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John XXIII, the surprising pope

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John XXIII, the surprising pope


The embalmed body of a pope who died 38 years ago, John XXIII, in his sealed crystal coffin, lies at the altar of the Chapel of Saint Jerome in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Exhumed, he is honoured. He was known as ‘Good Pope John’.

He was born, in 1881, to a Italian family of sharecroppers, in a small village in the Lombardy region. Brother of 13 siblings, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was ordained a priest at the age of 24. At an age of retirement, 72, he was made cardinal, then, in the conclave for Pious XII’s successor, was surprised to be chosen pope, at 76. He would ring in unexpected change.

On the night he announced the Second Vatican Council to the people gathered in St. Peter’s square, he told them when they got home to their children, to give them a kiss and tell them it’s from the Pope. He was full of surprises.

He got out more than his predecessors. He visited the sick, went to prisons, shook hands with heretics, Protestants, Orthodox, Anglicans, and broke with the teaching to beware of the Jews. He moved the Church furniture around, and took Latin down a peg, in favour of regular language. Or rather, the Council did.

The Second Vatican Council addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. It lasted for three years, starting late 1962. Throughout, the Vatican harboured 2,500 bishops, who came from as far as Communist China. John invited Christians outside the Catholic Church to send observers. He said immutable doctrine must be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms.

Catholic faithful still argue about the reforms today. John died of stomach cancer in 1963, before the Council was finished. But the merits of that gathering — along with a single miracle of a nun cured of illness when praying before his tomb — were cited as responsible for the decision to declare him a saint.

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