On October 11, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of a modern Pope, John XXIII (1881-1963). His papacy (1958-1963) changed the face of the Church as he initiated the Second Vatican Council. He is remembered by both Catholics and Jews as "Good Pope John".

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The firstborn son of a farming family in Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo in northern Italy, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was always proud of his down-to-earth roots. In Bergamo’s diocesan seminary, he joined the Secular Franciscan Order. After his ordination in 1904, Angelo returned to Rome for canon law studies. He soon worked as his bishop’s secretary, Church history teacher in the seminary, and as publisher of the diocesan paper.

In 1925 he became a papal diplomat, serving first in Bulgaria, then in Turkey, and finally in France (1944-53). During World War II, he became well acquainted with Orthodox Church leaders. Archbishop Roncalli helped save thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi occupation when he served in Turkey. The Shoah left a deep impression on him and when he became Pope he was determined to initiate far reaching changes in Church teaching on the Jews.

Named a cardinal, he was appointed patriarch of Venice in 1953. A month short of entering his 78th year, he was elected pope, taking the name John after his father and the two patrons of Rome’s cathedral, St. John Lateran. He took his work very seriously but not himself. His wit soon became proverbial, and he began meeting with political and religious leaders from around the world. In 1962 he was deeply involved in efforts to resolve the Cuban missile crisis.

His most famous encyclicals were Mother and Teacher (1961) and Peace on Earth (1963). Pope John XXIII set a tone for the Second Vatican Council he inaugurated in 1962 when he said, “The Church has always opposed... errors. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” His meetings with the French Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, were formative for the developments during the Council. A "teaching of contempt" had to give way to a "teaching of respect". In a meeting with a Jewish delegation when he was Pope, John XXIII stepped down from his papal throne and told the Jews, "I am Joseph your brother".

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"Good Pope John" died on June 3, 1963.

We give honor to Pope John and ask that he pray for a continued healing and growth in trust between Catholics and Jews.