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A reign too brief: blessed John XXIII

30 November, 1999

In this short work, Joseph McEvoy summarises the life of Pope John XXIII, one of the most important and best loved popes of recent centuries.

48 pp, Messenger Publications, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.messenger.ie.


Foreword by Bishop Jim Moriarty
1. Early life
2. The Bergamo seminary
3. Rome
4. Bishop Radini-Tedeschi
5. The army
6. Propaganda Fide
7. Pope John’s diplomatic career: Bulgaria
8. Turkey and Greece
9. Paris
10. Patriarch of Venice
11. A holy man
12. Pope
13. Pope John’s encyclicals
14. The council
15. The impact of the council
16. The death of Pope John XXIII


This book, written by Joseph McEvoy is surely timely, not only because of the recent beatification of Pope John XXIII but it is the fortieth anniversary year of his death on 3 June 1963.

These anniversaries, as well as a perceived need for a brief work on a Pope, parts of whose life read like an adventure story, but much of which was also quiet and simple, are full justification for publishing it at this time.

Pope John’s warm humanity endeared him at once to multitudes. Catholic and non-Catholic alike. This little book helps to capture something of that humanity for the present generation.

A new Ambassador being presented to President de Gaulle of France observed, ‘I’ve met many of your predecessors’, to which de Gaulle coldly replied, ‘I have had none’.

The anecdote prompts a similar line of thought concerning Pope John XXIII, beatified by Pope John Paul II in Rome on 3 September 2000. Indeed, there is a very definite sense in which he had no predecessors. In dipping into his Journal and other writings, one is struck by the dignity of his thought, conscious of his innovative qualities, and yet forced to realise that here was a person faithful as any man to the old attitudes.

Early Life
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born at 10.15 a.m. on Friday, 25 November 1881, at Sotto il Monte, about two miles from Bergamo in Lombardy, the sound of whose church bells he was often to recall in later life. On his birthday, a bitter wind blew down from the Alps and rain made the roads nearly impassable. Giovanni, his father, was delighted that after two girls he had a son and heir, who would help him with the work in the fields. Equally delighted were, of course, his mother Marianna (née Mazzola) and great uncle Zaverio, the brother of Angelo’s grandfather, the senior in the family, the man in charge, who was to have a major influence on Angelo in his formative years. Uncle Zaverio joined the men for a glass of wine. ‘Tonight we are thirty-two,’ he announced – there were already thirty-one members of the extended family.

By mid-afternoon, Marianna had risen from her bed and the family crossed the piazza to the little church of Santa Maria of Brussico. They learned that the parish priest, Don Francesco Rubuzzini, was in the neighbouring village on a sick call, and they had to wait until evening for his return. Marianna presented the baby to him.

‘He came this morning,’ she said. ‘A boy.’

‘We come for the Baptism,’ Giovanni said.

‘If it is not too late’, Uncle Zaverio added.

The priest at the end of a tiring day sighed,. ‘No, it is not too late’. So the child who was destined to be the future Blessed Pope John XXIII was received into the Church. (Of all the Roncalli children, ten were baptised on the day they were born, the remaining three, having been born during the night, were baptised next day.)

The parents of Angelo, who were married in 1877, already had two daughters, and Giovanni Battista worked the land as a share-cropper. A natural tranquillity and an understanding and a conciliatory nature aided his nomination as a Justice of Peace for the region.

In the family the mother, Marianna Mazzola, held a place of high honour. Always busy, as she grew older she became more and more silent without being less attentive to the needs of all. She was undemonstrative, yet ever ready to console, to give good advice, to encourage harmony. She became more and more a mother absorbed in a task which hardly ever released her from the house, and which shut her up in an intimate world of cares and anxieties.

The life of the Church played its part in instilling into the children strong feelings of piety. They babbled their prayers even before they began to speak properly. At the end of the day the whole family gathered around the great kitchen table to recite the rosary. In the long winter evenings Uncle Zaverio would read the Bible, or some meditations. Early in the morning, winter or summer, the household rose for first Mass. Angelo grew up in these surroundings, absorbing for all time the helpful, trusting and natural atmosphere. He was like any other child, possibly more sensitive, but physically robust. He was studious and industrious at school.

Angelo’s other classmates were not always impressed with his industry. An inspector came to the school and asked them which weighed more, a quintal of iron, or a quintal of straw. Everyone cried out eagerly, ‘Iron! The iron’ . Angelo did not join in, but stood up and said perhaps a little smugly, ‘A quintal is a quintal. They weigh the same’. ‘The inspector liked him,’ one of his classmates was to remember years later, ‘but we beat him up afterwards on the street – just a little.’

Angelo once said he did not remember a time when he did not want to become a priest. Before he went to the seminary at Bergamo at an early age, he walked two hours every day to school to learn Latin.

Prior to his departure for the seminary, his mother petitioned the relations for some money to send the boy off. She was gone most of the day. When she returned, she had a defeated air, and sagged down at the long table, and wept bitterly. Angelo, who had never seen his strong mother break down before, never forgot that moment.

‘What is it, Mama?’ he pleaded. Unable to speak, she opened her purse for reply. Coins dropped out, only about two lire. And with that, the future Pope set out to become a priest.

The Bergamo Seminary Years
Angelo Roncalli was twelve years old when he entered the Bergamo seminary in October 1893.

At once, he felt at his ease and at peace with himself. He followed his studies without difficulty, even joyously, figuring prominently in his class. He had a taste for humanistic culture, a love of history, an optimistic vision of his time, and the conviction that events followed a Christian pattern and work together for good under the guidance of Providence. For the young boy from Sotto il Monte, already known in his own family for his reflective disposition, the seminary created an atmosphere of happiness.

His superiors thought highly of him and entrusted him with responsibility, as the years passed, for the younger students. His strong and well-modulated voice, together with a good knowledge of music, led to his being appointed choir master, and he was also appointed a prefect.

The years slipped by. He became an ordinand and tackled priestly studies, the sacred sciences: dogmatic, biblical, patristic, moral, and ascetical theology, and Canon Law. In 1900, just before he was nineteen, he began his third year in theology, the last year but one of the course. But under Canon law he could not be ordained until the age of twenty-four; he had to wait.

In January 1901, Angelo was sent with two other ordinands to the Noble Cerasoli College in Rome, which housed a certain number of Bergamasque students who were to complete their studies in the academic surroundings of Rome.

Roncalli adapted quickly to his new life; his friendly nature enabled him to enter completely into the life of the community. The rector, Mgr. Bugarini, a saintly man, quickly took note of his quiet and exemplary behaviour.

Time passed, and Leo XIII, the pope of the great encyclical Rerum Novorum, was succeeded by Pius X. Roncalli had watched the smoke go up from the Conclave rooms and had been present at the coronation. On 8 June 1904, after completing his final year of study, he sought priestly orders. On 10 August 1904, in the church of Santa Maria in Monte Santo in the Piazza del Popolo, Angelo Roncalli was ordained priest, and the following day he celebrated his first Mass at St. Peter’s.

On that day, in a party of pilgrims who wished to see Pius X, his companion said to the Pope as he passed by, ‘Your Holiness, here is a young priest from Bergamo who has just celebrated his first Mass this morning’. Angelo began emotionally to repeat to the Pope the promises of his newly begun priesthood. ‘Very good, very good,’ said the Pope, ‘I give you my blessing and expect you to live up to your resolutions.’

He walked on, but suddenly turned back and asked the young priest, ‘And when do you say your first Mass back at home?’ ‘At the Feast of the Assumption, Holy Father.’ The Pope smiled, and looked at him for a moment. He repeated, ‘At the Assumption! What a Feast! And how the bells will ring out in Bergamo!’

Bishop Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi
No account of Pope John XXIII’s life would be complete without a reference to Monsignor Radini-Tedeschi who, shortly after his ordination as Bishop, appointed Fr. Angelo Roncalli as his secretary. He returned to Bergamo to serve one of the most renowned and widely talked about Bishops of his day, who had earlier rejected a career in the diplomatic service of the Holy See, preferring to devote himself to the to the work of arousing the Catholic masses and striking at an antagonistic public opinion. He was at home with the plans for rebuilding and reconquering Italy for Catholicism.

In 1909, he supported textile workers on strike at Ranica, stopping work over the fundamental principle of freedom for Christian labour organisations in the face of powerfully organised Capital. He felt ‘strongly that he was, in his own words, accomplishing ‘a work of justice and social peace’

Don Roncalli learned much from his time with Radini-Tedeschi. He wrote of the Bishop:

‘There is something of the warrior spirit about him. He had to fight for what is good, for the Church, the Pope, the rights of Christian folk. He always chose adequate weapons, preferring to do battle as a true knight, always fairly and openly.’

Bishop Radini-Tedeschi died in August 1914, consoled by the prayers of his faithful secretary of ten years. Pius X had passed away a short time previously, worn out by his efforts to prevent the war of 1914-1918, and a new Pope, Benedict XV, was elected on September 4.

For Roncalli, Radini-Tedeschi – the polar star of his priesthood – was dead, and he found it difficult to shake off his grief, the sense of irreparable loss. He immersed himself in his work on the Visitations of St. Charles Borromeo, and also began his biography of Radini-Tedeschi.

The Army
Early in the 1914-1918 war, Don Roncalli was drafted into the Medical Corps of the Italian Army with the rank of sergeant. Later he was appointed chaplain with the rank of lieutenant.

The soldiers would arrive at Bergamo in ambulances, their wounds partly dressed, their eyes filled with sadness caused by the sight of so much horror. But in a short space of time many healed, and they emerged stronger, more mature, more serious. First as orderly and then as Chaplain, Don Roncalli spoke easily about religion to the men in their misfortune. He struck the right note with the men, and paved the way for reconciliation not only with life but with their faith.

In other respects, there were humiliations in the military life. One lieutenant-colonel, who could not abide soldier priests, poured sarcasm on him. Later this officer made some sort of verbal apology. ‘Do not be angry, sergeant’, he said. ‘I am a poor man who must be content to add a new serpent to that of my kepi. You, on the other hand, you will go far – monsignor, bishop, cardinal!’ The ordeal at the hands of the lieutenant-colonel also served to hasten the purification of his soul. During the years he had spent with Bishop Radini-Tedeschi, his great ability had perhaps inspired a suspicion of pride. It was good to step down again; after the pain of it came resignation, giving oneself to God, profound joy.

In an address given in 1920 he reflected on his work as chaplain and on war:

‘It was as though the war would destroy the last remnants of faith and ancestral piety. Bless the Lord that this did not happen… War is and remains the greatest evil… Yet it was a great test of the world of peoples, and besides the brutality and wretchedness some of us endured, it is fair to dwell upon the consoling episodes that gave the lie to our pessimism… Oh, the long nights hearing the confessions of the soldiers and preparing them to receive the bread of the strong in the morning. The hymns to Mary that rose up around simple, impoverished altars; the sublime solemnity of the Mass in the fields…’

Propaganda Fide
In December 1920, Don Angelo was recalled to Rome to help in the reorganisation of the Catholic Missions, and shortly afterwards was appointed to be President of the Italian branch of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and made a Domestic Prelate.

By all standards, Mgr. Roncalli was a success at Propaganda Fide. He saw his work not in bureaucratic terms, but as helping the Pope, as ‘the father of the family’, to provide for the needs of all the Missions. He more than doubled the collections for Propaganda from 400,000 lire in 1920 to over a million in 1922. He made many friends. Looking back on his time at Propaganda, he later wrote to his successor, Zanetti:

‘I am convinced that if there were any good fruits of my work, that was because I took up the ministry out of pure obedience. Then the Lord gave me the grace to love it, and I left the ministry with sorrow…’

The pattern was becoming familiar: distaste, obedience, attachment, and then the wrench.

Pius XI, while following the preparations for the Holy Year, also observed the way in which Mgr. Roncalli was handling the arrangements for the Missionary Exhibition planned for the Holy Year. He saw again the same diligence which he had first noted in the Ambrosian Library, and that Monsignor Ronicalli still worked with the same unflagging spirit in everything he did: philology, history, the discharge of his duties at Propaganda, and now the daily contacts he had with the world’s press about the Exhibition which was arousing the interest of reporters and scholars alike.

Pius XI therefore decided to entrust him with a mission that was both difficult and delicate. On 2 March 1925, Monsignor Roncalli was appointed Titular Archbishop of Areopolis and Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria.

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