This three-part biography of Pope John XXIII, the architect of Vatican II, looks at how this down-to-earth man could institute a council that made such radical changes to the church.
There would be few popes in history whose death has caused the universal mourning that accompanied that of Pope John XXIII in 1963. I recalled this 46 years later this Pentecost because he died a day later, on Pentecost Monday. As we shall see later it was somehow appropriate for his lifelong trust in the Holy Spirit.
Several popes could have been so universally mourned within the church, but literally the whole world mourned John for he had so captivated their imaginations and hearts in his short five years as Pope. How could this little roly-poly figure, whose feet could barely touch the ground as they dangled from the papal throne, have caught such world attention.
Angelo Roncalli had come from a peasant family in the north of Italy. After ordination in 1904, he became secretary to his bishop in Bergamo, lecturing in church history (his beloved subject) at the diocesan seminary. He served in the First World War as a conscripted hospital orderly and then as a military chaplain. Italy was on the allied side with Britain, USA and France.
In 1921, Benedict XV appointed Roncalli national director of the Propagation of the Faith. While researching history at the Ambrosian Library in Milan, Roncalli had caught the eye of Cardinal Ratti, the librarian who was elected Pope as Pius XI in 1922. He selected Roncalli for the diplomatic service consecrating him archbishop in 1925 and then apostolic delegate to Bulgaria in 1931 and Greece and Turkey in 1934. In each post he made friends with the Bulgarian and Greek Orthodox churches and the Muslim religion admiring the good they did. During World War II, Roncalli did what he could for the war-stricken victims in Greece and tried to prevent the deportation of many Jews.
The next pope, Pius XII (1939-1958) saw in Roncalli the right man for a very difficult mission. France had divided in two after the German invasion; the north under the exiled General de Gaulle was occupied by the Germans but fought underground against them, and the south (Vichy) under Marshal Pétain became a separate pro-Nazi government.
As Germany surrendered, the Pope chose for the delicate mission Archbishop Roncalli as Nuncio to the new French Government. Several of the Vichy bishops had sided with the Nazis and the new French Government wished them tried as traitors. Roncalli quietly spoke to three who resigned, and won government approval for the rest of the bishops. In 1953 he was made a cardinal and Patriarch of Venice.
A conclave surprise
At the death of Pius XII in 1958, a magisterial, princely and scholarly pope, people wondered who could follow and the 51 cardinals must have, too. The result was a surprise to the outside world—Cardinal Angelo Roncalli who took the name of Pope John XXIII. He was one month short of his 77th birthday. Many regarded him as a fill-in until another Pope like Pius XII was elected.
He immediately caught the imagination first of the Catholic world who told of his chatting with the gardeners in the Vatican grounds (Pius XII had ordered them all to vacate when he strolled in solitude) and his Christmas Day visit to the Regina Caeli prison in Rome where he began his sermon ‘I have often visited this prison before, because I had a cousin in here as an inmate…’.
As well as increasing the number of cardinals choosing them on a more international basis and reducing the percentage of Italians, he conceived the idea of a General Council.
His years in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey had enabled him to see the good in both Orthodox Christians and Muslims and to wonder at how distant the church was from them. Could he do more to open the church out?
As St Paul had written, the Holy Spirit could and did breathe where he willed even outside the church. Yet John’s was, if anything (as his Journal of a Soul portrays), a fairly traditional spirituality, grounded in devotions like the rosary and his priestly breviary.
At the same time, his spirituality was grounded in a complete trust in the providence of God which the Holy Spirit had guided him into whether in the army, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece or back in Venice.
A role in unity of religions
He loved his church and saw it had a unique role in history as the centre of Christian belief, yet it could be, or should be, able to tap into and unite with the good points of the other Christians and religions to present a front of common good and guidance for the whole world. How could he go about this?
The historian in him told him that some 20 or so times before when the church had needed to make changes, the answer had been to call on the bishops from different cultures and theologies to plan together to guide the church into the future. The Holy Spirit would guide such an assembly as he had the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem at the very beginning of the church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
When he called the Council (Vatican II) in 1959, his Secretary of State, Cardinal Tardini, queried: ‘But, Holy Father, you are infallible. You can make the rules of change.’ But deep down Pope John knew that the church is a community of the baptised and the bishops representing them overshadowed by the Holy Spirit would change his beloved church into the church he envisioned.
The idea of seeing the good in others and uniting with this good underpinned so much of what Pope John XXIII said and wrote in the last years of his life. After his death, the Vatican Council carried out his plan proclaiming the church to be at the service of the whole of humanity.
But even with the vast work of getting ready for the council, John XXIII’s last two years on earth were like his divine master’s death, overshadowed by the cross. As the curia and its committees prepared for the council, John noticed that many of the council documents reflected the seminary textbooks of theology used in the last two centuries.
Yet in his simplicity and humility, he had always been an optimistic and joyful person and when he thanked the central preparatory commission for their work, he added at the end that they should make themselves heralds of ‘a resplendent dawn which will break on this coming month of October’. (The council’s opening date had then been set for October 11, 1962.)
Praise from Khrushchev
He had been busy writing the encyclical Mater et Magistra which stressed many social teachings. His constant repetition of the words ‘unity’ and ‘peace’ conveyed his wish for nothing less than the unity of the world which would bring peace. August and September 1961 had seen political crises as East Germany had decided to build the Berlin Wall. Pope John appealed for peace and cited the coming council which was to bring peace among Catholics directed towards the brotherhood of peoples… ‘we feel the right and duty to call such, to those who believe in God, and in Christ, by virtue of their origin and their redemption’.
The appeal for peace was surprisingly answered by Premier Nikita Khrushchev of Russia who praised the Pope for his concern.He invited leaders like President John F Kennedy and Konrad Adenauer of Germany to take note.
This began a friendship between Khrushchev and Pope John which again arose a week after the Council started in the Cuban crisis between the United States and Russia when the Pope again appealed for ‘peace based on justice and equity’.
The communication had resulted in a last-minute resolution to send two Russian orthodox bishops to be observers at the council while the other orthodox churches sent none because of internal disputes. Later Pope John was to point out in Pacem in Terris the desirability of agreement on what was good on both sides even though the ideology and philosophy of either was not in accord.
While the future of the council did not look so good for the Pope, he himself, a month before the council was due to start, broadcast a message to the world on Vatican Radio based on Luke Chapter 2 ‘…lift up your heads…for the time draws near for your deliverance…look at any of the trees—when they put out their fruit, you know by your own experience that summer is near’.
He asked what sort of enlightenment Catholics need that they may understand better the ‘treasures of faith’ and of ‘sanctifying grace’. The whole of the rest of the speech was devoted to the enlightenment which the council will give to the rest of the world.
In his by now famous address at the council on October 11, 1962, John XXIII continued this theme to the more than 2,000 bishops and representatives. After recounting the history of councils and in particular the calling of the present one and the work that had gone into its preparation, the Pope voiced his disagreement with the ‘prophets of doom’ who ‘see nothing but ruin in modern society and that the modern era contrasted with the past is worse’ and ‘they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, nonetheless, the teacher of life’.
A new order
On the contrary, he asserted ‘Divine providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and beyond their very expectations, are directed towards the fulfilment of God’s superior and irrefutable design. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the church’.
While the church ‘should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers…the substance of the sacred doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing and the way it is presented is another’.
Church as ‘loving mother’
Pope John went on to say even though the church repressed errors in the past, often by force, it now had to show itself as ‘the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the brethren who are separated from her’.
He cites the unity and peace that must come from this firstly to Catholics then to other Christians and thirdly to those who follow non-Christian religions. The council, he says, ‘consolidates the path towards the unity of mankind which is required as a necessary foundation in order that the earthly city may be brought to the resemblance of that heavenly city where truth reigns, where charity is the law, and whose extent is eternity’.
The spirit of it also enters into the message to all humanity issued by the bishops with the endorsement by the Pope nine days after the council opened.
When the bishops showed their authority over the council a little while later by rejecting most of the documents proposed by the curia and their theologians setting up their own elected committees to draw up new documents, John XXIII must have been heartened by events.
A story pretty well authenticated is told that he left the bishops to their discussions, presided over by a cardinal president while he watched proceedings on a closed-circuit TV in his rooms.
An extrovert church
Cardinal Suenens of Belgium gave his historic speech in the debate on the church on December 4, 1962. Suenens made the distinction between the church ‘Ad Intra’ and the church ‘Ad Extra’. The first concerned the inner life of the church, the second the church’s relationship with the world beyond itself. The Pope was heard to say: ‘At last they have got to what I meant when I called this council’.
In his closing address to the first session of the council on December 8 (when he and they did not realise he would be dead within six months) John thanked them and said he looked forward to seeing them when the second session opened in September.
Opposition to progress
However, he couldn’t help wondering if the turn the council had taken in the first session could continue. There were many cardinals and bishops opposed to the progressive way the council was going.
What if the cardinals elected a conservative pope to succeed him? Even though he was dying, he put pen to paper and wrote his last encyclical Pacem in terris (Peace on earth). There could be no peace on earth for all people, he said, unless the sides united in the good they held in common even if their philosophies and theologies were not in agreement. While writing, he received Khrushchev’s son-in-law and wife in audience.
It was also the time of the Italian elections because another government had collapsed. Pius XII, his predecessor, had excommunicated those who voted communist. The Italian communists saw in the encyclical permission for Catholics who wished to vote for them and their fellow socialists (‘Opening to the Left’ it was called).
The Christian Democrats lost four million votes in the election. Many right-wing and some Catholic newspapers accused John of the Christian Democrat loss. He felt this greatly as he prepared for death. After the publication of the encyclical, he took to his bed with two weeks to live.
When his peasant farmer brother visited him, John shared his disappointment that he could not leave his bed to say Mass and the brother replied simply ‘the bed is your altar. You are the sacrifice’.
After his brother left, he recognised that this was what God was saying to him and offered his life for world peace and the success of the council.
He died on June 3, 1963, the day after Pentecost. He was an instrument of the Holy Spirit and the timing was appropriate.
The whole world, Catholic and non-Catholic, went into mourning. If it had been the early church, he would have been declared a saint by acclamation. In modern times, it takes longer, but he is already beatified with canonisation not too far off.
When I travelled in Europe in 1964, the year after Blessed John died, I saw in so many shops and cafés, the poster of Pope John and the recently assassinated President Kennedy hand-in-hand walking into heaven.
These two icons of the 1960s, the Age of Aquarius, symbolised to their contemporaries the dawning of a new age for the world of hope, peace and the unity of humankind.
Pope John’s desire for the unity of humankind was well translated in the documents of Vatican II. There were those directed principally to the internal functioning of the church like those on the liturgy, the church itself, revelation and so on (The Church Ad Intra). There were some expressing Pope John’s deep desire (The Church Ad Extra) such as the Church in the modern world, ecumenism, non-Christians and freedom, and all contained a small mixture of either.
A proud spiritual instrument
He would have been proud to have been the Holy Spirit’s instrument in pointing the church in the direction he felt was needed.
Many Catholics today feel the documents of Vatican II have borne great fruit—some feel that in the past four decades they have been diluted in their interpretation, others that they need to be interpreted more strictly, tightened and put into more legislation.
Either side can feel dispirited and most of us in between feel confused at the arguments and criticisms. I think this is where Bd John XXIII can help us. Despite our differences, let’s join together with the good we can find in each other, even though we may disagree with some people’s views.
We as Catholics have been given the gift of faith, let us learn to live with differences but still share the good that the faith manifests in others.
We can build a better church, a better world by always looking for the good we share in common and, through ecumenism, the good we see in others.
Even if just in our private relationships we could try and find the good we share with others, even those we dislike, we would be laying the groundwork for the Kingdom on earth and increasing our spirituality by sharing with each other the fulfilment we will have in heaven.
Let’s accentuate the positive in our lives as Pope John saw so clearly.