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John XXIII and the winding road to sainthood

Elected with a two-thirds-plus-one vote on the 11th ballot among 50 fellow cardinals on October 28, 1958, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the eldest son (and third of thirteen children) of poor tenant farmers in northern Italy, became the 261st (depending on how you count) successor of St. Peter the Apostle as Bishop of Rome and took the name John XXIII.

The news shocked the world, to say the least. Pope Pius XII, the former Eugenio Pacelli who reigned for 19 years, was the new man’s nearly exact opposite: tall and stately, austere and ascetic, the scion of true Roman nobility and virtually destined from birth to be a pope. Roncalli, on the other hand, stood a few inches over 5 feet and weighed about 200 pounds. He was a true peasant and as far from an aristocrat as could be imagined.

Although he had served Pius XI and Pius XII as a skilled and compassionate papal diplomat in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and France -- enduring some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable as World War II raged around him and credited with saving countless Jewish refugees from the Nazi death camps -- Roncalli, who had won the hearts of the people of Venice as their patriarch from 1953 onward, was underestimated or even dismissed by Vatican insiders throughout his career.

So when the white smoke rose above the Sistine Chapel roof to announce his election, the tens of thousands gathered in Piazza del San Pietro and an estimated 1 billion global viewers (thanks to the still-new medium of television broadcasting the event for the first time in history) saw a strange and unexpected -- and immensely appealing --figure emerge on the balcony to offer his first papal blessing, Urbi et Orbi, on the city and the world.

From the start, because of his fresh, frank, even jolly demeanor, he was called il papa buono, “the good pope,” by the press and the people. Everyone sensed that he was a deeply spiritual and humble person who had never expected to be elevated to the position of Supreme Pontiff and Universal Shepherd as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, then numbering some 750 million souls -- the oldest and largest religious denomination in the world. And within weeks, he was crowned with the ponderous triple tiara (the medieval symbol of his sovereignty over the 108-acre Vatican City State and those hundreds of millions of Catholics), and word leaked of his penchant to visit prisons and local parishes and to speak with and bless the Jews of Rome.

He further shocked the world -- and his own red-hatted colleagues in the College of Cardinals -- when he announced that the Church would convene an ecumenical council, a meeting of all the Catholic bishops of the world, to “update” many of his ancient religion’s practices (aggiornamento) and to return its focus to the sources of its beliefs (resourcement). His acknowledgment of and engagement with the modern world would turn the Church on its axis and presaged the cultural and technological upheavals that lay ahead in the 1960s and beyond.

But wait, there’s more . . .  Coming to the pinnacle of ecclesiastical power in the dark days of the Cold War -- the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October 1962, at the same time the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican opened -- he publicly prayed and wrote for the cause of peace in the world and served behind the scenes in the role of counselor and go-between for Soviet and U.S. leaders as they seemed to be approaching nuclear Armageddon.

So, why is he being canonized a saint today, along with his successor-plus-two, John Paul II? Because he achieved all that I have described above, and more, and he lived with and for his God every day of his long life.

In his public life, in his vocation as a priest, among his sometimes raucous family, with Eastern Orthodox brethren and Jews and Muslims, on the fields of carnage in World War I, as a pastor in far-flung places as well as in the Apostolic Palace, or preaching from the Chair of St. Peter. He presented the same face, boy and man, to all who touched his life and were touched by him.

He lived his long life as the embodiment of sanctity, yet a man unafraid to experience the world. His reported last clear words: “Lord, you know that I love you.”

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, died June 3, 1963, of stomach cancer. He was 81 years old.

Greg Tobin is the author of The Good Pope, a biography of Pope John XXIII that was recently released in paperback.  He has been featured widely in national and international media, including the New York Times, CBS, MSNBC, PBS, FOX News and countless radio stations.