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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