convene to condemn errors or heresy. It concentrated on mercy, promotion of peace, and an ecumenical outreach, as well as returning the church to its earlier historical and biblical roots.

It was also the first council that made full use of electronics. There was no World Wide Web in 1962, but cameras, lights, television, and print media were present, bringing the council's work into millions of homes.

Change was whipping around the world in the 1960s and those winds blew through the Vatican as well. In an attempt to make church services more open and accessible, the mass was now to be said in the vernacular, or language of that country, instead of Latin.

The Roman Catholic Church has never been the same since Vatican II, although there are mixed opinions about the results of this council. While some feel that the changes were largely positive, others feel that many of the changes took away from the dignity and solemnity of the services.

“This Big Ship”

John XXIII himself, before and during the council, was a man of peace, struggling to reach out to secular and religious enemies of the Church. His manner was warm and disarming and many were eager to have an audience with him. Unfortunately, Pope John did not live to see the second year of the council or to conclude it. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, he died in June 1963. At that time he remarked to a friend: “At least I have launched this big ship — others will have to bring it into port.” The second phase of the council opened in September 1963, headed by Cardinal Montini, who had become Pope Paul VI.

In February 2000, the pope beatified John XXIII, who is now known as “Blessed.” At least one miracle has been attributed to him. After verification of a second, he will be formally canonized.

  1. Home
  2. Saints
  3. Waiting to Be Tapped for Sainthood
  4. Pope John XXIII (1881–1963)
Visit other About.com sites: