The Conclave of 1958 lasted four days and 11 ballots before the election of Angelo Roncalli, Patriarch of Venice, was elected as a compromise candidate. No one was more surprised than the 77 year old Roncalli at his election. He had purchased a round trip ticket and hoped that the Conclave would be a short one so that he could get home quickly. He decided to reign as Pope John XXIII.
Roncalli was born in 1881 to a family of peasants, the fourth child and first son, in a family that would grow to 13 kids. He was ordained a priest in 1904. In 1905 he became secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo, working in that capacity until 1915 while lecturing at the local seminary. He served in the Italian Army during World War I as a sergeant, assigned as a stretcher bearer and a chaplain. Of his experiences during the War he wrote: “I thank God that I served as a sergeant and army chaplain in the First World War. How much I learned about the human heart during this time, how much experience I gained, what grace I received.”
After the War he was appointed spiritual director of the seminary in Bergamo. In 1921 Pope Benedict named him the director of the Italian society for the propagation of the faith. In 1925 Pope Pius XI made him Apostolic Visitor for Bulgaria where he served for a decade. His perpetual sunny demeanor behind which a very shrewd mind lurked made him a natural diplomat. In 1935 he was made Apostolic Delegate to Greece and Turkey. During the war he saved thousands of lives of those, especially Jews, under threat from the Nazis. One of his tactics was to issue “baptismal certificates of convenience” to priests to fill out to falsely assert that Jews were actually baptized Catholics. When he was praised for his activity after the War he said that all praise should be directed towards Pope Pius XII who made it clear that the lives of innocents suffering persecution were to be saved. For his activities alone during the War I think the canonization of Roncalli today is fully justified.
In 1953 the Pope made him cardinal and Patriarch of Venice. No doubt at his age Cardinal Roncalli assumed that he had reached the pinnacle of his career and only retirement awaited.
After his election as Pope, John XXIII charmed the world with his pronounced sense of humor, warmth and his obvious love for all of humanity. His five year papacy of course was dominated by his calling Vatican II. How one looks at the Council can’t help but determine how one looks at Pope John. Of course John did not live to implement the Council or even to see its end, dying stoically of stomach cancer in 1963. Pope John was a man of traditional Catholic spirituality. I can’t help but think he would have been appalled at much of the implementation of Vatican II. How he would have reacted to it if he had lived is one of the great “what ifs” of modern Church history.