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Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born into a sharecropper family on November 25, 1881, at Sotto il Monte, in the Diocese of Bergamo. He entered the Bergamo Seminary in 1892, was admitted to the Secular Franciscan Order in 1896, studied at Cerasola College in Rome from 1900 to 1905, and ordained a priest in 1904.
Father Roncalli's first assignment was as private secretary to Bishop Radini-Tedeschi, for whom he served until the Bishop's death in 1914. During World War I he served as a chaplain in the medical corps. In 1919 he was made spiritual director of the Bergamo Seminary.
Missionary and Diplomatic Service
In 1921, Pope Benedict XV named Father Roncalli president of the Sacred Congregation for the Propogation of the Faith, in which position he was charged with reorganizing the administration of missionary works. He spent the next several years serving in various missionary and diplomatic capacities.
On March 19, 1925, he was consecrated Archbishop of Aeropolis and named Apostolic Delegate to Bulgaria. He remained in this position for ten years, despite there being relatively few practicing Catholics in that country.
In 1935 he was appointed Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece. While serving in this capacity during World War II he was able to help refugees from Nazi Germany, including Jews. He obtained transit visas to Palestine for some, and issued baptismal certificates to others, allowing them to pass as Christians, with the understanding that no baptisms need be performed.
Named Papal Nuncio to France in 1944, he dissuaded General Charles de Gaulle from forcing the Holy See to remove 25 French bishops who had collaborated with the wartime Nazi-collaborating Petain regime. His able diplomacy and personal charm during the post-war years earned him respect from the nation as a whole.
Archbishop Roncalli was created a Cardinal on January 12, 1953, and named Patriarch of Venice three days later.
Cardinal Roncalli was elected Pope on October 28, 1958, succeeding the late Pope Pius XII, and was crowned as Pope John XXIII on November 4.
One of Pope John XXIII's first actions was to elevate 23 prelates to the Sacred College of Cardinals, including two U.S. archbishops (Richard J. Cushing of Boston, and John F. O'Hara of Philadelphia) and Archbishop Giovanni Cicognani, for 25 years Apostolic Delegate to the United States. In 1960 he named Laurean Rugambwa, Bishop of Rutabo, Tanganyika, as the first black African member of the Sacred College of Cardinals; Peter Tatsuo Doi, Archbishop of Tokyo, as the first Japanese member; Rufino Santos, Archbishop of Manila, as the first Filipino member; and Josť Humberto Quintero as the first Venezuelan member.
In 1961, Pope John XXIII issued the encyclical Mater et Magister, which endorsed state intervention in socio-political matters, within a wider range of individual and people's rights. Pacem in Terris, issued in 1963, maintained that peace could only be reached by collaboration between all people of upright conscience, even those inspired by erroneous ideologies. This encyclical effectively ended the frontal opposition between Catholics and Communists. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Pope John XXIII was able to ease the tension between the Kennedy administration and the Khrushchev regime, allowing the potentially deadly crisis to be resolved without bloodshed.
One of Pope John XXIII's last actions was to call the Second Vatican Council -- the first Council since 1870 -- to achieve an "updating" of the Church. The first session voted to allow Mass to be said in the vernacular, and proposed a reactionary, divisive schema defining the sources of revelation.
Pope John XXIII did not live to see the Council completed, however, as he died of stomach cancer on June 3, 1963.
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This page was last updated on May 19, 2017.