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Pope John XXIII


Pope John XXIII (1881–1963), pope 1958–63. Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, he convened the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and raised the papacy to new popularity with his warm, friendly style after the severe formality of his predecessor, Pius XII . He served as a parish priest and seminary professor from 1904 to 1925 in Bergamo, Italy, and was appointed archbishop and papal nuncio to Bulgaria and later apostolic delegate to Turkey by Pope Pius XI (1922–39). While serving as nuncio in Istanbul, Turkey, during World War II, Roncalli distributed quasi-official-looking documents and other papers for Jewish refugees seeking to enter Palestine, sending thousands of such documents also to the papal nuncio in Budapest, Angelo Ratti, who was working closely with Raoul Wallenberg and other neutral diplomats to save tens of thousands of Jewish lives. Roncalli intervened personally with the Queen of Bulgaria, a Catholic, eliciting her help in convincing her husband to protect the Jews of that country.

In 1944, he received the key post of France. When he saw a newsreel of the liberation of the death camp at Bergen-Belson, he is reported to have said: "This is the mystical body of Christ!" (a reference to Pope Pius XII's encyclical on the nature of the Church). Roncalli was made primate of Venice and a cardinal in 1953. When Pius XII died in 1958 after a long pontificate that began in 1939, the College of Cardinals looked for a candidate with a fresh touch and appeal, but who would not make any radical changes. Roncalli, popular with both the Italian and French cardinals (then the two largest groups) and 77 years old, seemed to fit the bill. In Venice, he was strict with his priests with regard to personal morality. He appeared decisive in making decisions quickly, relying on his faith in the Holy Spirit to guide him. Closer to the earth and the working community than his aristocratic predecessor, John did not see the world simply divided into simple good and evil (free world and communist), but was willing to work across the lines of division of the times, politically and theologically, startling many with his apertismo (policy of openness). He granted some 120 private audiences to Jewish individuals and groups, including representatives of the government of Israel, who were accorded the dignities of a state visit.

In an early act of his papacy, in March 1959, John XXIII suppressed the term "perfidious" from the Good Friday prayer, turning it into a "prayer for the Jews," though it was not until after the Council that it ceased to be a prayer for their conversion. That same year, he ordered an end to an annual pilgrimage to the shrine in Deggendorf , Bavaria, where thousands of pilgrims came annually to "celebrate" the massacre in 1338 of the town's Jewish community. Also in 1959, he deleted from the Mass a petition made during the consecration referring to "the blood called upon (the Jews) of old," and from the rite of baptism the formula in which the baptized were to "abhor Jewish unbelief and reject the Hebrew error."

Finally in 1959, inspired, he said, by the Holy Spirit, John called for a world-wide synod of bishops, or Ecumenical Council. The Council he called was to be distinctive. It was not to condemn errors but to "open the windows" of the Church to the world and to other religions, an "aggiornamento" (updating) of the whole life of the Church. John's encyclicals, Materet Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963), established the spirit of the Council, just as Pope Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu and Mystici Corporis (both in 1943) established its theological foundations by mandating the use of modern biblical scholarship in the former and offering a vision of the Church not as a hierarchy but a spiritual community.

In 1960, receiving a delegation of American Jewish leaders, he was presented with a Torah scroll to express gratitude for the Jewish lives he had saved during the Holocaust, and replied: "We are all sons of the same heavenly Father. Among us there must ever be the brightness of love and its practice." He concluded: "I am Joseph, your brother" (Genesis 45:4). In using his baptismal name, the pope was not only quoting the biblical self-revelation of Joseph to his brothers in Egypt, he was also making an unprecedented gesture of filial warmth toward all Jews, who he considered deserved their full dignity as descendants of the Patriarchs of the Bible. It was a statement pregnant with theological implications.

In October of 1960, John XXIII received French scholar Jules Isaac, whose personal family losses during the Holocaust had caused him to study the origins of antisemitism in Christianity's ancient "teaching of contempt" against Judaism. He responded positively, placing the issue on the Council's agenda, and assigning Cardinal Augustine *Bea, S.J., a German biblical scholar and the pope's own confessor. Indeed, the first formal request by Catholics that the Council consider directly the bond between the Church and the Jewish People came on April 24, 1960, when the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Rome presented its formal petitio. It argued on the basis of the Pauline epistles and the Council of Trent that it was part of "the deposit of faith" that the Jews could not be seen as "rejected" by God or collectively guilty of the death of Jesus, despite the "erroneous interpretation of certain New Testament citations" over the centuries. After many adventures and the Pope's death, the statement, Nostra Aetate, was overwhelmingly approved by the Council Fathers on October 28, 1965. In just 15 Latin sentences, the document rejected the charge of Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus, established a new, positive understanding of the Jewish People in covenant with God, and called on the Church to engage Jews in a "dialogue of mutual esteem."


P. Hebblethwaite, Pope John XXIII: Shepherd of the Modern World (1985); P. Lapide, Three Popes and the Jews (1967).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.