A sincere, adoring look at the life and legacy of the humanist pope who helped modernize the Catholic Church with the convening of Vatican II.
Although he served only briefly, from 1958 to 1963, Pope John XXIII, born a Bergamo peasant farmer’s son named Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, pushed back against the ultraconservative wing dominating the papacy since Pius X’s turn-of-the-century reign. In this accessible biography, Tobin (Holy Holidays!: The Catholic Origins of Celebration, 2011, etc.) marks the 50th anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962 and John’s likely canonization in 2013. At times, the author sounds a little awestruck in describing Roncalli’s many diplomatic talents. Born in 1881 and ordained a deacon in 1903, he was formed by his early apprenticeship under Bishop Radini-Tedeschi of Bergamo, who employed a circle of liberal clergy advocating “the idea of Christ as an instrument of social change.” Under his tutelage, Roncalli became an activist and world traveler, tiptoeing around Pius X’s thundering denunciation of modernism; Roncalli was appointed by the more liberal Benedict XV for missionary work, then by Pius XI and Pius XII for diplomatic missions in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and postwar France. Revered for his work with refugees and ability to bring factions together, and well-liked by the other cardinals, Roncalli was nevertheless elected as a “transitional figure” to the papacy on October 28, 1958. Immediately, John began planning the first ecumenical council of the Church in 90 years, in the hope of embracing new currents of reform and renewal, especially as played out by the Cold War. The role of priests, evangelizing, use of the vernacular in Mass and changes in the liturgy, among others, were all reconsidered in the spirit of aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”).
An upbeat survey of a decent, likable modern leader.