Pope John XXIII

By: Steve Lourey


Pope John XXIII (1881 - 1963) was the pope from 1958 to 1963. He was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. From Sotto il Monte (near Bergamo), he studied in Bergamo and in Rome, and he was ordained a priest in Rome in 1904. He began his long career in the Vatican Diplomatic Corps when they appointed him in 1925, with the title of archbishop, to be the apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. Later the Vatican named him Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece in 1935. Between 1944 and 1953 he served as Papal Nuncio to France. He was also a Vatican observer at U.N.E.S.C.O. from 1946-1953. In 1953 he was made a cardinal and named Patriarch of Venice.

When he was elected pope, Roncalli was thought to be a compromise candidate because of his advanced years. He was elected -- and expected -- only to "keep the Papal seat warm". Although he served as pope for a mere five years, he accomplished a great deal, the most historic was the convening of the Second Vatican Council.In the time leading up to election of Pope John, the French and Industrial Revolutions had virtually destroyed the stable socio-political order with which the Church had been allied for centuries. Despite valiant attempts by succeeding popes, the secular forces that finally and irrevocably divided Church and State ultimately prevailed.

Church reaction

The reaction of the Church leadership was to resist the insights and values emerging within the increasingly secular Western world. This lead the Church to withdraw from what was taking place in history and in people's lives. The result was an insular institution, ingrained with what sociologist Gerald Arbuckle describes as "uncritically accepted Euro-centric customs, aristocratic values, and customs".
The Church believed that the world's failure to heed the Church's teaching was the cause of its sufferings and many disasters. However, John's predecessor, Pius XII, became more open to the world's growing achievements, and publicly declared the Church's preference for democracy to other forms of government. This hesitant openness helped form the groundwork for John's decision to call the Council. 

Second Council

The Second Vatican Council (there have only been twenty Councils in the Church's history) was the beginning of a revolution in Christianity, the ancient faith whose 900 million adherents made it the at the time world's largest religion. Named 1963's Man of the Year by Time, Pope John XXIII set in motion ideas and forces that affected not merely Roman Catholics and other Christians, but the whole world.

John won people's hearts and minds by being a simple man, who summed up the Papal title servus servorum Dei -- Servant of the Servants of God. Simplicity was one of his core values. John also embraced man's mastery of the natural world. "The church," said John, "applauds man's growing mastery over the forces of nature and rejoices in all present and future progress which helps men better conceive the infinite grandeur of the Creator." During a time of great change and advances in medicine, technology, and science, Pope John XXIII sensed that the time was ripe for internal renewal in the church, and opened the way for it. John's attitude of openness put him at loggerheads with the Roman Curia, the central administrative body of the Catholic Church. Traditionally, the Curia has exerted vast influence and control not only on the worldwide church but on the Pope himself, and has looked upon any efforts to change either institution with deep hostility. "Roma locuta est; causa finita est" has been the Curia's dreaded traditional pronouncement in deciding Catholic affairs around the world: "Rome has spoken; the matter is settled."


John had a vision that was driven by a desire to endow the Christian faith with what he described as "a new Pentecost"; a new spirit. It was aimed not only at bringing Christendom into closer touch with the modern world, but at ending the division caused by the Reformation -- and counter-Reformation -- that had been a thorn in the side the Christian message for more than four centuries. He compared the idea with a flinging open of windows within the Church -- windows that some restorationist within the Church have been trying to shut tight ever since!

John's vision was to make the Catholic Church sine macula et ruga (without spot or wrinkle). John set out to align his Church's whole life with the revolutionary changes in science, economics, morals and politics that have swept the modern world, and make the Gospel message relevant. Stretching out the hand of friendship to non-Catholics and non-Christians, for the first time in four centuries he made a start towards Christian unity.


The first Council session discussed subjects ranging from church unity to mass media, but they fought the key battles over three important schemata, or proposals: The Form of Worship; The Sources of Revelation; and The Nature of the Church. By an overwhelming majority, the Council fathers approved liturgical reforms that, among other things, enable the world's bishops to decide for themselves whether they wish parts of the Mass to be said in the language of their own countries.

The vote goes much deeper than ceremonials; it has been described as somewhat akin to a government allowing its embassies to decide foreign policy. A power historically held by the Curia -- the right to change the liturgy (and something for centuries considered unchangeable) -- now was partially given to national, linguistic or continental bishops' conferences. The way was thus opened to a decentralization bound eventually to extend into such areas as missionary activity and control of seminaries. Atlanta's archbishop at the time, Paul Hallinan, called the shift "a vote against old ideas."

John enabled not only others, but himself. At the end of the Council session, Pope John said the Council had enabled him "to hear the voice of the whole Catholic world." By this time, John knew he had terminal cancer, and in a radical move, to make sure that the next session would go faster, he set up a new secretariat to carry on council deliberations until the council fathers reconvened. To each bishop he arranged to send all proposals during the recess. The Council produced many disagreements, but John dismissed them by saying, "We are not friars singing in a choir." He accepted that change created conflict, and did not shirk from that conflict.


John empowered the bishops of the church to decide in regards to the way they administered their own areas. Instead of a centralized structure, John tried to give back to bishops the power and authority that were their right by nature of their office; that of successors of the heads of local churches. Sociologist Gerald Arbuckle points out, "Pope John, first by his example and then by words, challenged the familiar mythology of the fortress Church; people began to feel that alternative ways of doing things in the Church might now be possible and the Council legitimized this feeling of growing openness".

John's call was to one of simplicity. It was a call of "back to basics", if you like, and a call to live authentically the Gospel message. He felt that power should reside within the scope of local bishops, and their people, rather than the Roman Curia. John felt that one should learn from history, but not be bound to it. There was in the Catholic Church two sources of revelation recognized -- Scripture and tradition. John wanted to present Scripture and tradition as two channels in the same stream, or two sides of the same coin. The Curia, on the other hand, felt strongly that the church should continue the policy of centralization and isolation. They saw dialogue with hostile elements as risky with little potential for return, and was thus to be avoided. They saw tradition as the governing paradigm.

Those who deviated from tradition as laid down by Catholic history were deviating from the truth. Dialogue was pointless, and goodwill with dissenters and people outside the Church impossible.


John's openness sparked a renewal of interest in ecumenism, especially a "deep" ecumenism. In 1963, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris -- Peace on Earth -- John called for not only an end to the arms race, but regulation for human affairs for the benefit of all humanity, and a reconciliation between East and West. Essentially John was calling for reconciliation and authentic dialogue between the communistic and capitalist systems. His call helped spark dialogue between East and West, which ultimately contributed to the end of the Cold War.

The Council also energized men and women of good will to experiment with new ideas and ways of doing things -- of practicing loyal dissent -- while still staying a loyal part of the Catholic Church.


The irony is that although John theoretically had ultimate power (within reason) within the Catholic church, he was probably more appreciated by those outside the church. Having established much goodwill and credibility, he played a role is the defusing of the Cuban missile crisis. John did not accept that the cold war was inevitable.

He constantly argued that are all one human family, and that our commonality should override differences, or at least be the basis for dialogue. He stressed a need for structural and social justice, and a moral imperative for Christians and men and women of goodwill to serve the poor. Conservatives in the Church, on the other hand, believed that religious leaders should stay out of the political arena. The saw poverty as the lot in some peoples' life. They should accept it, and focus instead on the rewards of the coming world.

Regrettably, leaders following John have not fully followed on John's program of reforms. However, John set a benchmark for other leaders in the area of inclusion, an ability to see differences to commonalities, and an attempt to break free from the inertia inherent within large organizations. As Arbuckle says, "John XXIII initiated a revolution against ecclesiastical institutionalism to return the Church to the dynamic virtues of Christ-centered love, justice and service in a changing world".

To paraphrase Mick Yates, "It is thus very clear that Pope John XXIII was a Leader with a 'capital L'". 
© S.L. Lourey 1997.  
   Steve would like to acknowledge two sources:
1.) Time Magazine ("Man of the Year")
2.) Gerald A. Arbuckle SM, (1993) Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership, published in Australia by St Paul Publications. (ISBN 1-875570-27-6).
e-mail SLourey@hotmail.com