It will be sixty years next week, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, that the first of four sessions of Vatican II adjourned after a grueling two months of work. The formal close of the first session was overshadowed by the realization that Pope John XXIII, the pontiff who had called the Council back in 1959, was dying. The pope’s declining health was obvious to everyone. In attendance the Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, observed “What was intended as au revoir turned into an adieu.” [p. 239] There was a certain degree of anxiety among the bishops about the future of the Council, as councils are automatically disbanded at the death of a pope until [or if] the next pope chooses to reconvene it.
I strongly recommend John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II  for an excellent description of the preparation of the Council and the rejection of the presented agenda by the bishops in that first session of 1962. [See my Amazon review of O’Malley’s book here.] In brief, suffice to say that when Pope John established the various working committees to draw up the discussion drafts for the Council, he turned to the Roman Curial departments to organize and complete this work. The Roman Curia had responded quite negatively to the pope’s announcement of the Council in 1959, so it may seem surprising that the preparatory work for the Council was entrusted to men who were less than enthusiastic about it in the first place.
In truth, the pope was limited in his options. The Curia was the only functioning bureaucracy in Catholicism capable of preparing for a council with a three-year deadline. In addition, Pope John was enough of a loyal traditionalist that he would not intentionally embarrass or diminish the reputations of men who had served the church for decades. And, at some level, he perhaps hoped to win their approval for the aggiornamento or winds of change he believed were permeating the Church through the Holy Spirit.
The Curia recruited eight hundred persons to prepare the Council drafts, though as author Peter Hebblethwaite points out, many of the greatest theological minds in the Latin West were excluded for what we would call today “progressive methodology.” Among those excluded: Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves-Marie Congar, and the American priest-scholars John Courtney Murray and John L. McKenzie. What the Curia—operating in secret--could not control was the growing interest in the Council as discussed in the secular media and in popular writing, including the Swiss theologian Hans Kung’s The Council, Reform and Reunion.  See America Magazine’s review of this work here. Kung’s book, eminently readable, shaped the possibilities of the upcoming council, particularly its implications for Catholic relations with other Christian Churches. Mainstream Protestant leaders became very interested in the possibilities of Vatican II.
Pope John, it seems, was quietly pleased with the “outside rumblings” of Kung and other churchmen and worked behind the scenes to obtain a position of major importance for Father Austin Bea, S.J. on the newly created “Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity,” which would have powerful influence later in the Council. In August 1962, two months before the opening of the Council, only seven drafts of conciliar documents were ready for dispatch to the world’s bishops. Four of these would be rejected outright on the floor of the Council. It was becoming clearer, to insiders at least, that the first business of the Council would be control of the agenda.
On Sunday, September 23, 1962, Pope John was informed by his physician that his stomach cancer had progressed to the point that he was living on borrowed time. He decided to keep this prognosis secret, particularly in view of the Council, and he devoted much of his pre-Council work to negotiations with Communist governments to allow bishops behind the Iron Curtain [including Karol Wojtyla] to attend Vatican II. Finally, on October 11, the solemn opening of the Council was highlighted by the most important sermon ever delivered by John XXIII, on the purpose of the Council. [Sadly, it was also his last major address as his illness was advancing.] I take the liberty to quote his address at some length:
The manner in which sacred doctrine is spread, this having been established, it becomes clear how much is expected from the Council in regard to doctrine. That is, the Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which will draw upon the effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and administrative experiences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men. It is a patrimony not well received by all, but always a rich treasure available to men of good will.
Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries.
The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.
For this a Council was not necessary. But from the renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a Magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character. [Emphasis mine.]
Pope John’s charter for the Council is clear enough. Vatican II would not create new doctrines, new feasts, or radical departures from the corpus of Catholic Faith. In fact, this aspect of the mission here is articulated quite traditionally. The challenge to the Church was the need to reexamine the language and understanding of timeless revealed truth by the lights available in the twentieth century—with the hoped-for outcome that the Gospel of Jesus would become better grasped, greater loved, and devotedly followed. In the last sentence cited above, John calls for a “pastoral” style of engagement with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Vatican II would have no condemnations; there would be no burnings at this council as actually happened at the Council of Constance in 1414 when the reformer Jan Hus was executed during that council’s proceedings.
Again, I would direct you to a full source on the substance of Vatican II, such as the O’Malley text cited above, to get the full flavor and detail of the first session in particular, the session Pope John lived to see. In the space of two months the bishops were faced with the challenges of setting priorities, and operating procedures to set something of a level playing field vis-à-vis the packaged plan proposed by the Roman Curia, all of this undertaken in Latin, which few bishops outside the Curia could speak. One might call the Council the precursor of “Synodality” as we use the term in very recent years.
During the first session Pope John received advice on the direction of the Council from Cardinal Giovanni Montini, who proposed an outline for discussion that proved to be strikingly close to what would unfold, except that the Council ran to four sessions instead of Montini’s projection of three. Montini advised that the first session should focus on the nature of the Church itself, a subject which included the exercise of papal authority and the nature of the ministry of bishops. [The pope-bishop dynamic was a continuation of Vatican I’s work, a council forced to adjourn prematurely due to the danger of war.] The second session, the cardinal proposed, would deal with the mission of the Church, and would include the reform of the Liturgy. The third session in this plan would discuss the Church’s relationship with “human groups,” a hint of what would become Gaudium et Spes. Interestingly, Montini’s correspondence here was not discovered until 1983, twenty years after the Council. Montini, incidentally, was elected to the Chair of Peter in June 1963, taking the name Pope Paul VI, and oversaw the final three sessions of the council.
Pope John observed the proceedings with great interest, and never lost hope in the outcome of the Council though he had plenty of reason to do so. The first session promulgated or issued no documents, and bishops became increasingly aware that the Council would last several years. But as the first session ended, Pope John recorded this entry in his journal: “Brothers gathered from afar to get to know each other; they needed to look each other in the eye in order to understand each other’s heart; they needed time to describe their own experiences which reflected differences in the apostolate in most varied situations; they needed time to have thoughtful and useful exchanges on pastoral matters.” [p. 239]
The first session ended in an “almost penitential” mood on December 8, 1963, as the pope’s declining health overshadowed other concerns and left some question as to whether a new pope would even reconvene the council. A thoughtful man to the end, the Pope’s farewell address at the end of the Council was addressed primarily to the conservatives of the Curia, who had endured a hard time of things as their planning and documents were discarded or significantly redrafted.
It is little known in the United States that Pope John had been involved in working toward the settlement of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which coincided with the first two weeks of the Council. Hebblethwaite believes that John Kennedy was reluctant to make this fact known because of his sensitivity over appearances of “taking orders from Rome,” a real issue in the 1960 presidential election. The likelihood of a nuclear holocaust led the dying pope to pen his most famous encyclical, Pacem in Terris [Peace on Earth], issued on April 11, 1963, just seven weeks before his death on June 3. At the conclave that followed, Cardinal Montini, his close friend, was elected to succeed him on the sixth ballot. The Council resumed that fall.
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.
"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.
On February 17, 1925, at the age of 44, Monsignor Angelo Roncalli was sent into ecclesiastical exile for his outspoken discomfort with the growing power of Mussolini and the Fascist Right in Italy, at a time when the Vatican was attempting to work out a concordat or agreement with Mussolini. [The Concordat was completed in 1929.] Biographer Peter Hebblethwaite describes this era of Roncalli’s life as “Ten Hard Years in Bulgaria,” [pp. 55-69] though his next foreign assignments would be even more challenging. As you might imagine, there is an official record of Roncalli’s meeting with the Cardinal Vatican Secretary of State where the assignment was made. There is also Roncalli’s recollection given many years later, where he quotes the official’s advice: “I’m told the situation in Bulgaria is very confused. I can’t tell you in detail what is going on. But everyone seems to be fighting with everyone else, the Moslems with the Orthodox, the Greek Catholics with the Latins, and the Latins with each other. Can you go there and find out what is really happening?” [p. 55]
Before he left for Bulgaria Roncalli was summoned to meet Pope Pius XI, who at least softened the blow by appointing him an archbishop. Pius had been a diplomat in Poland before his election as pope, and he confided to Roncalli that it would help his mission to quarreling Bulgarian bishops a great deal if he was a bishop himself. [p. 56] It is a curious way for a future pope to rise to the episcopacy, but so it was. Roncalli was depressed with his assignment, and his journal reflects this. At the same time, one of his guiding beliefs was “the path to peace lie in obedience.” He was comforted, too, with the knowledge that his close friends in the hierarchy knew he had been dealt an unfair hand. On the day before he left Rome, Roncalli spent the afternoon with a close friend, Giovanni Montini, and together they formulated the pastoral possibilities of his assignment. Montini would be elected to the papacy in 1963, succeeding Roncalli, as Pope Paul VI.
Bulgaria was indeed in a bad way. It had chosen the wrong side in World War I and its political and economic status was in disarray. Terrorist attacks were common, and a particularly devastating explosion killed 100 and injured 1000 at the ancient church of Svata Nedela just prior to Roncalli’s arrival. The new apostolic legate sought permission from King Boris to visit the victims, but the synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox objected on the grounds that his visit meant “imperialism and proselytism.” There were only 62,000 Catholics in Bulgaria—divided between the Latin Rite and the Uniate Rite—and the delegate decided to visit as many of these churches as possible in an arduous circuit of some of the poorest regions of the country. He acquired a bit of the local language and brought an interpreter with him. Over time his outgoing affability won him the title of “Diado” or “good father” among the Catholic population.
Roncalli recommended to Pope Pius XI that the nation’s Catholics should have a single bishop, and his candidate was approved and ordained. Roncalli remained in the country, first to establish a national seminary for the training of Bulgarian candidates, and then—a more challenging task—to begin overtures of friendship and unity with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the official state religion. It was here, according to Hebblethwaite, that the future pope learned the principles of ecumenism, the first being that “one could not expect to begin a dialogue with condemnations. Friendliness in Christ was a starting point, along with a capacity to listen and learn.” [p. 60]
Amid this effort, a devastating earthquake wrought severe damage to the region where most Uniate Catholics lived. Roncalli went to the scene immediately and engaged in fundraising for the victims. But as his 25th anniversary of ordination approached, he feared that his stay in Bulgaria might extend indefinitely, and he became depressed. He quotes St. Francis de Sales, “I am like a bird singing in a thicket of thorns.” [p. 63] He had to confront the fact that, like so many men in his position, he did aspire to higher responsibility and recognition in the Church. It did not help that rumors circulated of his possible promotion to the See of Milan, though it is unlikely that Mussolini, now exercising greater influence in Church affairs, would have approved.
It did not make Roncalli’s life easier when King Boris, an Orthodox, married a Roman Catholic woman with a papal dispensation, and then proceeded with a second grand Orthodox wedding. Pius XI felt betrayed by the king and by his apostolic delegate. Because he was ordered to express Vatican dismay over the king’s behavior, Roncalli was banned from the court for a year.
Finally, after a decade in Bulgaria, Roncalli was promoted to apostolic delegate to Turkey, though upon his arrival he was forced to visit the police and would be under surveillance for all his years in Istanbul. Hebblethwaite summarizes his challenge: “How to be Vatican representative in an Islamic country that was busily rejecting Islam and all religion as retrograde.” [p 70] Most of the nation’s 35,000 Catholics lived in or around Istanbul—Latins and a wide range of Uniates. Roncalli again adopted a program of uniting those in communion with Rome, making overtures to the Orthodox, and establishing good relations with the Turkish government. The third would be most difficult—and personally dangerous--under the rule of Mustafa Kenal, who adopted the name “Ataturk” or “Father of the Turks.” His goal was a model secular state, and both Islamic and Christian citizens were banned from wearing religious attire. Roncalli wrote to a friend that the ban was a difficulty for priests and friars, but that he was hopeful to avoid the wave of executions of clergy taking place in Mexico at the time.
Ataturk did not go that far, but he did close all Catholic schools as well as the diocesan paper. Roncalli’s biographer observes that the apostolic delegate was well equipped from his Bulgarian days to resort to populist, face-to-face pastoral care, and education of his flock. He even introduced Turkish language prayer into the liturgy, something of a statement that Catholicism was planning to live and thrive in Turkey for a long time. But soon his stresses in Turkey would become multiplied by the onrushing ambitions of Hitler and Mussolini and the opening salvo of hostilities that would lead to World War II.
On October 2, 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia, in Hebblethwaite’s words “a coldly calculated and long prepared move against the last sovereign state of Africa” [p. 73] The aging Pope Pius XI defended Italy’s actions, stating “the hopes, the demands, the needs of a great and good people should be recognized and satisfied.” The invasion was highly popular among most Italians, representing as it did Mussolini’s determination to restore Italy to world power status in the guise of bringing civilization to a backward African nation. From his perch in Istanbul Roncalli was able to speak his mind about the action: “Enough: let’s hope and pray the war will soon be over because it is, after all, a war.” [p. 73]
In 1939 Roncalli met for the first time with Franz von Papen, a German diplomat and himself a Catholic, beginning a long and complicated diplomatic and personal relationship. At first Roncalli regarded Papen as a Catholic aristocrat, though British and Vatican intelligence saw him in a darker light; when Papen was proposed as German Ambassador to the Vatican, the newly elected Pius XII turned down the nomination. [I should note here that the interworking’s between Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and the Vatican before and during World War II are highly complicated. Hebblethwaite describes them as they impacted Roncalli, but an interested reader is advised to pursue the subject further. I am uncomfortable recommending specific texts as the subject is quite heated. I will say that many historians agree that Pius XII was more fearful of Russian atheism and totalitarianism than of Nazi nationalism. However, it is a stretch to say that Pius was fully conscious of Nazi intentions atrocities at the beginning of the War. In this context, Roncalli’s role as Vatican diplomat in Turkey—a neutral power and buffer between Germany and Russia—takes on a greater importance in this time span.]
During the War of Britain in 1940, Papen—representing Hitler—presented the argument to Roncalli that Germany had no desire to destroy England or France, that the goal of the bombing was simply to impel England to take German sovereignty and interests more seriously. Roncalli was not an ambassador—he was the Vatican’s apostolic delegate to Turkey—and thus he had no standing to refute or negotiate what he was told. He was, basically, a courier for the Vatican, who reported Papen’s assertion dutifully, regardless of what he himself thought of Papen’s assertions. However, the Vatican’s man in Turkey is not without opinions.
Hebblethwaite provides an intriguing and captivating narrative of Roncalli’s thinking as the War progressed. For example, early in the conflict, evidently believing that Hitler would at least subjugate most of Europe, he offers this view to the Vatican: “Despite the various estimates that may be made of Hitler’s character...there are still so many open possibilities, and the future could be rich with surprises. One of them could be that after the war Catholicism would become the ‘formative principle’ of the new German social order, rather in the way Mussolini had wisely endowed Italy with the concordat  and social legislation inspired on some points by the great teaching of [Pope] Leo XIII [r. 1878-1903].” [p. 83] The author comments that Roncalli fully expected to have to live with Hitler’s new order.
In 1941 Roncalli writes that he fully expected England to be “liquidated” given the union of Germany and Russia, and that Turkey, in this new order, could be guaranteed its independence. But Papen had misled him, and shortly thereafter Germany turned its offensive surge against the Soviet Union. It did not help that the British ambassador did not take Roncalli seriously enough to confide in him something of the Western aims of the war, information that might have at least balanced what he was receiving from Papen.
At this juncture the Vatican ordered Roncalli to Greece to negotiate for full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Greece. But wartime conditions in Greece were so severe that his mission there became a largely humanitarian one—including negotiations on prisoner exchanges as the War began to swing in the direction of the Allies with German defeats in Russia and North Africa. More famously, he became aware of the desperate plight of the Jews. Many years later, when Pope John XXIII’s beatification was under consideration, Papen—of all people—testified that Roncalli “helped 24,000 Jews with clothes, money, and documents.” [p. 90] Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in getting Vatican participation in wider rescue operations when he transmitted a request for assistance.
Hebblethwaite argues compellingly that the Vatican refusal to assist Jews escape to neutral countries was “worse than any of Pius XII’s ‘silences.’” [p. 91] And even Roncalli, after Mussolini’s fall and subsequent Nazi occupation of Italy, expressed dismay when a convoy of Italian Jews was dispatched to Palestine. “I confess that this convoy of Jews to Palestine, aided specifically by the Holy See, looks like the reconstruction of the Hebrew Kingdom, and so arouses certain doubts in my mind….” [p. 93] Roncalli’s concern—strange as it may sound today—was the appearance of gathering a Jewish nation with the purpose of restoring the messianic dream. As the author puts it, Roncalli’s practice was better than his theology, for he continued to rescue individual Jews as he could, primarily by providing “immigration certificates.” A 1962 book claims that Roncalli gave baptismal certificates to Jews, but Hebblethwaite does not hold with the claim.
In 1944, deeply impacted by the spectacle of war, Roncalli delivered his Pentecostal sermon in Istanbul. Mindful that the end of the European phase of the War was in sight, he exhorted his mixed congregation that the Spirit was still alive in the world, and that the future could only be built in universal brotherhood bound together by the Father in heaven. However, Roncalli would not be undertaking his post-war mission of binding in Turkey. On December 6, 1944, he was notified by the Vatican Secretary of State that he had been promoted to the position of Nuncio to France, one of the highest offices in the Vatican diplomatic corps, to a country deeply divided by its wartime identity.
I have long believed that one of the best ways to learn history is through biographies, and this applies to Catholic Church history. For the past sixty years we Catholics have identified ourselves as “Vatican II” Catholics, having been influenced by the Council of 1962-1965. The number of books written about Vatican II—pro, con, and in between—is endless, but to grasp the full vision of the Council, it is necessary to know the mind of the man who called the Council—what shaped him, his life experiences, and the factors which led to his momentous announcement of 1959. I was fortunate enough to come across Peter Hebblethwaite’s outstanding biography of Pope John XXIII, John XXIII: Pope of the Century [1984, 1994]. Aside from its insights into a pivotal era of the Church, the work unconsciously provides a blueprint for the unpacking of “Synodality,”
Peter Hebblethwaite was a widely recognized Church journalist and author in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sometimes nicknamed a “Vaticanologist” because of his network of contacts and interests in the workings of the Church. It is true that he died [in 1994] before more written sources and documentations were released, but on the other hand he was able to interview many clerics, theologians, and others who lived during John’s brief pontifical reign [1958-1963] including some of the most famous participants in the Council.
The mythical account of Pope John XXIII’s life—and it is amazing how many people who should know better still propagate it—is the tale of a career Vatican diplomat of modest talent at best who was elected pope at the age of 76 to “keep the seat warm” for a younger and more competent candidate to be groomed after the 19-year reign of Pope Pius XII [1939-1958]. The popular tale continues that John called the Council at the behest of modern European theologians who then proceeded to hijack the proceedings to create a modernist church that went far beyond what John intended.
What gets overlooked in such mythmaking is one obvious counterpoint: a man who ascends to the papacy at 76 has a long curriculum vitae of responsibilities and assignments that form the thinking of a man over many years. To understand John XXIII, one must meet Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, born in 1881 to a family of sharecropper-farmers in the Diocese of Bergamo, Italy. Although the life was exhausting, Angelo found time to serve daily Mass and to observe the development of Catholic Action groups which worked for the improvement of the peasants’ and workman’s lot in Italian society. Pope Leo XIII was elected during Roncalli’s youth, the pope who would write the highly regarded encyclical Rerum Novarum,  the first encyclical on the subject of social justice.
Young Angelo would write years later that he could not remember a time when he did not want to become a priest. He entered the seminary at age ten and took considerable time to adjust to separation from his family and to the rigors of the studies, as he was the youngest in his class. He began a journal at age 14, which he maintained throughout his life and even through his papacy. It is an invaluable historical source for the study of Pope John today. We know, for example, that he established a rigorous spiritual rule for himself by his fourteenth year. We also know that in his teens he intuited—probably from his priest sponsors—that the Gospel and social justice were important constituents of priestly identity. This development took place against the backdrop of the papacy losing control of the sizeable Papal States to the new secular Italian national government.
As he later matured and began his ministry, Angelo came to believe that the loss of the papal states was ultimately a good thing for the Church, that by getting out of civil entanglements the Church could focus upon what he saw as its primary purpose, the spiritual saving of souls and what today we would call evangelization. Spreading the Gospel would be much unencumbered with statehood off the table, in his view. He was not the first person to think this way, and this was still a minority position; the papacy fought to maintain its influence in Italian civil life. As late as 1948 Pope Pius XII taught that Catholics could not vote for Communist or Socialist candidates in Italy’s civil election.
Angelo’s superior performance in the minor seminary and the sponsorship of respected churchmen brought him to Rome for his major priestly studies. He enjoyed the seminary and the study of theology; he was not brilliant, but he was dogged, and he showed aptitude for history and research, something to remember as his story unfolds. He developed a deep love for Latin and believed that the Church was best served by reading the writings of the saints in the Latin tongue. Even as pope he repeatedly read the reflections of Pope Gregory the Great [r. 590-604 A.D.] in Latin. [As pope, he issued Veterum Sapientia in February 1962, decreeing that all major seminary courses were to be taught in Latin. As it turned out, virtually no American professors could do this, and the decree died a quiet death.]
His seminary years endured a major interruption. He was drafted into the Italian army for a year—an interruption he hated—but he proved to be a particularly good soldier, particularly as a sharpshooter, and was raised to the rank of sergeant. It was his first encounter with the “locker room world” of men and sexuality. But he returned to the seminary with renewed zeal, completed his doctorate, and passed his ordination examination, conducted by Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. After his ordination he returned to his home diocese of Bergamo, but he was not destined to stay there long.
Father Roncalli’s early years as a priest coincided with the crisis of Modernism. At the turn of the twentieth century Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] issued multiple condemnations of Modernism, an openness to current ideas which conflicted with strict interpretation of Church doctrine and discipline. See the Encyclopedia Britannica’s description of Modernism to understand what church life was like during Angelo Roncalli’s early priestly years.] Roncalli demonstrated a remarkable courage here—one which could have led to his excommunication, or more likely, to the end of a promising career. After one of Pope Pius’s broadest condemnations of Modernist trends in 1907, the young priest and Doctor of Theology delivered a public lecture at the Bergamo seminary in which he defended the study of history as a method of developing greater understanding of the Scripture and the development of the Church as institution. I suppose that nothing less could have been expected from a man who loved history.
However, like nearly all priests of his time, Roncalli took the new “Anti-modernist oath” as priests and seminarians would take as late as the 1960’s. Having talked to men ahead of me who took the oath, I get the impression that most did so as a general act of loyalty to the pope without endorsing its provisions. The biographer Hebblethwaite seems to imply that Roncalli in 1910 approached the oath in something of the same spirit. [p. 34] His biographer observes that “[F]rom the whole tragic episode Roncalli drew the conclusion that there were other and better ways of dealing with ‘error’ in the Church.” [p. 36]
When World War I broke out in 1914, and the following year Roncalli was drafted. The drafting of clerics [which never occurred in the United States; priests volunteered to serve as chaplains] is a good illustration of the continuing stress between the Church and the Italian State at this time. This second round of service proved to be highly influential upon the future pope; there is an entry in his journal—too long to cite here—that describes his powerful feelings of pity and affection for the young men whose confessions he heard for hours at a time and whom he accompanied at the hour of their deaths. In his journal he admits to crying like a child in his tent while at the same time reflecting upon war and the Church’s position in the struggles between states. [p.40] Years later, Roncalli was instrumental in the defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
After the War Roncalli became the spiritual director of a seminary and slowly but surely a popular speaker. His wartime experience had deepened his love for his country and its future. He was a staunch supporter of lay action—the courage and sacrifice of his soldiers strengthened this conviction, that Catholic laity had rights to form the society in which they lived, including its pollical direction. His reputation on behalf of Catholic action eventually won him a position within the Roman Curia as national [Italian] director of Society for the Propagation of the Faith, an organization which raised awareness and funds for the foreign missions. A review of the literature about the Society in 1922 pictures a society in disarray and disagreement, and Roncalli’s appointment coincides with Pope Benedict XV’s demand for a restructuring.
Roncalli was unhappy with the appointment, and as is often the case, he found the situation as bad as, if not worse than, advertised. However, the position allowed him to travel the length of Italy meeting with the bishops in the name of a project close to the sitting pope. He also traveled widely in Europe to assist in coordinating the international efforts of the Society. [An annual collection for the Society is taken up yearly in all churches to this day.] Given his pessimism for the position and its problems, he was still successful in raising Italy’s annual collection more than 100%.
This success, however, would not help him with a grave new personal challenge, the rise of Mussolini and the radical right. Roncalli’s sympathies had for some years laid with Catholic Action and democratic reform, and he correctly perceived that Mussolini was inviting the Church down a road that could only bring it harm. Called upon in 1924 to deliver a eulogy for a bishop in his home diocese, Bergamo, he made an impassioned plea that the state not interfere in the ministry of the Church. It was a not-so-veiled address to Mussolini to cease his negotiations with the Vatican, which would end in the 1929 Italian Concordat. There would be no room for “Christian Democrats” in Mussolini’s Italy, and this label describes Roncalli’s politics as well as any.
On February 17, 1925, Angelo Roncalli was informed by the Vatican Secretary of State that he had been appointed apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. He would not return reside in Rome in an official capacity for 33 years.
Brian D. McLaren [1956--] is an interesting fellow. An English major from the University of Maryland, a theologian, and retired pastor of a successful nondenominational Christian church, Cedar Ridge Community Church which serves the DC-MD region, McLaren’s pulpit has stretched to limitless boundaries as a commentator, teacher, organizer, and author of twenty-five books in what Catholics would recognize as the study of “ecclesiology,” i.e., the nature, structure, and future of the Church. McLaren’s provenance is Christianity in its entirety, and his message endears him to many and not so much to others. The Great Spiritual Migration  reviewed here is the twenty-first.
Sometimes our enemies clarify us better than our friends. The Baptists are not crazy about him: “Like Fosdick and other liberals before him, McLaren has assumed authority over the Bible instead of placing himself under its authority. His understanding of Scripture frees him to see Christian doctrine as evolving, and himself as an instrument of this evolution. In this way he revisits and reinterprets whatever does not accord with modern sensibilities. He has denied the literal nature of hell along with its eternality; he has denied the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ; he has denied Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father; he has affirmed homosexuality as good and pleasing to God. And he continues to think and to write, meaning that his theological development is not yet complete.”
Turning the mirror around here, we can deduce that McLaren bases his theology on the Bible and preaches from it with authority. He is a student of the formation of the Sacred texts. He sees the Christian message continually unfolding to face the cultural challenges of the times. He is cautious about teachings which have been proclaimed too strenuously, too authoritatively, and often mistakenly. His “Christology” is broad and rich, much as the New Testament itself is broad and rich in its depiction of Jesus. He understands that God is not constrained to limitations of human thought and organization. He loves and respects all churches. He is compassionate toward those marginalized by traditional moralities. He remains open to God’s will for him.
A man with these credentials will never be totally at home with one “denomination.” Which is probably a good thing because he gives all our churches sometime to think about, whether we embrace every aspect of his missionary message or not. In this he is not far from Jesus, who told his disciples that “he who is not against us is for us.” It is worth mentioning here that I was introduced to McLaren’s work by a devout Catholic layman of my own Roman Catholic congregation. I was delighted to receive his recommendation but saddened by the realization that thoughtful religious texts are so rarely discussed or recommended in Catholic parochial life. My friend has had a highly successful career in financial management, and there are many in my church like him who have made their bones in every field of endeavor. But in the 26 years I have been a member of this particular Catholic congregation, there has never been a recommendation of a theological book or Scripture commentary text from the pulpit, nor any recommendations from the parish’s social media. Catholic bookstores attached to parishes do not sell texts aimed at college graduates or studious adults. It is painfully evident that Catholic preachers themselves do not read—either writings from professional theology or from current culture—but consistently default to two or three highly predictable sermon outlines. This shallowness of preaching is one significant factor why Catholics scout out other Christian assemblies to hear a substantive preaching of the Word.
Despite having at one time the largest religious education system in the world—i.e., the Catholic school system for elementary and secondary education—Catholicism never carried the torch for an adult education based upon fellowship, reading, and study. Consequently, Catholic writing in the United States does not measure up to Protestant or Independent Christian publishing. In fairness, “Protestants” [of all variants] outnumber Catholics about 4-1, meaning that in the Barnes and Noble Religion Section of the store you will find four Brian McLarens for every one Thomas Merton. Nor do we Catholics have the equivalent of the Zondervan publishing empire which has outlets in nearly every shopping mall in the United States, for example. Our biggest problem, though, remains the troubling reality that the demand for adult Catholic publishing is low.
So, until we find our adult Catholic lay voice, we have the visionaries like McLaren. He is a speculative thinker whose writings—from the reviews I have examined—seek to take Christianity into the future while rooted in an authentic biblical past. He seeks to provide encouragement to clergy and laity alike who are “stuck” in denominational molds or gentrified biblical interpretation. For example, he bravely confronts the image of the Old Testament God of law and vengeance with the New Testament God of Jesus, as in “Philip, he who sees me sees him who sent me.” Over the years McClaren has coined the phrase “God 5.0” borrowing from the world of computer science to describe the development of better human constructs to describe the nature of God.
The “computerese” language for the divine is not exactly my cup of tea [I kept thinking “Jesus and Windows 11” was coming next] but he does say important things, certainly in his approach to Biblical interpretation. Case in point, the Torah, where he supersedes the vindictive and punitive declarations of God in the early Old Testament era with Jesus’ assertion of the infinite love of the Father in his own preaching, teaching, and works. One of his prime targets is Leviticus 20:13 [“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them”] which continues to create its own misery and misunderstanding. One can understand why the fundamental literalist strain of Protestantism might find McLaren disconcerting when he calls for a wholesale rethinking of elements of the Good Book.
McLaren’s Jesus may be forgiving, but the author himself is critical of Christian Churches. Chapter 8, “Salvation from the Suicide Machine,” discusses the pathological marriage of religion to culture. One of his migrations is “from a religion organized for self-preservation and privilege to a religion organizing for the common good of all.” [p. 153] He is strongly immersed in an ethos of social justice, peace, and global environmental balance. He does not believe that any denomination is self-sustaining; “Episcopalians cannot solve the problems of Episcopalians by themselves.” [p. 144] His frustration rests in the sense that every Christian church [and many individuals and communities outside of it] perceive the frustrations and injustices of modern life but are tethered by denominal limitations that hinder common communication and problem solving.
McLaren has been criticized as a Universalist—a major issue in Protestant thought but not so much in formal Catholic theological circles. I would venture a guess, though, that the “typical Catholic” cultivates a universalist streak, namely, that God does not send people to hell, that all will eventually be saved. Consequently, many Catholics may find a sympathetic thread with McLaren’s stance on redemption. In Catholic academic theology, the question of final destiny and judgment falls under the discipline of “eschatology” or “the last things.” I was lucky enough to take a graduate elective in eschatology back in the early 1970’s; my major research was the work of a medieval mystic, Joachim of Flora [1130-1201 A.D.]. Flora was something of a universalist; he believed that the Age of the Father [the Old Testament] and the Age of the Son [the New Testament] were giving way to a utopian new age of the Holy Spirit. [See Britannica’s summary of his life here.] After his death Joachim’s teaching took on new life with the appearance of the new Franciscan Order; many of Joachim’s followers saw in Francis’s Rule and life of poverty the template for the new age of the Holy Spirit.
McLaren is no Joachim, but his writing reflects a frustration with the status quo of Christianity shared throughout history, by individuals as diverse as the ancient theologian Origen and the modern man of letters G.K. Chesterton, who famously wrote “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” The author attempts to provide both a philosophy and a structure for an across-the-board regeneration of Gospel living. In a series of appendices including “Charter for a Just and Generous Christianity” [pp. 207-210], and “Fourteen Precepts of Just and Generous Christianity” [pp. 211-214], McLaren lays down a primmer of what Christianity well lived ought to look like. A good number of his points attract attention. “Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, complete, and absolutely true.” “Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education.” “Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.”
Strategically speaking, McLaren believes in reform from within. “To identify first 100, and then 1000, and then 10,000 vital faith communities in North America who share these commitments.” [p. 209] In theory, I can resonate with this concept of beginning with small faith groups and nurturing more into existence. Small group experience is another dimension of church life that American Catholicism has been reluctant to embrace with any wholesale enthusiasm. The poor response of many pastors and bishops to Pope Francis’s call for “little synods” this year—gatherings to discuss the common life of the church—can be traced to this reluctance. My opinion is that many church leaders are frightened or threatened by intensive lay movements, or worse, they believe that “Athens has nothing to say to Jerusalem,” as the old saying goes. Another impediment to group encounter is—again! --the deficit in Catholic adult education. What are we to talk about when we gather? In my parish there is an impressive group of lay persons who have taken it upon themselves to form a group study of Pope Francis’s recent social teaching, Fratelli Tutti. My wife is a member, and they have been hard at it for over a year. This is even more remarkable because the Pope’s teaching, Fratelli Tutti, has never been mentioned from the pulpit of my church.
The bottom line here is whether The Great Spiritual Migration is a helpful tool in the faith formation of Catholics. I would give a qualified yes. For no other reason, tackling a work of this nature is a worthy ecumenical venture of cultural awakening, in this case with the evangelical-progressive wing of Protestantism. [It is the conservative-evangelical wing that more often gets legislative and media attention.] One would be hard pressed to argue with the author’s understanding of Jesus and the general strokes of a contemporary biblical ethic that follows. And there is a good deal to be said for passion—joy, hope, sorrow, and anger—in the living and the teaching of a Christian life, that pervades the author’s style of expression. About 95% of Amazon’s 300+ reviewers rated this work 4 and 5 stars as of this morning, March 11. [I will rate it 5 when I submit an abridged review.]
Again, coming at this from my Catholicism, I have two visceral concerns. The first is more of a regret that a Catholic reader of works from other excellent Christian authors may be unaware of the genius of two millennia of Catholic thinkers, writers, theologians, and doctors of the Church. To McLaren’s considerable credit, he incorporates many shapers of the Catholic vision into his work: from Origen to St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas to St. Francis of Assisi to St. Bonaventure to Father Thomas Merton to Father Richard Rohr, the latter two of our own time. Ironically, parochial Catholicism generally does not do this. If Catholicism does not energize its adults with our collective wisdom, we run the risk of devolving into an anti-intellectual authoritarian fundamentalism that distorts the Gospel and the Church’s effort to live it, a style that most of us would find onerous and probably unlivable.
The second point is a bit more eccentric, coming from me. Many years ago, I was an adjunct at Daytona College teaching both psychology and world religion courses. One of the required texts assigned to me was William James’ classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience . [William’s brother Henry is the author of a wide range of gothic horror tales, so don’t confuse them!] One point from James has remained with me over the years, particularly as I age, specifically, that raw enthusiasm does not last for a lifetime. If we live long enough, with our eyes open, we come to understand the power and prevalence of sin as well as our human limits to feed enthusiasm. James argues that we cannot continually draw from our internal well of deep feeling, that an untampered enthusiasm is exhausting and defeating in the long haul. There is a necessary dimension of spirituality that grieves over our sins of commission and, maybe even more so, omission. Moreover, as with the horrors of the Ukrainian War, we are depressed by the pain of societal sin and the grim realization of our inability to achieve a utopian Christianity on earth.
The Catholic tradition has processed the mysteries of man since Jesus rose from the dead. If the institution seems diseased, exhausted, or impotent, it is not because the Spirit failed the Church but because we have not drunk of the wisdom of that Spirit, embodied in our two millennia of the wisdom of the saints. If McLaren’s book vitalizes a personal renewal of Catholic interest, don’t forget to look in our own back yard.
There have been thousands of books—from classics to claptrap—written about the Catholic Church Council Vatican II. So, forgive my skepticism when a new release [October 2021] claims to announce what “really happened.” The author, Father Blake Britton, was ordained in 2018 and, based upon his two-year experience in his first parish and his personal research, he has attempted to present a correct interpretation of the teachings of Vatican II [1962-1965] and the ways that his corrections can renew priestly and parish life. All of this in 173 pages.
The very title “Reclaiming,” which strongly suggests a hijacking, sets the tenor of the book. Chapter One, “The Paracouncil,” introduces us to the author’s favorite handle: “Paracouncil,” a generic term here for individuals and camps who cherry picked [and, in his view, continue to pick] the Council documents for their own assessments of what the Council should have said, on matters as diverse as Latin in the Mass and interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures.
The Paracouncil narrative is not originally the author’s, nor is it new. Immediately after the Council it embodied the narrative that bishops and theologians from Western Europe had exercised undue liberal influence in the composition of the Council’s teachings. This reading overlooks the reality that unlike today, when Catholic theology is now a global undertaking, most of the world’s Catholic universities were in fact in Western Europe. In addition, Vatican II was less a reform Council than a reaction Council, a response to the horrors of the World Wars and the Holocaust. Western European experience played heavily into that Conciliar narrative, and rightfully so.
In a more recent iteration, the Paracouncil mystique provides a cover for the current generation of seminarians and clergy [not all, to be sure] who wish to siphon from Council documents a justification to return to a Church life of sixty years ago, by emphasizing texts that permit the retention of rites and practices of six decades earlier. No young cleric today can claim to have lived in that era; it appears that an oral tradition in some seminaries has kept alive the idea that the Church of the 1950’s was a golden age of the Faith, certainly in the United States, with a clear identity of priestly ministry. [No one in 1960 was talking about “priests smelling like their sheep,” in Pope Francis’ memorable comment.] I can understand that to a newly ordained priest of this generation, the challenges facing ministry must seem daunting. The difficulty with living in the past is the gradual discovery that “the good old days” were not as good as imagined.
The main body of the book addresses the four Vatican II documents on the Liturgy, the nature of the Church, Divine Revelation, and the role of the Church in the modern world. To each area the author brings a mix of his own research, a “Paracouncil commentary,” a highlighting of past and present anecdotal mistakes and abuses, and recommendations for correction and renewal. The flow of the narrative is choppy as the author wears many hats and switches them frequently—from Church historian to social critic to magisterial sheriff to retreat master to parochial consultant.
The Paracouncil theme colors much of his narrative, more than the author may realize. About Biblical study, the author writes: “The exclusive use of the historical-critical method for interpreting Scripture is prevalent in paraconciliar thought. Some clergy and theologians claim that events such as the feeding of the five thousand were not miracles but sociological phenomena.” [p. 135] On the subject of the Church, he writes “…the Paracouncil uses Vatican II as an opportunity to deemphasize the Church’s nature in an attempt to make her more relatable with the modern world and other Christian denominations.” [p. 101] These are serious charges that fail to consider how difficult the implementation of the Council actually was. I would take him more seriously if he acknowledged that he stands on the shoulders of giants, including many he easily dismisses.
The concluding chapter troubled me the most, “What Now?” This segment is highly autobiographical; the author becomes the embodiment of his arguments. He describes his first assignment after ordination: “I was sent to a community wounded by scandal and flailing in the spiritual life. After two decades of lackluster parish life, they had received a new pastor.” [p. 168] Later in the chapter he identifies the parish by name and states that attendance had dropped 66% in the previous administration. The public shaming of a clergyman [the previous pastor] and a community seems beyond the pale, and worse, because it sets the stage for the author’s own definition of his success. [A good friend of mine who read the book asked me, “For Pete’s sake, did this man have an editor?”]
The author narrates his two-year work in tandem with the new pastor. He describes their work as prioritizing the liturgy, catechizing the people about the history of the Church, offering regular parish missions, and increasing opportunities to celebrate the sacraments. I do agree with several of his recommendations for liturgical reform, notably on matters of music, silence, focus, etc. He is correct that reform requires study.
At the end of two years both he and the pastor were reassigned. [Ironically, his pastor was transferred to my parish—small world!] Upon leaving, the author reports that after two years “our finances are in order, the school is filled with children, and Mass attendance is steadily increasing.” [p. 170] It just seems a bit too self-serving, particularly when he presumes to counsel fellow priests—nearly all older and more experienced—that “patience is essential…the average parish takes three to five years to reform.” How does he know?
Given the successful tally he reports--balanced books, high walk-in traffic, satisfied customers—numbers that would please any CEO, I do wonder how the author integrates his own CEO into a parish reform agenda, namely Pope Francis, who has barely a cameo appearance between the covers of this book. Hopefully, the author does not count our present pontiff among the paraconciliarists.
Graham Greene was one of the most prolific of all Catholic novelists of the twentieth century. My review of this work was posted on Amazon today and can be found here.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything