(28 Oct. 1958–3June 1963)
Third of thirteen children in a family of frugal peasant farmers, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born on 25 Nov. 1881 at Sotto il Monte, 12 km from Bergamo. After attending the village school and the two seminaries at Bergamo, he went with a scholarship to the S. Apollinare Institute, Rome, in 1901, graduating doctor of theology in 1904. Secretary 1905–14 to Bishop Radini-Tedeschi of Bergamo, he also lectured in church history at the diocesan seminary. Conscripted in the First World War, he served first as a hospital orderly, then as a chaplain. In 1921*Benedict XV promoted him national director of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. In his spare time he wrote monographs on diocesan history and on St Charles Borromeo (1538–84), his researches in the Ambrosian Library, Milan, bringing him into contact with Achille Ratti. It was Ratti who, as Pius XI, launched him on a diplomatic career, appointing him titular archbishop of Areopolis and apostolic visitor (from 1931 apostolic delegate) to Bulgaria in Mar. 1925, and apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece in 1934. Busy but lonely in the former post, he enjoyed the latter, establishing friendly relations with members of the Turkish government and leaders of the Orthodox churches. During the German occupation of Greece (1941–4) he worked to relieve distress and prevent the deportation of Jews. Appointed nuncio to France on 22 Dec. 1944, he dealt tactfully but firmly with the problem of the many bishops accused of collaborating with the Vichy regime, negotiated with the government over the financing of church schools and the nomination of bishops, and arranged for German prisoners-of-war who were ordinands to follow courses in theology at Chartres. He also looked favourably on experiments with worker priests, and from 1952 was permanent observer for the holy see at UNESCO. On 12 Jan. 1953 he was named cardinal priest of S. Prisca, and on 15 Jan. patriarch of Venice, where he was noted for his pastoral zeal, informality, and firm resistance to communist manoeuvres. In 1958 he completed the fifth and last volume of his studies on St Charles Borromeo. At the conclave of 25–8 Oct. 1958 he was elected at the twelfth ballot; he was crowned on 4 Nov., the feast of his revered Charles Borromeo. Almost 77, many regarded his appointment as a caretaker one, but it proved a decisive turning-point.
At his coronation mass John announced his desire to be above all things a good shepherd, and this was the hallmark of his pontificate. At his first consistory he abolished the rule, dating from Sixtus V, fixing 70 as the maximum number of cardinals, and by 1962 he increased the college to 87, making it larger and more international than ever before. On 25 Jan. 1959 he proposed three major projects: a diocesan synod for Rome, an ecumenical council, and the revision of canon law. He held the synod, Rome's first for many centuries, in St John Lateran from 24 to 31 Jan. 1960; an overture to the council, its aim was to reinvigorate church life in Rome itself, though in practice it achieved little. His outstanding achievement, however, was the Second Vatican Council, the calling of which he attributed to a sudden inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Its objective, he later explained, was to be a new Pentecost, a means of regeneration for the church, bringing its teaching, discipline, and organization up to date (aggiornamento), and opening a way towards the reunion of the separated brethren of east and west. He set up preparatory commissions and secretariats on 5 June 1960, and opened the council itself in St Peter's on 11 Oct. 1962. Official observers from eighteen non-Roman churches were present by invitation, and in his address he urged the fathers to expound truth positively without relying on anathemas. Although he did not attend the deliberations himself, he intervened decisively on 21 Nov. 1962 to rule that the conservative schema on revelation, which had been rejected by more than half but not the necessary two-thirds of the fathers, should be redrafted by a mixed commission. On 8 Dec. 1962 he closed the first session, adjourning the council for nine months. Already stricken with illness, he did not live to see its resumption.