Blessed John XXIII is one of the most beloved popes in all of history—and quite possibly the most misunderstood.
Almost from the moment he was elected pope, Angelo Roncalli—or “Good Pope John,” as he came to be known—captivated the world. There was something about Roncalli’s ways—his buoyant personality and self-deprecating humor; his willingness to affirm rather than condemn—that attracted so many to him. But his personal magnetism, admirable as it was, has led many to romanticize his pontificate as if he were some kind of papal Santa Claus. Roncalli the man has given way to Roncalli the legend.
The great error in this mythology is that Cardinal Roncalli, once he became Pope John, set out to upend the entire history of the Church.
The theme of “John the Revolutionary” reverberates throughout the literature on Blessed John’s life. In his book, Pope, Council and World, Robert Kaiser assures us that “Pope John XXIII was a quiet and cunning revolutionary.” E.E.Y. Hales titled his book, Pope John and His Revolution. The historian Paul Johnson described Blessed John as not simply liberal, but a “radical shepherd.” Peter Hebblethwaite and Thomas Cahill, in their respective biographies, largely agree.
The media also embraced the narrative. When John XXIII died in 1963, Life magazine declared that he had “started a revolution which, from his long deathbed, he repeatedly wished his successor would continue.”
From the standpoint of history, this is mistaken—Blessed John wanted to renew Catholic tradition, not eviscerate it—but it is even more wrong on a theological level. The only true “revolution,” in Christianity is the Incarnation; nothing that occurs on earth can ever change that fact; and no one knew this better than Angelo Roncalli.
Born in 1881, to a large Catholic family, in the Italian village of Sotto il Monte, Angelo Roncalli was anything but a rebel. The diocese of Bergamo, in which it resides, was among the most faithful in Italy. As Pope John’s life-long assistant Archbishop Loris Capovilla said of the region, it was “solid in its faith, unshakeable in its traditions; jealous of its religious and civic heritage.”
Bergamo’s vibrant Catholic culture strengthened Angelo’s religious aspirations. “I cannot remember a day,” he would later say, “when I did not want to serve God as a priest.”
Roncalli obtained that privilege in 1904, when he was ordained after a dozen years of seminary training. During that time, he began his famous Journal of a Soul, a life-long diary describing his pursuit of holiness. The themes of prayer, penance, sacrifice and purity of heart fill its pages, as do his desire to imitate Christ. Father Angelo lived an austere Catholic life.
The young priest’s first assignment was as secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Maria Radini-Tedeschi, a man of deep faith and social action. It was from his kindly Bishop that Roncalli learned how to resist error without being a reactionary: fiercely combating the Marxists, while defending the poor, through papal social teachings; and praising legitimate advances in theology and scholarship, while denouncing the errors of the Modernists.
The gifted young priest caught the attention of the Holy See: Roncalli was brought to Rome to head the Society for the Propagation of the Faith (1921); raised to the episcopacy, becoming an apostolic representative to Bulgaria (1925), as well as one to Turkey and Greece (1934-1944), where he bravely intervened for endangered Jews and the War’s many victims, then appointed papal nuncio to France (1944). Pius XII made him a Cardinal in 1953, and also the Patriarch of Venice.
By the time of Pius XII’s death, in 1958, Cardinal Roncalli—contrary to the idea he came out of nowhere to become pope—was actually one of those favored to be elected. He was well known, well liked and trusted.
More things have been said about Blessed John’s pontificate than can be imagined, but a common observation is this: “The Church expected to get a ‘caretaker pope,’ but what she got instead was a holy shock.”
But there was nothing shocking about John’s pontificate, nor his call for an ecumenical Council. Courageous and pro-active, yes, but not shocking. Ever since his days as a young priest in Bergamo, he had venerated St. Charles Borromeo—the renowned archbishop of Milan, and champion of orthodoxy, who had implemented the reforms of the Council of Trent with great discipline and zeal. Pope John saw a similar need to address the problems of our own day, with equal vigor. His reverence for the reformer was such that he arranged to have his coronation as pope on the saint’s feast day (November 4, 1958), just a week after John’s election.
Blessed John knew, as does Pope Benedict, that Christianity is not simply a series of negative “No’s,” but an uplifting series of ringing affirmations—rooted in ultimate truth, designed for our salvation—and this is why he placed an accent on the inspiring side of the Gospel, in order to attract new believers, and strengthen the old. But John could warn and censure with the best of popes, and whenever he needed to, he did. He decried the errors of Communism, even as he welcomed productive dialogue during the Cold War; he vigorously opposed sexual immorality (and had strict requirements for seminarians), but treated everyone so tempted with Christ-like love; he opposed religious indifferentism, but welcomed common ground with non-Catholics; he cautioned exegetes and warned about technology, but approved modern advances in harmony with the faith.
Of his eight encyclicals, only two of them (Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris) are well known, but all breathe with the language of the saints. They are deeply anchored in the Gospel and papal social teaching, and correct errors both secularists and libertarians make. John, in fact, had a deep devotion to many pre-Conciliar popes, including the traditionalist Pius IX (beatified on the same day as John), and those who followed: Pius X, Pius XI and especially Pius XII. Of the latter, John wrote in his final spiritual testament:
I wish to profess once more my complete Christian and Catholic faith, belonging and submitting as I do to the holy, apostolic and Roman Church, and my perfect devotion and obedience to its august head, the supreme Pontiff, whom it was my great honor to represent for many years…and for whom I have always felt a sincere affection.
On top of all this, John XXIII published an Apostolic Constitution, Veterum Sapientia, celebrating Latin as the official language of the Church.
Given this record, how is it possible that some still refer to Blessed John as a liberal progressive, if not a leader of a revolution? The answer is that they downplay his ascetic life, ignore or edit away his fundamental teachings, and pour into his legacy their own fashionable ideas and passions. They think the Church can change its essential teachings, and so assume Blessed John would agree with them. They confuse his orthodox reforms with their own heterodox dissents. The result is a massive case of mistaken identity. Blessed John XXIII was not a fashionable rebel, but a faithful hero, and the man who knew him best, Archbishop Capovilla, recently confirmed this.
“For all the changes that Blessed John ushered into the Church,” said the Catholic News Service story, “and notwithstanding arguments that his reign marked a radical break with the past, Archbishop Capovilla says that the pope saw himself as acting in full continuity with Catholicism’s millennial teachings and traditions. ‘Precisely because he was a great conservative,’ the archbishop says, ‘he was able to bring the world a message of love, of hope and of faith.’”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
[Editor's Note: Due to an editorial error, the wrong version of this article was originally posted.]
Pope John XXIII (Vatican website).
Beatification Homily for John XXIII by Blessed John Paul II, September 2, 2000 (Vatican website).
John XXIII: The Official Biography by Mario Benigni (vice postulator of Blessed John’s cause) and Goffredo Zanchi (Pauline Books, 2001).
Journal of a Soul by Blessed John XXIII (Image, 1999).
Church State and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine by Brian Benestad (Catholic University of America Press, 2011); includes discussion of Blessed John XXIII’s social teachings.
“At 96, Blessed John XXIII’s Secretary Tells Tales of his Famous Boss,” Catholic News Service, May 12, 2012.
“John XXIII’s Secretary,” Video interview with Archbishop Loris Capovilla, Secretary to Blessed John XXIII, Catholic News Service.
Reformer: Saint Charles Borromeo by Margaret Yeo (Kessinger Legacy Reprints, 2007).
Veterum Sapientia: On the Promotion of the Study of Latin, Apostolic Constitution of Blessed John XXIII, February 22, 1962.
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