The Third Session of Vatican II ended in November, 1964, in something of an agitated state, with consternation among the bishops about the stage management of the final days on the final schemas on Ecumenism and Religious Liberty. A number of participants, upon return home, chose to emphasize the achievements of Session Three, of which there were many. Probably no one went to greater efforts in this regard than the 83-year-old Cardinal Bea, who in February, 1965, addressed the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. His visit in itself was groundbreaking, and he addressed the body on Session Three, attempting in the process to soothe the troubled waters of the final days when the Ecumenical document suffered some unseemly moments with administrative scissors. Acknowledging the hope of Christian reunion, one of the delegates at Geneva coined the memorable phrase, that reunion was “the only hope for a united world, but we must not expect the millennium to be delivered with the morning milk.”
Back in Rome, the Italian weekly L’Expresso summarized its editorial judgment that Paul VI was “not a popular pope.” Xavier Rynne considered this judgment unfair, but he does acknowledge that the circumstances of the end of Session Three led to considerable international discussion about the pope’s personal manner and style of leadership. Rynne observes that Paul contrasted with the effusive warmth of John XXIII or the awe of Pius XII; as something of an introvert, and certainly an intellectual, Paul VI found himself in circumstances where his many gifts were, in fact, something of a detriment. In truth, the Council was attempting to undertake long-overdue repairs of centuries-old policies and attitudes, but forced to do so in very short time and without the help of a cooperative management team. Paul was a smarter man than John in many ways, and I have no doubt that he gave considerable thought to the implications of each reform put forward by the Council. John, by contrast, would have been more inclined to leave concerns for the future to the Holy Spirit and address present-day issues with gusto.
Paul’s greatest personal agony, according to Rynne, was his fear for the papacy itself. In Rynne’s words, “It was as if he were tortured by the thought that the world might forget who the pope really was, at a time when the world has never known better.” (429) It is easy to forget that the concept of the papacy, the pope as Vicar of Christ, was one of the pillars of Catholic belief, and in a curious way a guarantee of all doctrines, in the mind of a 1950’s Catholic.
What Pope Paul was not prepared for was the backlash against his use of what he deemed as appropriate exercise of his office in the final days of Session Three. Reaction of much of the world press was strongly negative and in some quarters intensely so, to a degree not previously experienced. Paul himself expressed his pain to journalists over the “low level of tone” in reporting on Session Three. Archbishop Felici, less helpfully, compared newsmen to “parasites and fungi.” (431) Unfortunately, in Rynne’s opinion, the Curial mindset was not disposed to analyze criticism, to see what seeds of truth the day’s harvest of bad news might include. And, in respect to the pope’s vision of the papacy, the Curia would never admit a mistake.
An encouraging or discouraging sign of continuing stress was a letter written by the Curia’s Cardinal Cicognani, to the entire Curia, at the pope’s order. The Curia was reminded of the widespread criticisms of its actions in Session Three. Its members were told to “show docility to the reforms which will be decreed in the future.” The Curia was also ordered to stop squabbling with the bishops over the work of the Council. If you were a “glass half-full” kind of person, there was the hope in that the pope was telling his household to get with the program. For the “glass half-empty” folks, the very need for such a letter spelled trouble down the road.