"John XXIII: Pope of the Century" by Peter Hebblethwaite--Part 4--Six Years in Venice and the Papal Election of the Century
On November 14, 1952, Angelo Roncalli, the Vatican Nuncio to France, received a private correspondence from Pope Pius XII asking if he was prepared to succeed the patriarch [archbishop] of Venice in the event of his death, which was believed to be imminent. It appears from Roncalli’s private correspondence that an appointment to Venice was one assignment he would certainly enjoy. Dating back to 1925 and his troubles with Mussolini and Pope Pius XI during the negotiations of a Concordat between the Vatican and Mussolini’s fascist state—an arrangement Roncalli publicly criticized—the former Vatican bureaucrat had been exiled to some of the most difficult Vatican posts in Europe, complicated by the rise of Nazi Germany and the horrors of World War II and its aftermath, including the descent of the Iron Curtain. Consider his diplomatic career to this point—Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and France. And while it is hard to resist the charms of Paris in the springtime, Roncalli’s time with “the Daughter of the Church” was marked by a long and acerbic recovery between those French who submitted to the Petain [occupation] regime and the resistance movement identified forcefully in the persona of Charles de Gaulle.
A few weeks later Pius XII announced a consistory of cardinals at which 24 new candidates would receive the red hat, including Roncalli. This was not exactly a blessing for Roncalli—if the sitting patriarch of Venice survived a few years longer, “Cardinal Roncalli” would have been assigned to the Curia, a place where he was little known and generally considered a lightweight. But on December 29, 1952, Roncalli read in his morning paper that the Venetian Patriarch had died, and he would thus be sending his luggage to Venice and not to Rome. Privately, he was delighted.
It is worthwhile here to pause and examine the Consistory of Cardinals conducted on January 12, 1953. As Roncalli’s biographer Peter Hebblethwaite observes, “Though no one realized it at the time, it completed the college that would elect [Pius XII’s] successor, and therefore the next pope was somewhere among their number.” [p. 117] Consequently, as no more cardinals were added to the college before Pius XII’s death, and several deaths and detentions in Iron Curtain countries cut into the 1953 number, the conclave that would elect Pius XII’s successor would prove to be ridiculously small by today’s number, 53, if one can imagine that. In today’s math, 130 cardinals are eligible to vote; if the relatively modern rule of not voting past eighty is not considered, 226 cardinals could vote.
In the back of his mind Angelo Roncalli realized that, as a cardinal, he was a hypothetical candidate for the papacy. It did not seem to be a preoccupation except in 1954, for Pius XII’s health was a major concern, at least among those in the know, and it is now known that the pope subjected himself to radical and experimental treatments that kept him alive until 1958. Pope Leo X [r. 1513-1521] is quoted as saying “God hath given us the papacy; therefore, let us enjoy it.” The new patriarch Roncalli was hardly this crass, but of all his assignments, his years in Venice were clearly his happiest. Again, recall that Roncalli was an excellent researcher and historian. He understood that Venice, once a true world power, began her fall when Portugal’s Vasco de Gama and Spain’s Christopher Columbus established trade routes that bypassed this military and economic giant in the fifteenth century.
Hebblethwaite summarizes Roncalli’s thoughts of Venice: “Now it had crumbling palaces and pockets of poverty. It came to life in its festivals—of cinema, painting, and music—when it provided a picturesque décor for international jetsetters. In the summer it was crowded out with tourists, artists, and nouveaux riches. But the population of this historic city was declining as the young looked for work in Marghera and Mestre, by now large industrial towns…as patriarch he saw another Venice that the tourist posters preferred to ignore.” [p. 118] Ironically, I was in Venice earlier this year and my tour guide described the city almost verbatim except to note that in a few years Venice’s population would fall below 30,000 and would be no longer tenable as a city, and more as a Disney-like showcase with limited access.
Patriarch Roncalli struck a happy medium for a proud city facing many problems from the very start. He permitted the custom of the parade of boats through the main canals on the day of his installation and immediately became a highly visible part of the city’s life. He enjoyed taking the vaporetto, the “water bus,” much to the chagrin of his chauffeur. He wanted to know his city from the ground up, and as Christmas approached, he involved himself in assisting the “migrant workers” or those who returned to Venice after working elsewhere most of the year. “I am like the mother of a poor family who is entrusted with so many children.” [p. 118]
As a historian he endeared himself to the city with his interests in restorations and cultural events, including the restoration of the Benedictine Abbey on the island of San Giorgio, across the bay from St. Mark’s Cathedral. He met regularly with the full range of city officials, blessing the soccer teams and the new tankers. But it may have been a 1954 address on the silver anniversary of Mussolini’s Concordat with the Vatican that earned him a measure of national and ecclesiastical recognition. Mussolini’s recognition of the Vatican State—despite every grim event to follow—held a near sacred status among traditional Catholics in Italy and certainly in the Vatican. Roncalli, who had never bought into the cult of Mussolini, concluded his remarks deftly on Mussolini and the Lateran Pact: “So we have to entrust this humbled soul [Mussolini] to the mystery of divine mercy which sometimes chooses vessels of clay for the realization of its plans, and then breaks them, as though they had been made for this purpose alone.” [p. 122]
Roncalli’s assessment of Mussolini and the Lateran Pact of 1929 served, as Hebblethwaite puts it, “more like a healing of the Italian national psyche.” And it certainly proved the career diplomat and archbishop could navigate difficult waters. Did Roncalli himself, or others in the Church, begin to consider him a papabile, a candidate for the papacy? It is an interesting question, because Pius XII’s health issues became known throughout the Church and the universal observance of the Marian Year. As general speculation of a papal election conclave circulated that year, Roncalli confided that a conclave would interfere with his plans for a pastoral visitation of his parishes followed by a Synod of his diocese. However, the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination fell on August 10, 1954, and Roncalli revealed a rarely seen temper at plans to celebrate the day with fanfare. As Hebblethwaite puts it, “One reason he wanted to lie low for his golden jubilee celebration was that gossip and speculation continued to present him as eminently papabile.” 
Pius XII did not die in 1954, and exercised his energy by “sacking” Giovanni Montini, Vatican Secretary of State, by naming him Archbishop of Milan. Montini was one of Roncalli’s closest friends, and in 1963 Montini would succeed Roncalli as Pope Paul VI. But that was far off in the future. In the moment it was a reminder that ecclesiastic authority was cursed with a paternalism and ruthlessness that wounded those who served and revered the Church. Privately Roncalli had thought that Montini would succeed Pius XII though the latter had deliberately withheld the red hat from his secretary of state. Historians believe the actual reason for Montini’s “demotion” was his perceived openness to leftist influences [including the Catholic novelist Graham Greene!]
Pius managed to live for four more years, during which Roncalli attended to a wide range of pastoral interests in his home diocese, including the lay apostolate and ecumenism. In 1957 he conducted a synod of the archdiocese of Venice in which he used the term aggiornamento [Italian, “bringing up to date”] for the first time. It would be a mistake to compare the operations of a 1957 Venetian synod to the wide-open 2022 synodal model of Pope Francis, though great care had been given to provide for universal participation. But Roncalli spoke on all three days of the event on the theme of episcopal authority, specifically its excesses in authoritarianism and paternalism. A good bishop, in his view, invited collaboration with and from his flock.
When Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, Roncalli was just short of 77 years old as he packed his bags for the ordeal of his first papal conclave—and conclaves, even today—are physical as well as emotional, political, and religious ordeals. Did he plan to come back to Venice? It is joked in Rome that the cardinal who enters a conclave as pope comes out a cardinal. Did Roncalli head to Rome as a dutiful cardinal or a hopeful papabile? It seems something of both.
“Hopeful” is probably too strong a word. We must take the man at his word when the senior officer of the Election Conclave, Cardinal Eugene Tisserant [a librarian by profession] put the fateful question to Roncalli, after the deciding ballot, “Do you accept?” Roncalli, who had known the moment was coming for at least twenty-four hours, replied; “Listening to your voice, ‘I tremble and am seized with fear.’ But what I know of my poverty and smallness is enough to cover me with confusion. But seeing the sign of God’s will in the votes of my brother cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, I accept the decision they have made; I bow my head before the cup of bitterness and my shoulders before the yoke of the cross. On the Feast of Christ the King, we all sang: ‘The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us. [Isaiah 33:22]” [p. 144]
The popular wisdom I was taught and read for years is that after the long and controversial reign of Pius XII [r. 1939-1958] the electors were seeking an uncontroversial caretaker pope of senior years to give the Church some breathing space to collect itself before regrouping to plan its way into the balance of the century. It is closer to the truth, in retrospect, to say that the electors did not want another Pius XII. For it seems that Pius’s papacy had exhausted them with encyclicals, new feasts, doctrines, holy years, liturgical changes, and the like at a time when Italy was still recovering from the terrors of World War II. When Roncalli arrived in Rome, one of the first pieces of advice he was given as a papabile was “no more new feasts.” Roncalli’s easy temperament and comfort with tradition would have been a welcomed reprieve.
Roncalli’s election, in the popular telling, has always been greeted with surprise given his age. But consider that Pius XII had been lax about naming cardinals. One of the funniest lines in Hebblethwaite’s book involves a 1958 encounter before the Conclave between Roncalli and Cardinal Elia Della Costa, the archbishop of Florence, who told his friend he would be a good pope. Roncalli protested: “But I’m 76!” To which Della Costa responded, “That’s ten years younger than me.” [p. 134] The entire voting conclave flexed old.
Pius was notoriously lax about maintaining the College of Cardinals. He held only two cardinal conclaves—appointments of new members—in twenty years, the last one in 1953 which included Roncalli himself as the new Cardinal/Patriarch of Venice. Pope Sixtus V [r. 1585-1590] capped the number of cardinals at 70, and Pius XII restored that number in 1953. But deaths took their toll. In 1958 only 53 cardinals voted in the critical papal election. [Cardinal Mooney of Detroit died on the way, and two Cardinals were held behind the Iron Curtain.] By contrast, there are currently 120 cardinals eligible to vote for the successor of Pope Francis as of this writing. Recall, too, that in Roncalli’s day  only Italians were elected popes—the papacies of John Paul II [Poland], Benedict XVI [Germany] and Francis [Argentina] were still two decades and more down the road.
In this 1953 conclave, ten of the twenty-four new cardinals were Italians—and eight of them were assigned to Vatican positions within Rome. Only Roncalli [Venice] and Siri [Genoa] lived and worked outside of Rome and thus had an opportunity to break from the pack, so to speak, to distinguish themselves, as Roncalli had with his national speech on Mussolini and the Lateran Pact. In other years Siri might have been the favorite, given his energy and brilliance. Siri was only 52 at the papal conclave but there was little appetite in 1958 for the election of a potential 30-year pope. He would run—unsuccessfully—in later conclaves.
Roncalli’s strongest opponent would prove to be Cardinal Gregory Peter Agagianian. Agagianian was running as a “non-Italian pope,” citing his birth in Akhaltsikhe [Georgia, southern Russia] in 1895 and promoting his possibilities for the Church as an “Eastern pope.” Agagianian is the only candidate Roncalli disparaged [though subtly.] He observed to friends that the term “Eastern” was so broad as to be meaningless—do Indians think like Chinese, he mused. Moreover, wherever his birth, Agagianian was an ensconced Vatican bureaucrat of many years as head of the Propaganda of the Faith Office. He would not be exactly a breach of fresh Oriental air.
Roncalli discretely made the rounds to the “kingmakers” throughout Rome during the weeks of Pius XII’s funeral and days of mourning, and he attended the interminable briefings for the electors. He discovered that the mood of the inner chambers of the Vatican was grim. Pius XII’s final years were marked by the excessive power of his personal attendant, Sister Pasqualina, and accusations of nepotism. Roncalli was so rattled by tales of Pius XII’s family entanglements that he gave strict orders to his relatives to avoid Rome at all costs whether he won the election or not. Hebblethwaite, writing in the 1980’s, probably did not have full access to sources for Sister Pasqualina, who appears to be treated more favorably in very recent biographies. Hebblethwaite does include something of a troubling metaphor of the farewell to Pius XII—a grim tale of how the dead pontiff’s body exploded inside his casket in front of the Church of St. John Lateran, the result of the pope having been poorly embalmed by an eye doctor. [p. 132] Roncalli found the full funeral experience ghastly.
As much as the papal funeral troubled him, it was the growing prospect of his own election that gave him his own dark night of the soul. The powers that be were now asking him pointed questions—for example, would he bring back Montini from France and make him Vatican Secretary of State? The “correct” answer for election was no, and Roncalli gave assurances to that effect, to which he was faithful after his election. [He did award his old friend a red hat almost immediately after his election, however.] But one of the most misunderstood dynamics of this papal election is the discussion of a Church Council. Did the idea of a future council play any role in the papal election of 1958?
Again, the popular narrative regarding the call to an ecumenical council is that the idea emanated from Roncalli after his election to the papacy, that he sprung it like a lightning bolt upon the curial cardinals in 1959, and that they hated the idea. But this may be a gross simplification based upon a later presumption of 1958 attitudes and outlooks. What we now know is that the idea of a council was at least a part of the puzzle of Roncalli’s election.
Several sources—breaking the oath of secrecy—reported afterward on the dynamic of the eleven ballots cast in the conclave. In the early voting Roncalli ran two votes ahead of Agagianian but without the necessary majority. Agagianian lost support as voters turned to Cardinal Luigi Massala, Archpriest of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, a favorite of those who felt that Roncalli was not smart enough for the papal office. However, Roncalli held his own after two days. And here begins one of the most intriguing aspects of this conclave. On the evening of the second day of the voting, Roncalli received a visit from Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini. History remembers Ottaviani as the conservative curial administrator who attempted to foil the will of the majority bishops at every turn during Vatican II.
But here we see a different picture. During a 1968 interview, and a follow-up assertion in 1975, Ottaviani claims that he, and many other cardinals, told Roncalli that “we think we need to have a council.” [p. 142] Evidently these two curial giants—Ottaviani and Ruffini—believed that Roncalli’s election was safe when they made this proposal, and Ottaviani writes that Roncalli made the idea his own. Consequently, Roncalli was elected the following day.
I first read Hebblethwaite’s description of these events with considerable skepticism. By 1968 the first published books and assessments of Vatican II were being devoured by an interested Catholic public [yes, there was such a thing at one time], and every one of those books most surely contained the dramatic account of the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Josef Frings, who, in the course of a speech to the Council fathers on November 8, 1963, denounced the methods of Ottaviani’s Holy Office as “unsuitable for the times” and a “scandal.” It would not be surprising if Ottaviani was attempting a little revisionist history to preserve his good name in the next centuries of the Church’s annals.
On the other hand, it may be that Ottaviani genuinely hoped for a council and extracted a promise from Roncalli to do for the Church what the latter had just completed in Venice, a reform synod. This makes sense if we remember that Ottaviani’s use of the word “council” [and certainly the word “reform”] would be colored by the two previous councils of the Church, Trent [1545-1563] and Vatican I , Trent was a refutation of Protestant errors and a reform of the Church as institution. Vatican I was a refutation of the modern world and the infallible assertion of papal authority. For a powerful curial administrator like Ottaviani, what was there not to like about a new council to clean up modern errors?
Ottaviani was too smart a man to spell out for Roncalli what a future council might look like—i.e., whose heads should be impaled on spikes. And Roncalli, more listener than asserter, probably made no specific promises regarding agenda or outcomes. In truth, the idea of a council had been brought up at least twice by previous popes after each World War. [If my analysis is correct, the great irony is that Pope John later allowed Ottaviani to oversee the initial working drafts of Vatican II. These drafts were strongly rejected by most bishops who took the Council into the direction we recognize today, probably in the direction John had hoped for in the beginning.]
In any case, the next day, on the eleventh ballot, white smoke appeared from the chimney. The now former Patriarch of Venice would be known hereafter by a new name. “I will be called John.”
After two decades of difficult diplomatic service in Vatican bureaucratic exile in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, it is hard to imagine another post for the aging Vatican diplomat Angelo Roncalli more challenging than the first three. However, in December 1944 he was appointed papal nuncio to France under the most curious circumstances. Biographer Peter Hebblethwaite describes the assignment in considerable detail in his biography of Pope John XXIII [pp. 96ff]. I will do my best to summarize this intriguing turn of events.
In many ways Roncalli owed his appointment to Charles de Gaulle, the hero of French resistance during the Vichy collaboration with Nazi Germany. The D-Day Invasion of Normandy took place in June 1944, and with allied advances and the liberation of France clearly on the horizon, the day of internal reckoning was approaching for France, divided between the collaborators and the resistance. The Church was hardly exempt from such division to the point that in June 1944 de Gaulle met with Pope Pius XII to discuss the French situation. The French leader was particularly concerned that the current papal nuncio to France was cozy with the Vichy government, and de Gaulle demanded his replacement. Pius XII refused, at least until he learned that Russia was recognizing the newly constituted de Gaullist government and sending its own diplomat to France. Pius XII correctly viewed the major postwar threat to be totalitarian communism, and Russia’s aggressive diplomacy with de Gaulle’s resistance government was deeply disturbing to the pope.
Fearful of ending up on the losing side, diplomatically, the Vatican selected a new candidate to serve as nuncio to France, but he turned down the offer for health reasons. The war had exhausted the pool of potential Vatican diplomats, and thus, the position went down the bench to Roncalli, a man almost forgotten in Rome and a total unknown to France. Hebblethwaite reports that Pius XII’s appointment of Roncalli, who was still regarded as nondescript in the inner circles of the Vatican, was thought by some as a sign of the pope’s displeasure with de Gaulle’s attitude and policies. Roncalli, now sixty-three, harbored no illusions about his new assignment and how it fell to him. He joked that “where horses are lacking, the donkeys trot along.”
And yet, on January 1, 1945, it was Roncalli in his new position who announced to the French nation its formal recognition by the Vatican. Hebblethwaite summarizes the nuncio’s address in a way that describes Roncalli’s challenge: “…in the eyes of the Vatican the Vichy regime had been an aberration in which France had lost her liberty and her place among the nations. The quarrel about legitimacy was over: full and ungrudging recognition was given to the provisional [de Gaulle] government. At the same time there was a hint…that the work of purging should be carried out with restraint and without splitting the nation irrevocably.” [p. 99]
In truth, the French Church was in serious trouble long before World War II and the Vichy government. Think back to the French Revolution  and the rise of Napoleon, an era of strong backlash against crown and church. In the modern post Napoleonic era the Catholic Church in France was losing the loyalties of the “blue collar” population. So serious was the problem that in 1943 certain members of the French hierarchy—notably Cardinal Suhard--inaugurated what has become known as “The Worker Priest Movement.” To overcome the alienation of the working class—and their growing socialist sentiments—a small but intense number of French parish priests were released from parochial responsibilities to work side by side with laborers on the docks and in the factories, to earn credibility and demonstrate the Church’s interests in the pastoral and economic welfare of the common people. Pius XII called a halt to the experiment in the 1950’s when a number of the worker priests became political activists in Socialist parties, but the experiment demonstrates the old and new divisions in French society and in the Church—between the Vichy loyalists and the French resistance, for example, and the conservative rich and the struggling working class as another.
France was Roncalli’s first assignment as a major diplomat with the full powers of the office. In Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, he had been a successful nuncio because Catholics were a minority of the population, and he could conduct his work in the style of the good pastor that he was instinctively. But in France, as he confided to a friend, he felt like he was “walking on live coals.’ [p. 100] The new French government called for the removal of “collaborationist bishops,” i.e., those bishops who acquiesced to the Vichy regime during World War II. The Interior Ministry provided the nuncio with a list of bishops whom it considered major collaborators, and another list of what it considered to be suitable replacements.
Roncalli was hesitant to cooperate on the grounds that civil rulers were attempting to appoint bishops, a throwback to the “Lay Investiture Controversy” of the eleventh century, and he wondered aloud if the sitting bishops should be judged so harshly, given the fact that during the war, mistakenly or not, the Vichy government was considered the law of the land. His diplomatic counterpart contended that the continuing ministry of these collaborators was dividing Catholic laity and complicating the enormous challenge of social reunification of France, not to mention fueling a new wave of anticlericalism. In fairness, Roncalli had not been in France long enough to absorb these nuances—he spoke minimal French—and as nuncio he was Rome’s man in France, not vice versa.
In the end, only a handful of bishops were quietly retired with pension, and the future pope found time to engage in his personal passion, historical research. During his early years in France Roncalli seemed uninvolved in a new wave of French theological scholarship and vitality which produced several of the personalities who would significantly impact Vatican II, including Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, and Henri de Lubac. However, the era of 1945-1955 was not a congenial one for visionaries. Pius XII issued Humani Generis in 1950 in which he condemned “the new theology,” and that same year he declared the Assumption of the Virgin Mary a doctrine of the Church—which troubled scholars who argued that there is nothing in the Bible to justify the doctrine, all things considered. Many career theologians in France and elsewhere were silenced by the Church and/or forbidden to teach. [In the United States, the Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray was silenced in 1954 for his writings on religious freedom and freedom of conscience.]
Hebblethwaite’s biography underscores something of the mystery of Roncalli’s personal “working theology.” Those who knew him and worked with him in France found the nuncio hard to reconcile with his later persona as a progressive pope. The truth is that he was neither as conservative as he seemed in France nor as liberal as he seemed in his five years as pope. As a pastor at heart—and with a long record of successful pastoral ministry throughout his life—he was troubled by what he saw in France. In his journal he expresses “a certain disquiet concerning the real state of this ‘eldest daughter of the Church’ and some of her obvious failings. I am concerned about the practice of religion, the unresolved question of the schools, the lack of clergy, and the spread of secularism and communism. My plain duty in these matters may come down to a matter of how much and how far. But the Nuncio is unworthy to be considered the ear and the eye of Holy Church if he simply praises all he sees, including what is troublesome and wrong.” [p. 108]
Roncalli was not an expert theologian, but he was a good historian. Roncalli certainly appreciated the fact that in his lifetime he had witnessed moral collapse of apocalyptic proportions—two world wars, the Holocaust. He might have been forgiven if he believed that after the defeats of Germany and Japan the Church might return to its status quo, which in fact was the prevailing consensus among institutional Church leaders at that time. But as his memoir indicates, he was troubled by the serious problems facing the Church in postwar France. Whether or not France’s “new theologians” influenced him is hard to say, more likely not so much. But Roncalli’s strength was not theology as much as “reading the streets;” it was the pastoral care of souls which shaped his thinking on the welfare of the Church. He was pained that his position in France did not give him much opportunity to exercise his preferred face-to-face pastoral ministry, but what he did see was enough to convince him that “the eldest daughter of the Church” was in grave difficulty, and if French Catholicism was ailing, it was likely that much of Western Catholicism was not much better off, even if Catholics in countries like the United States were not yet quite as aware of a weakening of their infrastructure. It is interesting that everything Roncalli confided to his journal about the malaise of 1947 French Catholicism can be applied to the Catholicism of 2022 in the United States.
Roncalli would not remain in France long enough to solve its problems. In 1953, at age 73, he received what was thought to be his last Church appointment. He was named Cardinal by Pope Pius XII and sent to Venice as its Patriarch [Archbishop]. It is not too much of a stretch to call this last appointment Roncalli’s “gold watch” appointment for years of service to the diplomatic corps. He knew Venice well, as it was close to his birthplace, and he looked forward to a return to fulltime pastoral engagement. It was a good place to end a long and arduous career of pressure diplomacy. If Roncalli had died in Venice, he would have passed on as a happy man. But God had other plans.
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