Pope John XXIII: The Traditionalist of Change

Sunday, April 27, AD 2014



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.

9 Responses to Pope John XXIII: The Traditionalist of Change

  • Pope Pius XII appointed Archbishop Roncalli (as he then was) Nuncio to France in December 1944. The Vatican website records that he “helped to normalize the ecclesiastical organization of France”; a beautiful example of litotes.

    When he was created a Cardinal in 1953, he received the biretta from the President of the Republic, M. Vincent Auriol. Whilst customary for French cardinals, it was unusual for a diplomat and arose from the President’s deep personal regard.

  • Saint John XXIII knew Church history, the Church’s Tradition and the Church’s richness in Liturgy. When apostolic delegate in Turkey he came in contact with the Orthodox Church. These theological experiences plus his deep human experience as a chaplain, etc brought him to the Spirit inspired decision to call for a Council of the Church. Sadly, he did not live to see the Council to its end or implementation. We should not confuse the Council with the chaos that followed with the supposed ‘spirit of Vatican II”

  • I love Mater et Magistra

  • Pingback: Saint JP2's Message to Youth: Be Not Afraid of Vocations - Big Pulpit
  • Amid the paeans of glorification of John XXIII, a question: Do we yet know with any certainty why he called an “ecumenical” council, at a point in time where the Church was flourishing and there was no popular demand for massive liturgical change?

  • Steve poses a very good question,was it the turmoil in the American Church ?

  • I think Steve has a point, and I’ll go even further. Every day, I think to myself that the Church in particular, and the world in general would have been better off if there had been no Vatican II. If for no other reason, it would have kept the dissident clerics in their holes for perhaps a few more decades!

  • Actually, I disagree that all was well or even most was well within the Church of 1960. From the outside it seemed to be flourishing, but within the seeds of dissension (and liberalism) were long past rooting and we, the Church, were headed for the fall-out that followed Vatican II. Not because of it, but by then inevitable. I believe the Holy Spirit inspired Vatican II – and consequently perverted as much as possible by Satan – to help right the ship. There is a reason why JxxIII and JPII are proclaimed saints on the same day.

  • The Jewish Virtual LIbrary:

    I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as I know many Catholics and other Christians do.
    I imagine John XXIII is watching over the whole traditional area of palestine from heaven. He is known as a real diplomat and righteous man He could help this situation today.