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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