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See also, 15th-century antipope John XXIII
  • English name - John XXIII
JeanXXIII fanon

Pope John XXIII

Blessed Pope John XXIII (Latin: Ioannes PP. XXIII), born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (November 25, 1881June 3, 1963), he was elected as the 261st Pope of the Catholic Church and sovereign of Vatican City on October 28, 1958. He called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) but did not live to see it to completion, dying on June 3, 1963 two months after the completion of his final encyclical, Pacem in Terris.

Earlier life[]

Angelo Roncalli was born on November 25, 1881, in Sotto il Monte, a small town in the Province of Bergamo, Italy. He was the son of Giovanni Battista Roncalli and his wife Marianna Giulia Mazzolla. The fourth in a family of 13, his family worked as sharecroppers, a striking contrast to his predecessor, Eugenio Pacelli, who came from an ancient aristocratic family, long connected to the Papacy. In 1904, Roncalli was ordained a priest in the Roman Church of Santa Maria in Monte Santo.

In 1905, the new bishop of Bergamo Giacomo Radini - Tedeschi appointed Roncalli as his secretary. Roncalli worked for Radini - Tedeschi until the bishop's death in 1914. During this period Roncalli was also a teacher in the diocesan seminary.

During World War I, Roncalli was drafted into the Royal Italian Army as a sergeant, serving in the medical corps and as a chaplain. In 1921, Pope Benedict XV appointed him as the Italian president of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In 1925 Pope Pius XI appointed him as Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria, also naming him for consecration as titular bishop of Areopolis. He chose as his episcopal motto Obedientia et Pax ("Obedience and Peace"), which became his guiding motto.

In 1935 he was made Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece. Roncalli used this office to help the Jewish underground in saving thousands of refugees in Europe, leading some to consider him to be a Righteous Gentile. In 1944, during World War II, Pope Pius XII named him Apostolic Nuncio to Paris, France.

In 1953, he was named the Patriarch of Venice, and, accordingly, raised to the rank of cardinal. As a sign of his esteem, President Vincent Auriol of France claimed the ancient privilege possessed by French monarchs and bestowed the red hat on the now-Cardinal Roncalli at a ceremony in the Elysee Palace. Of his time in France, John later related in a humorous account that, when a woman wearing a daringly low-cut dress arrived at a reception which he was attending, the people assembled in the room did not watch the woman, but, rather, him to see if he was watching the woman.

Election as pope[]

John 23 coa

Pope John's Coat of Arms

The 1958 papal conclave which elected Roncalli as pope was later surrounded by conspiracy theories claiming that a conservative cardinal, Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, was the conclave's first choice for pope but was forced amid threats of pogroms against Roman Catholics in the Eastern Bloc to decline the papal tiara. The claim is accepted only by some separatist sedevacantist and conclavist groups.

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) allegedly claimed that Siri had indeed been elected on the third ballot of the 1958 papal conclave.[1] What is unambiguously known is that Vatican Radio did conclude, on the basis of apparently white smoke, that a pope had been elected on the third ballot and announced it as such, telling listeners "The smoke is white. . . . There is absolutely no doubt. A pope has been elected."[2] An FBI source also claimed that Siri was elected a second time on the third ballot.[3] After the 6pm 3rd ballot white smoke appeared, not only the public was confused. The Swiss Guards assembled to give the ceremonial salute to the new pontiff, only to have to withdraw again.

The white smoke often had proven a confusing symbol in the past, leading John Paul II to decree the use of ringing bells in addition to the smoke after a papal election. Allegedly, Siri had even chosen a name, "Gregory XVII", and was preparing to appear at the balcony, but was threatened somehow and forced aside, leaving the cardinals free to elect Roncalli as Pope.

Papal styles of
Pope John XXIII
Emblem of the Papacy SE.svg
Reference styleHis Holiness
Spoken styleYour Holiness
Religious styleHoly Father
Posthumous styleBlessed

Supporters of this theory maintained that Siri was informed that his election would lead to anti-Catholic pogroms in the Eastern Bloc. They claim that rather than endanger the lives of Catholics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and elsewhere, Siri announced non accepto (I do not accept).

According to the proponents of this claim, Siri was still validly pope, and as such had the papal graces and protection of the Holy Ghost from error, and John thus did not, leading to his calling of the modernizing Second Vatican Council. Such speculations can neither be proved or disproved, as papal conclaves are held under the strictest secrecy, with violations punishable by excommunication.


Following the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, Roncalli was, to his own great surprise (he had arrived in the Vatican with a return train ticket to Venice), elected Pope. Many had considered that Archbishop Montini, Archbishop of Milan, was a possible candidate, but, although Archbishop of one of the most ancient and prominent Sees in Italy, Montini had not been created a cardinal.[4] As a result, he was not present at the 1958 conclave and most of the cardinals abided by the established precedent of voting only for a member of the College of Cardinals, in spite of the affirmation in Canon Law that any celibate Catholic male could be chosen. After the long pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the cardinals chose a man whom, it was presumed, because of his advanced age, would be a short-term or "stop-gap" pope. In Pope John's first consistory, Montini was raised to the rank of cardinal, and was himself elected as John's successor, Paul VI.

Pope John's personal warmth, good humour and kindness captured the world's affections in a way his predecessor, for all his great learning and personal holiness, had failed to do. While Pius would look slightly away and up from the camera whenever his photograph was taken, John would look directly at the camera and smile. He undertook the first official act of a Pope away from Vatican territory since 1870 when he visited prisoners, telling them, "You could not come to me, so I came to you." When the First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, arrived in the Vatican to see him, he nervously rehearsed the two methods of address he had been advised to use when she entered: "Mrs. Kennedy, Madame" or "Madame, Mrs. Kennedy". When she did arrive, however, to the amusement of the Press Corps, he abandoned both and rushed to her saying, "Jackie!"

There are other humorous famous stories of Pope John. After his election as Pope, apparently the first thing he said to the Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel was, "Let's get lunch." On an occasion as a Cardinal, a woman wearing a revealing dress was present at lunch with him. After the meal he offered the woman an apple, saying, "Please madame, do not be tempted to take it, for when Eve ate the apple she realised how little she was wearing!"

Far from being a mere "stop gap" Pope, to great excitement John called an ecumenical council fewer than ninety years after the controversial Vatican Council. Cardinal Montini remarked to a friend that "this holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up".[5] From the Second Vatican Council, (colloquially known as Vatican II), came changes that reshaped the face of Catholicism: a comprehensively revised Liturgy, a stronger emphasis on ecumenism and a new approach to the world.

He met the Most Rev. Geoffrey Francis Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for about an hour in the Vatican on December 2, 1960. It was the first time in over 400 years, since the excommunication of Elizabeth I, that the Archbishop of Canterbury had met with the Pope.

Pope John XXIII excommunicated Fidel Castro on January 3, 1962 in line with a 1949 decree by Pope Pius XII forbidding Catholics from supporting communist governments.

Pope John and papal ceremonial[]

Main article: Papal coronation

Pope John XXIII was the last pope to use full papal ceremonial, much of which was abolished subsequently after Vatican II. His papal coronation ran for the traditional five hours. (Pope Paul VI opted for a shorter ceremony while later popes declined to be crowned.) However, as with his predecessor Pope Pius XII, he chose to have the coronation itself take place on the balcony of St. Peter's in view of the crowds assembled in St. Peter's Square.

As images (right) show, unlike other popes who tended to just wear one papal tiara, John, much to the delight of photographers, wore a number of tiaras from the papal collection. On formal occasions, such as giving the Urbi et Orbi blessing he wore the traditional 1877 Palatine tiara he had been crowned with. However on other occasions he wore the lighter and more comfortable 1922 tiara of Pope Pius XI, which he used so often that it became strongly associated with him.

As with most other popes in the last two decades up to that point he was given an expensive silver papal tiara by the people of Bergamo. The Tiara of Pope John XXIII, the lightest in the papal collection at 2 lb (900 g), was given to him eventually in 1959. When asked about the tiara during its manufacture, John asked that the makers halve the number of jewels with which they planned to decorate it and give the financial saving to the poor.

Traditional Pontifical High Masses and most papal ceremonial, including the flabelli (ceremonial fans made of ostrich feathers) and the Palatine Guard, and the saluting of the pope on his arrival at Mass in St. Peter's Basilica by the playing of trumpets, were abolished by Pope Paul VI in phases during his reign. None of the tiaras associated with Pope John have been worn by later popes.

While maintaining the traditional papal ceremonial, Pope John continued his predecessor's policy of a gradual reform to the Roman liturgy, the last such reform of that rite before the major reform of the liturgy after Vatican II.

Pope John was also the last pope to date to have his Requiem Mass celebrated within St. Peter's Basilica, amid traditional papal pomp. His successor, Pope Paul VI abolished the traditional papal funeral and had his funeral as a simple concelebrated Mass in St. Peter's Square.

(A note on numbering: The previous Pope named John was Pope John XXII. The Pope named John before that was John XXI. But the last Pope named John before that was Pope John XIX (1024–32), who was additionally the eighteenth Pope named John. And there is no Pope John XX. This is due to John XVI having been an anti-pope, and the confusion caused by historians mistakenly believing the legend of a Pope named John between John XIV and John XV.)

Final months[]

Pope John XXIII was first diagnosed with stomach cancer on September 23, 1962. The diagnosis, which was kept quiet from the public, followed nearly eight years of occasional stomach hemorrhages, and reduced the pontiff's appearances. Looking pale and drawn during these events, he gave a hint to his ultimate fate in April 1963, when he said to visitors, "That which happens to all men perhaps will happen soon to the Pope who speaks to you today."

On May 11, 1963, the Italian president Antonio Segni awarded Pope John XXIII the Balzan Prize for his engagement for peace. It was the Pope's last public appearance.

On May 25, 1963, the Pope suffered another hemorrhage and required blood transfusions, but peritonitis soon set in, resulting in his death at 7:49 p.m. (local time) on June 3 at the age of 81. He was buried on June 6, ending a reign of four years, seven months and six days.

On December 6, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award, in recognition of the good relationship between Pope John and the United States.


Sedevacantist and Conclavist groups on the right of the Catholic Church have been some of Pope John's most outspoken critics. Some groups have even made unsubstantiated claims that John was a Freemason, and as such, allegedly could not be a valid Pope since Catholics are prohibited from joining Freemasonry under pain of excommunication. On that basis one group, the U.S. Washington State-based true Catholic Church elected its only priest as pope in 1998, claiming that there had been no valid pope since Pope Pius XII died in 1958.

Some also make the claim that John's choice of regnal name marked him as an antipope, as the name John had lain unused since Antipope John XXIII used it in the 14th century (other Popes have similarly used names taken by anti-popes, for example Benedict XIV).

Many who subscribe to the teachings of Our Lady of Fatima also believe that Pope John deliberately withheld secret prophetic information revealed by an apparition of the Virgin Mary. [1] This is perhaps the basis for internet reports in the late 1990s about the supposed discovery of Pope John's diary where he received prophetic insight into the future, including the return of Jesus in New York in 2000. [2]

Although Pope John did have a diary there is no evidence in it to suggest that he received apocalyptic visions of the future. [3]


Known affectionately as "Good Pope John" and "the most loved Pope in history" to many people, in 2000 John was declared "Blessed" by Pope John Paul II, the penultimate step on the road to sainthood. Following his beatification, his body was moved from its original burial place in the grottoes below St Peter's Basilica to the altar of St. Jerome and displayed for the veneration of the faithful.

At the time, the body was observed to be extremely well-preserved—a condition which the Church ascribes to the lack of oxygen in his sealed triple coffin rather than to any miraculous event (although it was certainly seen as such by many of the faithful). When John was moved, the original vault — which was above the floor — was removed. A new vault was built beneath the ground, and Pope John Paul II was later buried in this vault.

He is honored by many Protestant organizations as a Christian reformer. Both Anglican and Lutheran denominations commemorate John XXIII as a "renewer of the church." The fiercely anti-Catholic Belfast City Council flew the flag over city hall at half-mast in his honour after his death.

From his early teens, he maintained a diary of spiritual reflections that was subsequently published as Journal of a Soul. The collection of writings charts Roncalli's efforts as a young man to "grow in holiness" and continue after his election to the Papacy. It remains widely read.



  • Peter Hebblethwaite & Margaret Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Century (Continuum International, 2000) ISBN 0-8264-4995-6
  • Malachi Martin, The Keys of this Blood (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1991)
  • Pope John XXIII, Journal of a Soul (trans. D White, 1965) ISBN 0-225-66895-5
  • Paul L. Williams, The Vatican Exposed (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003) ISBN 1-59102-065-4

External links[]

Preceded by
Carlo Agostini
Patriarch of Venice
1953 - 1958

Succeeded by
Giovanni Cardinal Urbani
Preceded by
Pius XII
Pope of the Catholic Church
1958 - 1963

Succeeded by
Paul VI
  1. Department of State secret dispatch, "John XXIII," issue date: November 20, 1958, declassified: November 11, Paul L. Williams, The Vatican Exposed (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), pp. 90-92.
  2. The Tablet, November 1, 1958
  3. Department of State secret file, "Cardinal Siri," issue date: April 10, 1961, declassified: February 28, 1994, William, Op. Cit pp.90-92.
  4. Pope Paul VI : 1963 - 1978, Retrieved 28 February 2006.
  5. See inter alia George Weigel, "Thinking Through Vatican II", First Things, June/July, 2001.