The Top Ten “Good Facts” About Pope John XXIII


The Top Ten “Good Facts” About Pope John XXIII

On Sunday, April 26, Pope John XXIII, commonly referred to as Good Pope John, is being canonized to become a Roman Catholic saint. Here are some facts you should know about his long and saintly life.


1. Born Angelo Roncalli on November 25, 1881, the fourth of thirteen children in a family of sharecroppers in northern Italy, John became pope in 1958 when he was almost 77 years old.


2. As Apostolic Delegate in Istanbul, Turkey, during the Second World War, Roncalli used his diplomatic privileges to help Jews escape from the Holocaust. Early in his papacy, John removed offensive language about the “perfidious Jews” from the church’s liturgy, and reached out ecumenically to Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and other non-Christians.


3. Expected to be a caretaker pope because of his advanced age, Pope John surprised observers by calling the bishops of the church to Rome for the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).


4. In stark contrast to his predecessors, John urged the church to accept modernity and the secular world instead of setting itself in constant opposition to it. Romans called him “John-Outside-the Walls” because he was the first pope to leave the confines of the Vatican to visit prisons and hospitals.


5. John’s 1961 encyclical letter, Mater et Magistra, strongly promoted the economic rights of workers and placed a new responsibility upon the state to protect those rights.


6. The pope’s public calls for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis influenced Khrushchev and Kennedy and helped bring the crisis to an end. In response to the crisis, Pope John authored the 1963 encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), the first papal encyclical addressed to “all men of good will” (rather than all Catholics), and the first papal encyclical to be published in The New York Times.


7. Pacem in Terris was the first official Catholic document to recognize that religious freedom is the right of every human person (and not just of Catholics).


8. The precedent of Pacem in Terris made it easier for the Council to officially adopt the right to religious freedom in the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) in December 1965. The Declaration on Religious Freedom developed from the insights of a New York Jesuit priest, Father John Courtney Murray, who in 1960 had coached the first Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, about how to address his church’s failure to support the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment.


9.  Although Pope John died in June 1963, as the first session of the Council ended, the Council—which revised the liturgy; promoted ecumenism, Christian unity, and respect for non-Christian religions; recognized the important role of the laity in the church; welcomed the advances of modernity and encouraged the church to read the “signs of the times”; defended religious freedom for all human persons; called for a dialogue with atheists; and tantalizingly asked scientists to labor to explain more thoroughly the various conditions favoring a proper regulation of births—is his legacy.


10. John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, presided over the end of the Council, took the topic of contraception away from the bishops, and appointed a papal commission to study the issue of birth control. Although a majority of his commission recommended that the church approve artificial contraception, Pope Paul rejected the advice of his commission and issued the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (1968), condemning artificial contraception. What might have been in church history if Pope John had changed the teaching on contraception?

Leslie C. Griffin

Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law. Professor Griffin, who teaches constitutional law, is known for her interdisciplinary work in law and religion. She holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.