“I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.”
Born as Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, Saint John was entered the world on November 25th, 1881 in Sotto il Monte, Italy. He was the oldest son from a family of thirteen and grew up joining the family in sharecropping. Though his father did claim descent from an Italian noble family, it was from a secondary and impoverished branch. After becoming confirmed and receiving his first Holy Communion at the age of 8, he attended seminary near Bergamo and joined the Secular Franciscan Order.
He completed his doctorate in Canon Law in 1904 and was ordained a priest in the Catholic Church of Santa Maria in Piazza del Popolo in Rome on August 10th of the same year. The following year, the Bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi appointed Saint John as his secretary, a role he fulfilled until the Bishop died in 1914. In addition to serving as the Bishop's secretary he also served as a professor of theology and spiritual director for those preparing for ordination. These duties helped him gain a wide range of experience.
Bishop Giacomo's final words to Saint John were:
"Angelo, pray for peace"
The Bishop's death had a profound effect on the young Saint John and he personally wrote an appreciative biography of the prelate. He would send this copy to the pope, Benedict XV who too had been a personal friend of the Bishop.
During WW I, Saint John was drafted into the Royal Italian Army as a seargent in the medical corps as both a chaplain and stretcher-bearer. Once discharged in 1919, he returned to the seminary where he would be named spiritual director. Two years later, in 1921, he travelled to Rome and met with Pope Benedict XV who would name him the Italian President for the Propagation of the Faith. Though the position wasn't historically seen as a significant position but it did bring him into contact with important clerical figures. His work as a part time historian (notably specializing in the activities of Saint Charles Borromeo) brought him in contact with Monsignor Achille Ratti (who would later become Pope Pius XI).
In 1925, he was appointed the Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria and in keeping with tradition was consecrated a Bishop (the titular archbishop of Areopolis, Jordan). He kept this post for 10 years, carrying out the assignment with tact, patience, and humor but would write in his diary that he often felt lonely and discouraged in such an obscure post. The Catholic community in Bulgaria was small and overshadowed by a much larger Eastern Orthodox community.
In 1935, he was appointed the Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece and named the titular archbishop of Mesembria, Bulgaria. He would make his home in Istanbul where the Muslim society referred to him as the "Turcophile Pope". Though he was largely ignored by the Turkish government at the time, he used his position and office to aid the Jewish underground in saving thousands of refugees in Europe.
On February 1939, Pope Pius XI died and Pope Pius XII was elected that March. Saint John expressed happiness that Pacelli had been elected and listened to the coronation on the radio. Saint John returned to Bulgaria and prayed war would not break out. In April 1939, he wrote
"I don't believe we will have a war"
That same year he was named the head of the Vatican Jewish Agency in Geneva, but during a trip to Rome to visit Pope Pius XII in September, world war II commenced. In 1940 he stepped down as the Vatican Jewish Agency and was asked to dedicated more time to Greece. After several visits, he returned to Turkey where he helped intervene with the Bulgarian King Boris III to cancel deportations of Greek Jews during the Nazi occupation of Greece. It is estimated he helped nearly 22,000 escape.
During the Holocaust, Saint John performed an untold number of interventions to help save Jews (So many that the street he lived on, the street in Insantbul where the Embassy is located, was recently renamed "Pope Roncalli Street". Here are just a few of his incredible interventions:
Jewish refugees who arrived in Istanbul and were assisted in going onto Palestine or other destinations by Nuncio Roncalli.
Slovakian children who managed to leave the country as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s interventions.
Jewish refugees whose names were included on a list submitted by Rabbi Markus of Istanbul to Nuncio Roncalli.
Jews held at Jenovats concentration camp, near Staragradiskas, liberated thanks to Nuncio Roncalli’s intervention.
Bulgarian Jews who left Bulgaria thanks to Nuncio Roncalli’s request to King Boris of Bulgaria.
Romanian Jews from Transnistria who left Romania as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s intervention.
Italian Jews helped by the Vatican as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s interventions.
Orphaned children of Transnistria on board a refugee ship that weighed anchor from Constanza to Istanbul, and later arriving in Palestine as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s interventions.
Jews held at the Sered concentration camp who were spared from being deported to Polish death camps as a result of Nuncio Roncalli’s intervention.
Hungarian Jews who managed to save themselves thanks to the conversions into Christianity through the Baptismal Certificates sent by Nuncio Roncalli to Hungarian Nuncio, Monsignor Angelo Rota.
This article is continued in part 2