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Angelo Roncalli - Elevated to the Papacy as John XXIII

  • Category(s): Modern Popes
  • Created on : 15 February 2015
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


This Holy Father for all Seasons who unleashed The Second Vatican Council on The expectant Roman Catholic Church to her eternal gratitude.

1. Introduction

Saint John XXIII assumed the Petrine Office no later than 1959 upon the death of Pius XII (Pacelli), and this John reigned only until 1963 when Blessed Paul VI inherited the See of St. Peter. St John XXIII is most well known for calling the second Vatican Council which began at his behest, but was consummated and fulfilled under his successor Blessed Paul VI. That Council of the 1960’s introduced the vernacular into the Liturgy of Catholicism (i.e. English in English speaking countries) and created a wind of change through the Roman Catholic Church, which transformed the face of Catholicism to Protestant Churches, Judaism and the Orthodox Churches. The Catholic Church would be altered fundamentally and permanently by this Council. Yet was there no more to this Pope and his Council?

2. What was the character of Roncalli?

He had been born in the latter part of the 19th Century of Italian peasantry stock, but he was marked out for the priesthood by his parish priest on account of his clear ability and personal qualities. He trained at Bergamo in Northern Italy, then a united Country under the Piedmont dynasty. He kept to his priestly vows despite the raging rationalist and modernist ideas in circulation in his patrie and Europe. Eventually he was singled out again and this time for future high rank by being selected for the Papal Diplomatic Corps. His first post was Bulgaria – an Orthodox nation. He was chosen for his ability to smooth out rankling hurt and direct the path of Rome overseas. He was to spend a significant part of his career as an Apostolic Delegate. (Ambassador for the Vatican.)

3. Bulgaria and Sofia (1920’s and 1930’s)

When Roncalli arrived in this Country there had been a deliberate bomb explosion inside the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Sofia, the Capital, occasioned by anti-Catholic sentiment amongst the Bulgarian Orthodox. They knew an arranged Royal Marriage was pending between an Italian Catholic Principessa and the Orthodox heir to the Bulgarian Royal throne. Any such marriage, whether celebrated in a Catholic Cathedral or an Orthodox one, would result in the children of this marriage being brought up Roman Catholic. Roncalli could not vary that dictate of Rome, but the marriage was eventually carried out in an Orthodox Cathedral I believe. He masterminded a settlement acceptable to the Bulgarian Royal family and the Vatican. He was a past master at the art of defusing these highly vexatious matters. He presented the amicable visage of the Vatican Diplomatic service to the Bulgars. No mean feat!

4. Istanbul and Greece (1930’s and 1940’s)

Again, he was the Nuncio but based in secular Istanbul which was under Kemal Ataturk. He was popular there especially with the Anglican Mission in that historic City, of what had been the Byzantine Catholic Empire pre the Ottomans. However, his responsibilities also stretched to the then independent Greece and Greek nation. The powers that be in Greece would not let Roncalli enter Greek sovereign territory on account of the anti-Catholic Greek Orthodox hierarchy, and their strong influence over the Greek pre-WWII government. Roncalli took no sides, but it was his emblematic Roman Catholicism that was the stumbling block. He bided his time until after War broke out and the German Wehrmacht invaded and conquered Greece in 1940-41. Paradoxically, that annexation gave him the opportunity at last to enter Greece and perform his true role at representing the Papacy. He did not quibble, take sides or stay away – the German Army Commanders were prepared to let him enter what had been Greek Sovereign territory.

Roncalli immediately set to work with humanitarian assistance for the hard pressed Greek civilians. He achieved the difficult task of balancing the scales between the occupying German Army and the Greek people with the Greek anti-German resistance movement growing in strength as each month went by. The German Generals for their part were, like others in Roncalli’s priestly life, favourably impressed by his professionalism and bipartisan approach. He would not let any anti-German views prevent him from ministering to the Greeks and representing Pius XII.

5. The Path to the Chair of St Peter

This lead through the Nuncio diplomatic role in Paris post WWII – here he supported the novel “worker priests” idea in France. He then translated to be Patriarch of Venice where he was much loved. He was elected Pope late in life unexpectedly, and his benevolent smiling expression won everyone over as it had done throughout his active priesthood and public life.

6. What can we deduce from this ultimate Italian Man of God of the 20th Century?

I would say St John XXIII mirrors the face of God Almighty who regards His children with fondness. He knows all about us and all our polemic, yet he desires us to make out our case to the best of our ability and power, even though He alone will decide and the secret of the outcome is known to Him alone. That process is a mystery beyond our understanding, and the whole matter is concealed in God Himself. That we challenge on Earth has been challenged in Heaven.

“Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

With God there is no fait accompli – no foregone conclusion – despite my earlier sentence. St John XXIII beams down this mystery of faith and life itself from Heaven as he did to his faithful on Earth in his short tenure of the Petrine Office. Truly he personifies the words of Christ Himself to Saint Peter:

“What you loose on Earth
will be loosed in Heaven, and
what you bind on Earth
will be bound in Heaven.”

St John XXIII knew the meaning of those words better than anyone because, like God Himself, he could see every side of the argument, yet he could still be the decisive priest of action. He was a priest of unfathomable goodness and faithful to his elected task to be God’s own representative on Earth.