It was an awe-inspiring achievement for a farmer’s son with a lot of siblings from a hamlet just outside Bergamo to become Pope and an influential world leader.
But this was the journey made by the much-respected Pope John XXIII, who was born into a large farming family on 25 November in 1881 at Sotto il Monte near Bergamo.
|Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII leads to the upper town
Originally named Angelo Roncalli, he was tutored by a local priest before entering the Seminary at Bergamo at the age of 12.
His religious studies were interrupted by a spell in the Italian army, but he was ordained in 1904. He served as secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo for nine years before becoming an army chaplain in World War One.
After the war Angelo worked in Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece on behalf of the church helping to locate and repatriate prisoners of war.
In 1944 he was appointed nuncio to Paris to help with the post war effort in France. He became Cardinal Patriarch of Venice in 1953 and probably expected to spend his last years serving the church there.
But when he was elected Pope by his fellow cardinals in the conclave of 20 October 1958, it was a turning point in the church’s history.
Although he was Pope for less than five years, John XXIII enlarged the College of Cardinals to make it more representative, consecrated 14 new bishops for Asia and Africa, advanced ecumenical relations and worked for world peace.
He is remembered as ‘il Papa Buono’, ‘the Good Pope’, and since his death on 3 June 1963, his birthplace, and the museum set up to commemorate his life, have become popular destinations for pilgrims.
There is a permanent reminder of Pope John in Bergamo’s lower town, where the main thoroughfare from the railway station to Porta Nuova has been renamed Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII. In the upper town, there are works by Pope John XXIII in the Biblioteca Civica, the white marble Civic Library, in Piazza Vecchia. The Seminary he attended is at the end of nearby Via Arena.
Pope John’s birthplace, which has now been renamed Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII, is a short bus or car journey to the west of Bergamo. You can visit the house where he was born in the hamlet of Brusicco. The summer residence at Camaitino, which he used when he was a cardinal, is now a history museum dedicated to him.
Opening hours: Casa Natale (birthplace) at Brusicco 8.30 am to 5.30 pm; Museo di Papa Giovanni (Pope John Museum) at Camaitino 8.30 am to 11.30 and 2.30 pm to 6.30.
See Best of Bergamo’s updated Flights Guide