Peter Hebblethwaite was a widely recognized Church journalist and author in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sometimes nicknamed a “Vaticanologist” because of his network of contacts and interests in the workings of the Church. It is true that he died [in 1994] before more written sources and documentations were released, but on the other hand he was able to interview many clerics, theologians, and others who lived during John’s brief pontifical reign [1958-1963] including some of the most famous participants in the Council.
The mythical account of Pope John XXIII’s life—and it is amazing how many people who should know better still propagate it—is the tale of a career Vatican diplomat of modest talent at best who was elected pope at the age of 76 to “keep the seat warm” for a younger and more competent candidate to be groomed after the 19-year reign of Pope Pius XII [1939-1958]. The popular tale continues that John called the Council at the behest of modern European theologians who then proceeded to hijack the proceedings to create a modernist church that went far beyond what John intended.
What gets overlooked in such mythmaking is one obvious counterpoint: a man who ascends to the papacy at 76 has a long curriculum vitae of responsibilities and assignments that form the thinking of a man over many years. To understand John XXIII, one must meet Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, born in 1881 to a family of sharecropper-farmers in the Diocese of Bergamo, Italy. Although the life was exhausting, Angelo found time to serve daily Mass and to observe the development of Catholic Action groups which worked for the improvement of the peasants’ and workman’s lot in Italian society. Pope Leo XIII was elected during Roncalli’s youth, the pope who would write the highly regarded encyclical Rerum Novarum,  the first encyclical on the subject of social justice.
Young Angelo would write years later that he could not remember a time when he did not want to become a priest. He entered the seminary at age ten and took considerable time to adjust to separation from his family and to the rigors of the studies, as he was the youngest in his class. He began a journal at age 14, which he maintained throughout his life and even through his papacy. It is an invaluable historical source for the study of Pope John today. We know, for example, that he established a rigorous spiritual rule for himself by his fourteenth year. We also know that in his teens he intuited—probably from his priest sponsors—that the Gospel and social justice were important constituents of priestly identity. This development took place against the backdrop of the papacy losing control of the sizeable Papal States to the new secular Italian national government.
As he later matured and began his ministry, Angelo came to believe that the loss of the papal states was ultimately a good thing for the Church, that by getting out of civil entanglements the Church could focus upon what he saw as its primary purpose, the spiritual saving of souls and what today we would call evangelization. Spreading the Gospel would be much unencumbered with statehood off the table, in his view. He was not the first person to think this way, and this was still a minority position; the papacy fought to maintain its influence in Italian civil life. As late as 1948 Pope Pius XII taught that Catholics could not vote for Communist or Socialist candidates in Italy’s civil election.
Angelo’s superior performance in the minor seminary and the sponsorship of respected churchmen brought him to Rome for his major priestly studies. He enjoyed the seminary and the study of theology; he was not brilliant, but he was dogged, and he showed aptitude for history and research, something to remember as his story unfolds. He developed a deep love for Latin and believed that the Church was best served by reading the writings of the saints in the Latin tongue. Even as pope he repeatedly read the reflections of Pope Gregory the Great [r. 590-604 A.D.] in Latin. [As pope, he issued Veterum Sapientia in February 1962, decreeing that all major seminary courses were to be taught in Latin. As it turned out, virtually no American professors could do this, and the decree died a quiet death.]
His seminary years endured a major interruption. He was drafted into the Italian army for a year—an interruption he hated—but he proved to be a particularly good soldier, particularly as a sharpshooter, and was raised to the rank of sergeant. It was his first encounter with the “locker room world” of men and sexuality. But he returned to the seminary with renewed zeal, completed his doctorate, and passed his ordination examination, conducted by Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. After his ordination he returned to his home diocese of Bergamo, but he was not destined to stay there long.
Father Roncalli’s early years as a priest coincided with the crisis of Modernism. At the turn of the twentieth century Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] issued multiple condemnations of Modernism, an openness to current ideas which conflicted with strict interpretation of Church doctrine and discipline. See the Encyclopedia Britannica’s description of Modernism to understand what church life was like during Angelo Roncalli’s early priestly years.] Roncalli demonstrated a remarkable courage here—one which could have led to his excommunication, or more likely, to the end of a promising career. After one of Pope Pius’s broadest condemnations of Modernist trends in 1907, the young priest and Doctor of Theology delivered a public lecture at the Bergamo seminary in which he defended the study of history as a method of developing greater understanding of the Scripture and the development of the Church as institution. I suppose that nothing less could have been expected from a man who loved history.
However, like nearly all priests of his time, Roncalli took the new “Anti-modernist oath” as priests and seminarians would take as late as the 1960’s. Having talked to men ahead of me who took the oath, I get the impression that most did so as a general act of loyalty to the pope without endorsing its provisions. The biographer Hebblethwaite seems to imply that Roncalli in 1910 approached the oath in something of the same spirit. [p. 34] His biographer observes that “[F]rom the whole tragic episode Roncalli drew the conclusion that there were other and better ways of dealing with ‘error’ in the Church.” [p. 36]
When World War I broke out in 1914, and the following year Roncalli was drafted. The drafting of clerics [which never occurred in the United States; priests volunteered to serve as chaplains] is a good illustration of the continuing stress between the Church and the Italian State at this time. This second round of service proved to be highly influential upon the future pope; there is an entry in his journal—too long to cite here—that describes his powerful feelings of pity and affection for the young men whose confessions he heard for hours at a time and whom he accompanied at the hour of their deaths. In his journal he admits to crying like a child in his tent while at the same time reflecting upon war and the Church’s position in the struggles between states. [p.40] Years later, Roncalli was instrumental in the defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
After the War Roncalli became the spiritual director of a seminary and slowly but surely a popular speaker. His wartime experience had deepened his love for his country and its future. He was a staunch supporter of lay action—the courage and sacrifice of his soldiers strengthened this conviction, that Catholic laity had rights to form the society in which they lived, including its pollical direction. His reputation on behalf of Catholic action eventually won him a position within the Roman Curia as national [Italian] director of Society for the Propagation of the Faith, an organization which raised awareness and funds for the foreign missions. A review of the literature about the Society in 1922 pictures a society in disarray and disagreement, and Roncalli’s appointment coincides with Pope Benedict XV’s demand for a restructuring.
Roncalli was unhappy with the appointment, and as is often the case, he found the situation as bad as, if not worse than, advertised. However, the position allowed him to travel the length of Italy meeting with the bishops in the name of a project close to the sitting pope. He also traveled widely in Europe to assist in coordinating the international efforts of the Society. [An annual collection for the Society is taken up yearly in all churches to this day.] Given his pessimism for the position and its problems, he was still successful in raising Italy’s annual collection more than 100%.
This success, however, would not help him with a grave new personal challenge, the rise of Mussolini and the radical right. Roncalli’s sympathies had for some years laid with Catholic Action and democratic reform, and he correctly perceived that Mussolini was inviting the Church down a road that could only bring it harm. Called upon in 1924 to deliver a eulogy for a bishop in his home diocese, Bergamo, he made an impassioned plea that the state not interfere in the ministry of the Church. It was a not-so-veiled address to Mussolini to cease his negotiations with the Vatican, which would end in the 1929 Italian Concordat. There would be no room for “Christian Democrats” in Mussolini’s Italy, and this label describes Roncalli’s politics as well as any.
On February 17, 1925, Angelo Roncalli was informed by the Vatican Secretary of State that he had been appointed apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. He would not return reside in Rome in an official capacity for 33 years.