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Pope John XXIII

The Blessed John XXIII, né Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, (November 25, 1881-June 3, 1963) was Pope from 1958 to 1963.

The Blessed John XXIII
wearing a Papal Tiara
Angelo Roncalli was born in Sotto il Monte (province of Bergamo), Italy on November 25, 1881. The fourth in a family of fourteen, his family worked as sharecroppers, a striking contrast to the royally born Eugenio Pacelli, John's predecessor as pope. Roncalli was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the church of Santa Maria in Monte Santo in Rome's Piazza del Popolo in 1905. In 1915 he was drafted into the Royal Italian army as a sergeant in the medical corps and as a chaplain. In 1921 Pope Benedict XV appointed him the Italian president of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In 1925 Pope Pius XI named him Apostolic Visitator in Bulgaria, raising him to the level of bishop with the titular Diocese of Areopolis. He chose as his Episcopal motto Oboedientia et Pax, which became his guiding motto. In 1935 he was named Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece. In 1944, Pope Pius XII named him Apostolic Nuncio in Paris. When he was made a cardinal, the French president claimed the ancient privilege possessed by French monarchs and gave him the red hat at a ceremony in the Elysee Palace. In 1953, along with becoming cardinal, he was made patriarch of Venice. Of his time in France, John later related in a humorous account that when a woman in a daringly low cut dress entered a room he was in during a reception, that the people assembled in the room did not look at the woman. Rather, they looked at him to see if he was looking at the woman.

Following the death of Pope Pius XII, Roncalli was to his own great surprise elected pope on October 28, 1958. For the longest time, Archbishop Montini was thought to have been elected Pope after the death of Pius XII. However, Montini was sent to Milan by Pius after the Pope had become suspicious of him. Pius also refused to elevate Montini to the rank of Cardinal. As a result, Montini was shut out of the following election, and the voting Cardinals considered him to be not available in spite of church law that said any Catholic male could be chosen. After the long pontificate of John's dominating predecessor, the cardinals chose a man they presumed because of his great age and personal modesty would be a short "stop-gap" pope. The Cardinals reasoned that by the time the "stop-gap" Pope died, Montini would probably be raised to the Cardinalate, and be available for election. In fact, it was one of John's first acts to raise Montini to the rank of Cardinal.

What the Cardinals and the rest of the church did not expect was that Pope John's personal warmth, good humour and kindness would capture the world's affections in a way his predecessor, for all his great learning, 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 when his photograph was taken. 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 began nervously rehearsing 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!"

Blessed John XXIII
signing his encyclical Pacem in Terris

Nor did Pope John's radicalism stop at his informality. To the astonishment and horror of aides, he called an ecumenical council less than ninety years after the controversial Vatican Council. While his aides talked of spending a decade in preparation, John planned to hold it in a manner of months. From the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, came changes that reshaped the face of catholicism: a new Mass, a new 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 more than 500 years that a head of the Anglican Church had visited 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.

Known affectionately as "Good Pope John" to many people, John XXIII was declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II, the second step on the road to sainthood.

Modern Conspiracy Theories

Many conservative Catholics - those who disagree with Vatican II - have derided Pope John's influence in this area, seeing in him the beginnings of a movement away from the true faith. Many who follow 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. 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. Although Pope John did have a diary (Journey of a Soul) there is no evidence to suggest that he received apocalyptic visions of the future.

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