Pope John XXIII’s reign as pontiff lasted less than five years, and it is most remembered for the Council he convoked, Vatican II [1962-1965]. One of the ironies of John’s life is that he lived only through the first session, 1962, and died of stomach cancer before the second session in 1963. More than that, the only session he lived to see produced not one of the sixteen documents that comprise the corpus of Council’s teaching. And yet, before he died, he navigated the three-year planning and the operation of the first session—admittedly in trial-and-error fashion—and carried forth the Council when many were working against it and others doubted whether it was even possible.
No one from the last Council, Vatican I [1869-1870], was alive when John announced the future Vatican II. He was aware that Pope Pius XII had considered a council during the late 1940’s, to condemn errors and proclaim the Doctrine of the Assumption of Mary; Pius decided against a council by condemning the errors in his encyclical Humani Generis  and he declared the Assumption a dogma through his own infallible office. John was not certain precisely what shape his council would take, but his biographer Peter Hebblethwaite is clear that he did not want a Pius XII-style affair. “He expressed this by saying that its purpose was ‘pastoral.’ This meant it would not be primarily concerned with doctrinal questions but with the new needs of the Church and the world.” [p. 159] If the Roman Curia was sullen to the idea, the pope’s discussions with cardinals at the conclave and elsewhere convinced him that a pastoral direction might be well received.
One of the enduring myths of Vatican II is that John’s call for a council was hijacked by European liberal theologians and bishops which led to a radical outcome never intended by John. This interpretation is an aberration drawn from several realities. First, in the Western Latin Church the only outstanding schools of theology were in Western Europe. [Catholic scholarship in the U.S. was languishing and smarting from the now-famous critique of Monsignor John Tracy Ellis in 1955.] Second, Europe had experienced the full fury of two World Wars and the disillusionment with parochial Catholicism that followed. A further consideration is that despite his desire for a pastoral council, John turned the preparation of the council’s agenda over to the Curia.
Moreover, John seemed content to let major spokesmen from among the Curia explicitly define the philosophy and shape of the coming council. Cardinal Domenico Tardini in particular was not averse to taking the lecture circuit and press conferences [a new format for Vatican affairs] to make clear that he was not interested in ecumenism nor in “learning from the world.” [p. 171] From his journal and private conversations, it can be drawn that John was not overly upset by his argumentative “barons of the Church,” looking upon them as well-intentioned if not querulous uncles. He hoped to win them over despite the local jokes about the operation of the Vatican, that one official reigns, another spies, another keeps watch, another governs. And John merely blesses.” [p. 175]
The Synod of Rome consumed much of the pope’s time in 1959. Predictably the Roman Curial cardinals considered this synod [discretely] a waste of time. Even those enthused about the Council, due to start in 1962, were perplexed about the timing of this local Roman affair. Many theories have been put forward about its purpose—one of the more ludicrous being that the pope called this synod as a sop to keep the curial cardinals occupied while Vatican II was under preparation. But here is another example of underestimating this pope. John, the student of history, recalled that the Council of Trent [1545-1563] had called for local synods as the means of reforming the spiritual lives of the faithful and the clergy. In fact, many dioceses throughout Italy had held synods over the centuries; Rome had not. John convoked the Roman synod at the city’s mother church, St. John Lateran. Unfortunately, the event itself was such a dud—a reading of canonical minutiae [priests were never to be alone with a woman, the racetrack was out-of-bounds for clerics, etc.]—that, if nothing else, it lowered the bar of expectations for the council. The pope consoled himself with the thought that “nothing is perfect in this world.” [p. 179]
With Curia leaders dragging out the preparations for the Council and lowering expectations, the pope was not about to get exercised about the stalemate. But equally true, he was not going to squelch the enthusiasms for the future Council from outside Rome, either as prominent bishops and theologians began to weigh in, both on the style of the Council itself and the matters it would tend to. No theologian saw a greater window of opportunity than Hans Kung, a brilliant and youthful priest from Sursee, Switzerland and professor at the University of Tubingen [Germany] at the age of thirty-two. Kung, who had the good fortune of completing his doctoral dissertation just a few years before the Council about justification and the Christian Churches, grasped the ecumenical possibilities of the Council, intuiting the Pope John shared similar concerns for the unity of Christendom.
Kung’s research had immersed him into the workings of the Council of Trent [1545-63], again connecting to one of the Pope’s own considerable historical interests. Among his findings Kung discovered that there was no one standard formula for conducting a council, and that the future Vatican II ought to take whatever form necessary to assist the Church. Most noteworthy in terms of public relations impact was Kung’s book entitled The Council, Reform, and Reunion . In this book Kung argued that Trent has been a reform council upon which the twentieth century Catholic Church could build, and he provided seven reforms that the Council could undertake that would, among other things, bring greater union with all the Christian Churches. All seven points were eventually embodied in the final decrees of Vatican II.
Kung was hardly the first theologian to speculate on the Council—liturgical studies utilized by the Council dated back as far as the 1920’s—but Kung’s book, published jointly in English by Sheed and Ward, and Doubleday, appeared as a simple, straightforward paperback in multiple languages in the early 1960’s. It was the first book on the Council to appear in neighborhood American bookstores and to introduce the Catholic population—lay and cleric—to the possibilities of a “council,” a term which did not even appear in the standard Baltimore Catechism that I studied in the 1950’s. Scholars here in the United States, for example, reviewed this book in Catholic publications. Kung himself—who spoke multiple languages--became both a media figure and a lecturer in high demand. The Curia, working in secret on a council template with limited collegial discussion, was outraged.
Pope John himself never publicly commented on the book. But he personally invited Kung to serve as a peritus [theological expert] for the Council before it opened; Kung recommended to the pope his professorial colleague who would also make major contributions—Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. In the years leading up to the Council, it was now reasonably safe for leading scholars and church leaders to publicly discuss and advocate for issue to be addressed, regardless of what the Curia might put forward at the opening of the Council. Pope John’s biographer Peter Hebblethwaite devotes an entire chapter to the role of the Jesuit scholar Augustin Bea and his personal impact upon the pontiff. [pp. 190-198]
Augustin Bea is one of the most remarkable men produced by the Church in the twentieth century. If you have the time, his biography here is worthy of review. Bea was nearly eighty during the planning years of the Council. A Jesuit priest, biblical scholar, and confessor to the late Pope Pius XII, Bea was one of those men who engendered trust on both sides of disputed issues. And so, it came to be that when the thorny issue of ecumenism arose in the planning stages, the pope approved a special commission headed by Bea to make commendations. In Hebblethwaite’s words, “Did he [Pope John] realize he had just made the most important appointment of his pontificate?” [p. 194] Later the pope would call it one of his “silent inspirations of the Lord.”
No doubt assisted by Bea, Pope John established The Secretariat for Christian Unity, a branch of the Vatican bureaucracy that would be devoted to improving relations with separated Christians. Recall that the general principle of “outside the Church there was no salvation” was still entrenched in the minds of some Catholics. The more common and pastoral understanding in 1960 was that Protestantism [and non-Christian religions] lived in a defective relationship in separation from the one, true Catholic Church. Thus, the idea of an official branch of Catholic governance devoted to relations with other Christian Churches was a truly inspired innovation, a kind of “anti-Inquisition” if you will. Hebblethwaite writes that “John had always known that Vatican II would not be a council of reunion” in the sense of medieval councils such as Lyons and Florence. Bea stated the pope’s intention clearly: “The Holy Father hopes that the forthcoming Council may be a kind of invitation to our separated brethren, by letting them see, in its day-to-day proceedings, the sincerity, love and concord which prevail in the Catholic Church. So, we may say, rather, that the Council should make an indirect contribution to union, breaking the ground in a long-term policy of preparation for unity….” [p. 195]
Bea, by breaking the ecumenical ice, influenced multiple documents of the Council, and collaborated intimately with Pope John during the first session, though this position did not spare him the consistent enmity and surveillance of Cardinal Ottaviani of the Holy Office. The pope let them duke it out hoping for a Hegelian synthetic compromise. This did not happen, and Bea would have to wait until the Council was in full force to see his work vindicated. In December 1960 Pope John received Doctor Geoffrey Fisher, the [Anglican] Archbishop of Canterbury at the Vatican, albeit discretely. Hebblethwaite: “The Curia was hostile to this hob-nobbing with ‘dissidents.’” [p. 197] And Fisher did his best imitation of an archbishop behaving poorly, using his time in Rome to address Anglican audiences on Catholic paternalism and other faults.
With one year left to prepare for the Council, Pope John turned eighty, and as his biographer observes, he was growing more confident in his papacy and entered discussions on thorny practical details of Vatican II. Not all these matters were, strictly speaking, theological in nature. [In his outstanding history of the Council, What Happened at Vatican II (2008), John O’Malley describes the shortage of bathrooms, smoking areas, and coffee bars in Saint Peter’s. See my review on the book’s Amazon site.] In his address to the Central [planning] Commission in June 1961, Pope John reviewed many of these practical matters of the Council at considerable length. For example, the role of the periti or theological experts was considered, as well as the voting procedures and the rules of debate. On this matter of floor debate, the Curia determined that all discussions of the Council would be conducted in Latin.
Stop and think about this linguistic conundrum. Four years of complicated theological debate conducted in a language that, truth be told, very few bishops had mastered to the point of being conversational. In fact, during the first session of the Council, Cardinal Cushing of Boston famously uttered “In Latin I represent the Church of silence.” [p. 199] Cushing offered to pay for a simulcast translation in multiple languages—United Nations style--for the participants of the Council, but the Curia rejected his offer, preferring to keep participants at a disadvantage. Cushing, in a huff, went home and boycotted the Council for a year. But this was in the distant future.
Speaking of Latin, one of Pope John’s most ineffectual documents of his papacy, according to Hebblethwaite, was his Veterum Sapientia on February 22, 1962. The document reimposed the use of Latin as the teaching medium of philosophy and theology in major seminaries. There has been much speculation about why he issued this teaching when he did. Hebblethwaite suggests that since the Council floor meetings would be in Latin, it did not seem unreasonable to the Pope that priests and bishops of the future ought to at least be able to read it fluently. While John was a devout reader of Latin sources, his conversational fluency was so minimal that he practiced twice a day with a Vatican official prior to the Council. Those seminaries that tried to observe Veterum Sapientia gave it up at the end of the semester. [p. 207] One theory has it that the liturgical planning council was considering a renewal of the Mass at least partly in the vernacular, and that the Curia prompted John to push the brakes on what could be a potential runaway train by reinstating Latin in seminaries.
The Pope expressed interest in the manner that the Council would be covered by the press and the electric media. He issued a directive that “nothing which helps souls should be hidden. But in dealing with grave and serious matters, we have the duty to present them with prudence and simplicity, neither flattering vague curiosity nor indulging in the temptation of polemics.” [p. 200] As Hebblethwaite observes, this was an ambivalent directive at best, and the Curia was quick to interpret the directive as meaning all issues of the Council were “grave and serious matters” and thus, in the planning stage it was understood that the Council would be conducted in secreto. [No translation necessary.] However, one of the periti of the Council, whom we now know to be a Redemptorist American priest, entered a contractual agreement to report on the Council for the secular New Yorker Magazine for reports from the Council. Under the pseudonym “Xavier Rynne,” the American public—and much of the world—got a continuous commentary on the progress—or lack thereof—of the conciliar debates and the politics of the assembly. [See my review of Rynne’s Vatican II here.]
On his eightieth birthday the Pope received greetings from Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev. Unbeknownst to most of the world, John was quietly cultivating a relationship with Russia through the Italian Socialist Party. The Pope was not a Socialist, but rather, as his pontificate progressed, he became much more worried about war and peace, particularly in the nuclear milieu. Historians cite his involvement in the settlement of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He would write his most famous encyclical, Pacem in Terris [“Peace on Earth”] in April 1963, two months before his death.
In November 1961, a general meeting of the planning board of the Council was convened. Composed of curial officials, senior bishops, and a sprinkling of periti, the body was tightly controlled by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Prefect of the Vatican’s Holy Office. There was considerable grumbling when Ottaviani revealed his blueprint for the council; he called for a new “Profession of Faith” that would repeat the anti-Modernist oath [of Pope Pius IX], repudiation of the errors of “the new theology,” affirmation of the difference between priests and laity, and denunciation of those who “spoke with exaggerated emphasis about the Church’s guilt and sinfulness.” [p. 206] In truth, this agenda could have been submitted in 1860 with virtually no change, which led the visiting planning bishops to ask, “so why are we meeting at all?” Ottaviani’s blueprint did not sound very much like the Pope’s call for aggiornamento, “opening the windows for fresh air.” The United States bishops’ representatives did not understand the Latin, either, and depended upon an elderly English cleric for summaries of the debates.
Unknown to everyone on the eve of the Council were the results of a physical examination of September 23, 1962. Pope John was informed that stomach cancer—a scourge which had claimed several members of his family—was well-advanced and would claim his life in the not-too-distant future. The Pope did not reveal his condition publicly. But when asked what his role would be at Vatican II, he always answered the same way: “My role in the council is to suffer.” [p. 218]
Biographer Peter Hebblethwaite begins his narrative of Angelo Roncalli’s/Pope John XXIII’s papacy with a quote from Time Magazine published barely three weeks after his election on October 28, 1958: “If anyone expected Roncalli to be a mere caretaker Pope, providing a transition to the next reign, he destroyed the notion within minutes of his election…He stomped in boldly like the owner of the place, throwing open windows and moving furniture around.” [p. 144] Of course, his first matter of business was choosing his name. Only a Church historian could appreciate the humor in the fact that during the Great Schism there had been a John XXIII, a pseudo-pope of such poor character that the common wisdom held the name John to be unsuitable for any future pope. But Roncalli was a historian, too, and realized that the importance of the Apostle John should continue to be commemorated in the papal line, and indeed later in the century both John Paul I [r. 1978] and John Paul II [r. 1978-2005] would take the name of the Apostle ‘whom Jesus loved.” [p. 145]
Pope John appointed his secretary of state, Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the very next day. In truth, the two men were not particularly close, but the pope, who had not served in Rome since 1925 and did not know the inner workings of the Curia, wanted the counsel of an old hand. Hebblethwaite writes that the new pope was highly sensitive and respectful of the Curia, hoping to win their support for the reforms he had in mind, but added that “Later, Pope John would pay a painful price for this kid-gloved handling of the Curia; but as an opening move it was tactically shrewd.” [p. 147] Another early and interesting selection by the new pope was that of his confessor, and it became his practice to make a weekly confession at 3 PM on Friday, the hour of Christ’s death on the cross.
Roncalli’s coronation lasted five hours, in part because he broke with custom and decided to preach. It was a groundbreaking homily, for in it the new pope said, in effect, that he was not going to imitate his predecessor as the master of all things. He described himself in these terms: “The new Pope, through the events and circumstances of his life, is like the son of Jacob who, meeting with his brothers, burst into tears and said, “I am Joseph, your brother.” [p. 150] It had been a great many years since any pontiff had identified his ministry in these terms. One might have to go back all the way to Saint Peter, and even then, only on the Apostle’s good days. By comparison, consider biographer Roland Hill’s account of the English Catholic layman Lord Acton’s audience with Pius IX just a century before: “He [Pius IX] leaned forward and gave us his hand to shake than merely to kiss, very gracefully and raised us up by it—without allowing us to kiss his red-shoed foot. He made us all sit down.” [Hill, p. 79]
Pope John used his first days in office to introduce the idea “that a pope above all should be “pastoral.” One of the early groups to experience this fraternal outreach was the secular press corps. Two days after his coronation he met with the press for an informal conference, without prepared notes. He told the journalists that he had enjoyed reading their news coverage of how the world was responding to events in Rome. Then he added a truly funny aside when he said that was also reading their papers “to learn the secrets of the conclave.” Hebblethwaite notes that the pope’s friendliness and warmth won over the writers: “some tough-minded journalists admitted afterward and in private, to tears.” [p. 151]
The pivotal decision by the new pope—and it was made early in his papacy—was the decision to call an ecumenical council, which would ultimately be named Vatican II. How the decision was made—and when it was made—is an intriguing narrative that different historians have treated in diverse ways. Hebblethwaite’s account is the most detailed. He reports that on the night before Roncalli’s election in the conclave, when it appeared that he would be elected pope, he was visited in his room by Cardinals Ruffini and Ottaviani, the latter the head of the Vatican’s Holy Office and arguably the most influential of the Curial Cardinals. Ruffini had suggested the idea of a council to the newly elected Pius XII in 1939, and twenty years later he made the same pitch to John XXIII.
That Ottaviani—who proved to be one of the most oppositional forces in the unfolding of Vatican II—should be an inspiration for its calling is difficult to digest from our vantage point in history. However, it is very possible that Ottaviani had in mind the templates of at least the previous two councils—Trent [1545-1563] and Vatican I [1869-1870]—which solidified the doctrine and discipline of the Church. It turned out, however, that neither Ottaviani nor Ruffini knew the inner dispositions of the new pope and the kind of council he would endorse. Hebblethwaite quotes from the new pope’s diary Pope John’s encounters with cardinals from outside of Rome who came to pay their respects before departing for home. He heard “the expectations of the world and the good impression that the new Pope could make. I listened, noted everything down, and continued to wonder what to do—concretely and immediately.” [p. 157]
It is extremely hard to know—even in our most private selves—when and how we make the pivotal decisions of our lives. So it may be that we will never know the precise moment that Pope John XXIII decided to call a council. If I had to guess, I would say that during his tenure as Patriarch of Venice, where he was a very active “peoples’ bishop” and rumors began to circulate that he was papabile, a “papal candidate,” so to speak, he must have begun to pray and reflect upon the kind of pope the world needed in the post-war nuclear era. It was truly a gift of the Spirit that the new pope came to decide that a new council should not follow the template of previous ones. As Hebblethwaite puts it, “Becoming pope had not magically endowed him with instant solutions for the universal Church. The best course would be to get all the bishops thinking about these problems together.” [p. 157] From the vantage point of history, Pope John’s council would be a true synod, a “walk together.”
The new pope was acutely aware that time was not on his side. He celebrated his 77th birthday shortly after his election, and in reviewing the history of previous councils, he noted that Vatican I had taken six years to prepare. On the other hand, this was 1959 and not 1863, and travel and technology might facilitate preparation for a Council that, for all purposes, looked like a one-year session at most. However, time was the least of his problems, as he discovered on Sunday, January 25, when he assembled the nineteen curial cardinals to make his formal announcement.
Frankly, the “rollout” at St. Paul’s Beyond the Walls was a mess. The pope attempted to do too many things and serve too many masters in making his announcement. The occasion was the final day of the Church Unity Octave, the eight-day annual novena of prayer for the reunion of the Church, an observance still celebrated today in Roman Catholicism. The day was chosen as a fitting backdrop to announce a council that, in the pope’s mind, would be a brotherly outreach to all peoples of good will. However, the content of the pope’s address was geared toward winning over the conservative cardinals. To reach them, he resorted to language they might understand and embrace. Hebblethwaite summarizes: “He still seemed to be using borrowed language when he went on to deplore the ‘lack of discipline and the loss of the old moral order’ which had, he claimed, reduced the Church’s capacity to deal with error. This pessimism about the present state of the world—sunk in error and in the grip of Satan—so contradicts Pope John’s usual attitudes that some explanation is called for. The simplest is that this address had one precise goal: to win over the cardinals to his project of a Council. To assist this process, he reflected the views he knew they held.” [p. 162]
The pope complicated matters further by announcing three events at the same time: a council, a synod of the Diocese of Rome, and a revision of Canon Law. One could argue that the Rome Synod would serve as a “dry run” for the Council, though that was a stretch. The Code of Canon Law was revised—in 1983! —so there was hardly any urgency about the Code that should have distracted from the main agenda, the ecumenical council. As is well documented by historians, the cardinals received the news in cold, sullen silence. Pope John was bitterly disappointed at the response. In his car on the way back to the Vatican he said to his companion, “It’s not a matter of my personal feelings. We are embarked on the will of the Lord…Now I need silence and recollection. I feel tired of everyone, of everything.” [p. 163]
The ultimate “downer” of the day was its coverage in the press. L’Osservatore Romano, the daily Vatican paper, ran the pope’s grim, anti-Communism reflections to the cardinals on the front page, and buried the announcement of the council on the inside. The good news—though it was not yet visible or widely appreciated—was the reality that many bishops and theologians, particularly in Europe, understood both the pope’s vision and the need for a council of hope and healing. In the coming days they would not let him down.
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