Pope John XXIII’s relatively short time in office is remembered chiefly for convening the Second Vatican Council, which transformed the Roman Catholic Church. He is also remembered for introducing the vernacular to replace Latin in church masses, writes Ray Cleere.


Pope John XXIII was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in the small village of Sotto il Monte, Italy, in the Diocese of Bergamo, on November 25th, 1881. He became one of the most influential Popes in recent history, changing the Church forever.

He was the fourth in a family of 14 born to poor parents who worked as sharecroppers. It was a patriarchal family in the sense that the families of two brothers lived together, headed by his great-uncle Zaverio, who never married, and whose wisdom guided the work and other business of the family.

Zaverio was Angelo’s godfather, and to him he always attributed first and most fundamental religious education. The religious atmosphere of his family and the fervent life of the parish, under the guidance of Father Francesco Rebuzzini, provided him with training in the Christian life.

In 1892 he entered the Bergamo seminary. There he began the practice of making spiritual notes, which he continued in one form or another until his death, and which have been gathered together in the “Journal of a Soul”, the autobiography of Pope John XXIII.

Also in the Bergamo seminary he began the deeply cherished practice of regular spiritual direction. In 1896 he was admitted to the Secular Franciscan Order by the spiritual director of the Bereamo seminary, Fr. Luigi Isacchi; he made a profession of its rule of life on May 23rd, 1897.

From 1901 to 1905 he was a student at the Pontifical Roman Seminary. Roncalli’s career within the Church began in 1904 when he graduated from the Seminary with a Doctorate in Theology. On August 10th, 1904, he was ordained a priest in the Church of Santa Maria in Monte Santo in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo.

The next day he celebrated his first Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Shortly afterwards he met Pope Pius X in Rome. After a visit to his family in Sotto il Monte, he returned to the Pontifical Roman Seminary for further study. Eventually he received a Doctorate in Canon Law.

In 1905 he was appointed secretary to the then new Bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Maria Radini Tedeschi. He accompanied the Bishop in his pastoral visitations and collaborated with him in his many initiatives; a Synod, management of the Diocesan bulletin, pilgrimages, social works.

In the Seminary he taught history, patrology and apologetics. He was an elegant, propound, effective and sought after preacher. Those were the years of his deepening spiritual encounter with two saints who were outstanding pastors: St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis de Sales.

They were also the years of deep pastoral involvement and apprenticeship, as he spent every day beside ‘his’ Bishop, Radini Tedeschi, until the Bishop died in August 1914.

The Bishop’s last words to Fr. Angelo were: “Pray for peace.” Such words mattered in August 1914 as the world teetered on the brink of the First World War. Fr. Angelo continued to preach in the Seminary and he ministered in various pastoral areas.

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