Pope John XXIII convenes an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church—the first in 92 years. In summoning the ecumenical council—a general meeting of the bishops of the church—the pope hoped to bring spiritual rebirth to Catholicism and cultivate greater unity with the other branches of Christianity.
Pope John reached the papacy from simple, peasant beginnings. Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in 1881, he was the son of an Italian tenant farmer. He was ordained a priest in 1904, and worked as a professor, part-time historian, biographer, and diplomat. For the first 54 years of his church career he was known as a good-natured conformist who obediently followed orders, and this reputation had more to do with his steady rise than did his intellectual abilities. As papal envoy to Turkey during World War II, he saved thousands of Jewish lives by helping arrange their escape to Palestine.
Roncalli’s first high-profile post came in 1944, when he was named papal nuncio to Charles de Gaulle’s newly liberated France. It was a delicate post; Roncalli’s predecessor had collaborated with France’s Vichy government, leading to a post-occupation backlash against the Catholic leadership in France. Roncalli carried out the assignment with grace and in 1953 was made a cardinal.
Although he was popular, few imagined he would ever be elected pope. After Pope Pius XII died in 1958, however, Roncalli was elected leader of the Roman Catholic Church on the 12th ballot. At 77 years of age, he was regarded as an “interim” pope by the Vatican Curia, someone who would follow the status quo for a few years while a younger prelate was bred to succeed him. However, Pope John XXIII soon surprised the Vatican’s conservative leadership by taking steps to modernize the church. He met with political and religious leaders from around the world and was the first modern pope to travel freely in Rome, breaking with the tradition that made the pope a “prisoner of the Vatican.” He had a warm personality, and spoke with peasants as freely as he did with the foreign dignitaries he invited to Rome. Adored by the Catholic masses, he gradually became a kind of father figure for Catholics around the world.
The high point of his reign was the Second Vatican Council, nicknamed Vatican II, which opened on October 11, 1962. In calling the ecumenical council, he sought a “New Pentecost,” a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He sought reconciliation for the world’s divided Christianity and invited Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant observers to attend the proceedings. Pope John XXIII died in June 1963, but the council continued under his successor, Paul VI, until 1965. That year, Pope Paul began the process that could lead to John XXIII’s canonization as a saint. In 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified John XXIII, bringing him a step closer to sainthood.
Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, and was succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005.