A peasant pope who was happy to break with tradition

Rite and Reason: Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the death of the much-loved PopeJohn XXIII

Rite and Reason: Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the death of the much-loved PopeJohn XXIII. Brian Maye recalls the day and the man

I was only eight years old when Pope John XXIII died on June 3rd, 1963, but I can vividly remember certain details from the time.

I can remember my mother crying. I also remember that our primary school in Collooney was closed the day Pope John was being buried, far from that little Sligo village.

Young as I was, I was conscious of a sense of loss in the air and now, 40 years after his passing, it is appropriate to ponder that sense of loss that so many ordinary Catholics of all ages felt at the time.


Giuseppe Angelo Roncalli was the third of 13 children of a poor peasant family from Sotto il Monte near Bergamo.

He was a bright boy who took full advantage of a sponsored education at the Bergamo seminary. The church into which he was ordained in 1904 was defensive and inward-looking.

Roncalli's first job as a priest was as secretary to the new bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, an aristocrat and reformer who wanted the church to be involved in worldly affairs. He was strongly pro-labour, founded organisations for working women and sided with unions in strikes, in all of which Roncalli staunchly backed him.

Shortly after the war he was sent as papal emissary to Bulgaria, a demotion if ever there was one. Bulgaria had a small minority of Catholics and he was the first Vatican representative there in 600 years.

His time there was difficult, caused he said by "the central organs of ecclesiastical administration". (Only years later, when he became pope, did he discover the reason for his exile: a note on his file said "suspected of modernism".)

There followed an appointment to Turkey, another place which for long had received little Vatican attention.

He was there during the second World War and worked for the care of refugees, especially Jews. He was reported to have rescued thousands.

His career improved greatly, but almost by accident, after the war: a papal nuncio needed to be appointed urgently to France. Roncalli's obscurity was an advantage because no one knew any grounds on which to object to him. In France, Roncalli championed the controversial system of worker-priests.

In 1953, he became a cardinal and Patriarch of Venice. This extract from his address to the diocesan synod (1957) indicates how he would act as pope: "Authoritarianism suffocates truth, reducing everything to a rigid and empty formalism that is dependent on outside discipline. It curbs wholesome initiative, mistakes hardness for firmness, inflexibility for dignity."

When he became pope in October 1958, many thought that John XXIII, given that he was aged 77, had been elected as a transitional figure. They could not have been more wrong. True to his origins and lifelong philosophy, he broke with tradition by leaving the Vatican and visiting hospitals and prisons in Rome. He convened the Second Vatican Council to achieve the aggiornamento (updating) of the church and especially to try to bring about unity between Christian persuasions.

Sadly, he was dying from stomach cancer. "I consider it a sign of great mercy shown me by the Lord Jesus that he continues to give me his peace, and even exterior signs of grace which, I am told, explain the imperturbable serenity that enables me to enjoy, in every hour, a simplicity and meekness of soul that keep me ready to leave all at a moment's notice and depart for eternal life."

I hope even this brief survey will show why this pope was so loved throughout the Catholic world and beyond.

Brian Maye is a regular contributor to The Irish Times