Our story reporting the death of Pope John XXIII

Editor’s Note: Fifty years ago this evening, Pope John XXIII died in his apartment in Vatican City. This is the unedited version of our story reporting on his death.


By Msgr. James Tucek

VATICAN CITY, June 3–A worldwide death watch came to an end at 7:49 p.m. (2:49 p.m. EDT) June 3, almost 20 hours after Pope John XXIII murmured his last words praying for the union of all Christians.

An image of Pope John XXIII appeared on the front page of the June 3, 1963, photo news sheet that was published weekly by the predecessor to today's Catholic News Service. (CNS photo)

An image of Pope John XXIII appeared on the front page of the June 3, 1963, photo news sheet that was published weekly by the predecessor to today’s Catholic News Service. The headline above the photo says “Pope John stricken by recurring ailment,” and the caption said this was the “most recent photo released officially by the Vatican.” (CNS photo)

The Pontiff’s last breath freed him of the agony which brought the world to his side by every modern means of communication for a four-day sorrowful vigil.

Within minutes after the Pope’s death Vatican Radio announced:

“It is with profound sorrow that we announce the death of our beloved Pope John XXIII. His Holiness, whose kindness and humility have won the admiration and affection of all mankind, died peacefully and serenely in his apartment in the Vatican apostolic palace at 7:49 p.m. this evening, the third of June 1963.

“The Holy Father had received the last sacraments of the Church on Saturday morning (June 1) at his own request. He had been attended with loving care right to the end by his closest collaborators and by his doctors.

“The inexorable disease which had become graver and graver during the last few months had gradually worn down his strong constitution, but it did not prevent the Vicar of Christ from fulfilling the arduous duties of his high office with indomitable pastoral zeal. …

“His Holiness lived 81 years, 6 months and 9 days.”

The inevitable word “The Pope is dead” came gravely through the loudspeakers and echoed through St. Peter’s Square where an estimated 100,000 were gathered. They had just finished a Mass offered for Pope John on the front steps of St. Peter’s Basilica by Luigi Cardinal Traglia, the Pope’s Pro-Vicar General for Rome.

On this same square on another anxious evening four and a half years ear1ier, a similar crowd had heard the words, “We have a pope.” On hearing the name Angelo Giuseppe Cardinal Roncalli, few had recognized it, and this reporter had heard the prophetic comment: “He’ll be uncommonly common, a pope of the people.”

The words “The Pope is dead” were hardly spoken when the bells of St. Peter’s begun their mournful toll. The sound was taken up and repeated by the city’s 400 churches as the word sped across the earth’s surface by radio.

For some 60 of the 82 members of the College of Cardinals, the news signaled immediate preparations for the journey to Rome. A new pope, the 262nd, will have to be elected.

At 8 p.m., 11 minutes after the pontiff expired, the lights in his room were seen to brighten. They had been kept low in the Pope’s last agony and now were turned up as his body was prepared to receive the veneration of the first mourners.

Present in the Pope’s room at the moment of death were: Amleto Cardinal Cicognani, his Secretary of State; Bishop Alfredo Cavagna, his confessor, Msgr. Loris Capovilla, his personal secretary; his brothers, Zaverio, Giuseppe and Alfredo Roncalli, and his sister, Assunta.

Also present as he died were his nephew, Msgr. Giambattista Roncalli of Bergamo; four nieces; Guido Gusso, his personal valet; Drs. Antonio Gasbarrini, Pietro Valdoni and Piero Mazzoni, and a male nurse, Augustinian Brother Federico Bellotti.

Pentecost, Monday, June 3, was a day which the church would never forget for it marked the day when one of the most beloved popes of all times died.

Never before had a pope’s final agony been followed so closely and with such deep and sincere sorrow, not only by Catholics but by men of every creed and circumstance on the face of the earth.

An intercontinental airliner flying over the Atlantic had kept its passengers informed of the Pope’s condition with hourly bulletins given over the loudspeakers by the plane’s captain.

Radio and television programs in every part of the world were interrupted to keep listeners posted on the latest report from the Pope’s bedroom on the top floor of the apostolic palace.

Sharing memories of Blessed John XXIII

By Robert Duncan

VATICAN CITY — Marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Blessed John XXIII, 3,000 pilgrims from the pope’s home diocese made a pilgrimage to Rome today with their bishop, Francesco Beschi of Bergamo.

Pope Francis was to join the pilgrims at the end of a commemorative Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and pray at the tomb of Blessed John.

Last year, Catholic News Service interviewed the personal secretary to Blessed John XXIII, Italian Archbishop Loris Capovilla, at his residence in Sotto il Monte. In the two videos posted here, the archbishop shares memories of how the pope from a small, hardworking town went on to summon the Second Vatican Council.