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John Paul XXIII
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Pope John XXIII
Born: Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli
Preceded by: Pius XII (1939 - 1958)
Succeeded by: Paul VI (1963 - 1978)
Roman Catholic Pope #262

Born: November 25, 1881 (Rome, Italy)
Died: June 3, 1963
Pope: October 28, 1958 - June 3, 1963 (4 years, 7 months)

Pope John XXIII held office for only 5 years, but he remains one of the most popularly beloved popes in the history of the Roman Catholic Church - not only by Catholics but also by non-Catholics. He had spent 25 years as a papal diplomat for Bulgaria, Turkey and France, and six years as archbishop of Venice, not being elected pope until he was 77.

Pope John XXIII is perhaps best known for convening the second ecumencial council at the Vatican, known as Vatican II. What is particularly important to remember about Vatican II is that it differed from previous councils in a very important manner. Whereas earlier councils were typically convened in order to correct some doctrinal error which was becoming too popular, John XXIII specifically rejected this as his purpose. According to him, "Nowadays men are condemning [errors] of their own accord."

Instead, he envisaged a council which would postive instead of negative. He wanted a council which promoted mercy, faith and the pastoral role of the church rather than simply strict adherence to a new statement of orthodoxy. As a consequence, it was also fundamentally ecumenical in nature - John reached out to representatives of other Christian groups (for example, he also created a Secretariat for Christian Unity in 1960). This ecumenical effort was an important reason why he became so popular among non-Catholics.

He even went so far as to label Vatican II a "new Pentecost," which not only communicated his vision of it as a new beginning, but also represented the role which the Holy Spirit played in his religious life and in his religious style. For John, Christianity was not simply a matter of legalisms and doctrines but rather a way of living in communion with the love of God. This was an important reason for why he became so popular among Catholics.

A primary purpose of Vatican II was the goal of updating Catholic doctrines and practices to achieve more harmony with the various discoveries and advancements which had occurred during the previous centuries. He saw the Holy Spirit at work in things like the end of colonialism and the growing rights of the working class, and he wanted to be sure that the Catholic Church was not left behind due to inappropriate adherence to outdated ideas. This would require a "change in mentalities, ways of thinking and prejudices" - something which has not even yet been fully achieved, but nevertheless something which John felt the Catholic Church fully capable of.

However, even though he realized that Vatican II would require fundamental changes in how people thought, he still encountered more opposition than he actually expected. He gave his full approval of the early, draft texts prepared for the council. Despite this, traditionalists managed to effect major changes which drastically reduced the progressive nature of what was being considered.

Important to the development of a stronger ecumencial atmosphere was the defeat of a very traditional notion that "error has no rights." This belief had long been a major stumbling block not only to Catholic participation in ecumenical efforts, but also support of religious rights and political democracy.

John XXIII also made an unusual foray into contemporary politics during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. With the United States an the Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war, John mad an impassioned plea over the Vatican Radio: "We beg all rulers not to be deaf to the cry of humanity." This may have played a role in Nikita Krushchev's decision to back down, because it could have allowed him to do so without entirely losing face.

On September 23, 1962, an X-ray revealed that John XXIII was suffering from an advanced case of stomach cancer, an illness which would take his life the following year. This information was not revealed to the public because John still hoped to continue guiding the Vatican II council for as long as possible.

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