28 October 1958 — 3 June 1963
November 25, 1881, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected pope in 1958 as
a compromise. He was seventy-seven years old and it was clearly expected
that he would be an "interim" pope. But that was to prove to be a false
judgment. Although his pontificate was short, extending less than five
years, he was to turn Protestant perceptions of the Papacy as no other
pope had done since the deadly wound was inflicted.
Pius XII had generated antagonism and suspicion among
Protestants who perceived him to be pro-Axis during the Second World
War, assisting war criminals to flee to South America, and callously
silent on the Holocaust.
Born near Bergamo in the northern Italian province of
Lombardy, Roncalli, to his credit, sought no wealth from his steady rise
through the church hierarchy. In this he differed from a great many who
had held the Papal office before him. He was born into a poor family,
his father being a tenant-farmer.
Roncalli was appointed secretary to the Bishop of
Bergamo, whom he had assisted Pope Pius X to ordain. Bishop Giacomo
Radini-Tedeschi, was of noble birth, in contrast to his secretary, and
was judged the most progressive Italian bishop of his day.
In 1920 Benedict XV appointed Roncalli a director of
the Italian foreign missions organization. It was during this period
that he became an expert on the work of Cardinal Charles Borromeo of
Milan, who in the sixteenth century played an important role in the
Counter-Reformation. We wonder if his detailed knowledge of Borromeo
stirred Roncalli’s thoughts to means of countering Protestantism,
thoughts which bore fruit in his brilliant strategy, a strategy we would
evaluate as more successful than any other since the Reformation.
In 1925 the future Pope John XXIII was inducted into
the Vatican diplomatic corps as the apostolic visitor and later delegate
to Bulgaria. He was created archbishop at that time, at the age of
forty-three. It was difficult for Roncalli to excel as a diplomat in the
environment of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church. His future
elevation to the triple crown was not evident during his decade in this
post. Nor was his appointment to another Eastern Orthodox nation,
Greece, and simultaneously as a diplomat to Islamic Turkey, a brilliant
With small Roman Catholic minorities to serve in each
of these three nations, it cannot be doubted that his mind was focused
upon ecumenism as the means to increase Papal influence. These formative
years were to enrich his contribution, as pope, to the Ecumenical
Council of Vatican II.
With almost two decades buried in minor diplomatic
appointments, he was staggered to be appointed papal nuncio to France in
1945, a most senior post and a very delicate one in view of much
discontent in that nation with Papal policy during the war.
The post was made more difficult because the previous
papal nuncio had, in accord with general Vatican policy, retained close,
perhaps even warm, relations with the leader of the Vichy government,
Marshal Philippe Pétain, who collaborated with Germany.
While the Vatican recognized that Roncalli was not
politically astute, it was wisely judged that the absence of this very
quality combined with his congenial approach was a personality cocktail
needed to allay the antagonism to the Vatican and the French thirst for
vengeance against the numerous French bishops and priests who had
collaborated with the Nazis.
He was expected to procure the release of German
seminarians held prisoners by the French and to attempt to quell the
rise of rationalism amongst the French clergy.
Pius XII’s decision to create Roncalli a cardinal in
January 1953 and to appoint him as the Patriarch of Venice, were
evidences that the Papacy approved his handling of his duty. He was in
1958 seventy-seven years of age, an age at which he could have hoped to
rise no higher in the hierarchy.
That it took twelve ballots to elect him is evidence
that he was not a front runner, but a compromise choice. But pope,
nevertheless, he was crowned.
It is doubtful whether the College of Cardinals
recognized what a brilliant choice they had made. In his short reign he
became regarded as a benign and loving grandfather, rotund and huggable.
In four short years the Protestants dropped their guard against the
Papacy, viewing the new pope, who referred to them as "separated
brothers" but rather treated them as much-loved grandchildren, as a man
they could love.
If ever a pope was tailor-made to add balm to the
deadly wound it was John XXIII. During no four-year period since 1798
did the healing process advance more rapidly than during the reign of
The very fact of his age gave him a seniority even in
the College of Cardinals and this perhaps encouraged him to take bold,
even dangerous, initiatives. It was a short period of Papal discard of
the reactionary mode which had characterized the nineteenth and early
twentieth century Papacy. If a writer of a novel had scripted the Papal
scenario he could not have achieved a better sequence than that provided
by this brief moment of a much more liberal policy than any pope could
ever dare to promote; a breakdown of Protestant, and even non-Christian
prejudice and, on the back of the generated good-will of the period, the
return to an agenda designed to once more enslave Protestantism and
conquer the world upon John’s death.
Roncalli had been appointed Patriarch of Venice at
the rather advanced age of seventy-one and thus spent a little time in
pastoral pursuits prior to his election as pope. Many in the Curia
opposed his calling of the Vatican II Council. The general consensus at
church headquarters was that the Papacy had prospered under his
predecessor and the status quo should be maintained. But
widespread satisfaction has its own inherent danger, that of simply
treading water and making no significant advances. This stagnation John
XXIII was unprepared to accept. Had he accepted the pressure from his
Curial advisors, there is little doubt that his enormous contribution to
healing would never have been made and his would have been a brief
pontificate, little advancing on the road to Rome’s prophesied destiny.
His aims in calling the Council—to diffuse anti-Roman
Catholic hostility and to promote the reunion of the fragmented sects of
Christianity under the umbrella of his church—were fully achieved.
By granting audiences to leaders of other Christian
denominations with much courtesy and demonstrating an affable nature, in
a large measure the Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox faiths felt they
had made a new friend and were inclined to shout John’s praises to their
various communions. Few of these men studied Revelation 13 and fewer
understood the prophecy. They would have been well employed had they
studied this prophecy more diligently.
Various religious leaders such as the Moderator of
the Scottish [Presbyterian] Kirk, the Archbishop of Canterbury
[Anglican] and even a Japanese Shinto High Priest were granted
audiences. The Pope actively promoted East-West détente at a time when
relations between the Soviet Union and the United States were at
rock-bottom. His pressure on both leaders, Premier Krushchev and
President John F. Kennedy, respectively, probably helped to defuse the
threat of nuclear war with the stand-off over the Soviet Union placing
nuclear weapons in Cuba.
John summed up his views on world peace in his
encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). Important as this
statement was in the minds of many, it has been well said that,
His greatest claim to the world’s affection . . .
rested on the warmth of his personality rather than on any of his
formal statements. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1995 edition,
Vol. 6, p. 575)
John also led the trend to internationalize the
College of Cardinals, breaking the rule set forth by Sixtus V
(1585—1590) that the number of cardinals be confined to seventy.
A background of the councils preceding John’s call to
council appears in the appendix. John XXIII lived to superintend only
the first of the four sessions of Vatican II. He was determined to
obtain permission from the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, for two
Russian Orthodox priests to attend the Council as observers. This
request was granted upon the agreement that the Council would proclaim
no anti-Soviet or anti-Communist statements.
Many conservatives in the College of Bishops were
unfavorable to this compromise, but it introduced a new era in which the
Papacy was less strident in its attacks on Communism. Rather than
weakening the Vatican and strengthening Communism, history testifies
that the reverse result was engendered.
It must not be overlooked that in seven former
Communist nations in Europe today, the great majority of the citizens
adhered to the Roman Catholic faith—Croatia, the Czech Republic,
Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. In 1998 those seven
nations had a combined population of 75 million (SBS World Guide,
Hardie Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1999), no minor force. While some
of the populace turned to atheism under Communism, the spirit of Roman
Catholicism remained strong.
It would not exaggerate the importance of John’s
concession to the Soviet Union to define this agreement as the first
significant step by the Vatican in its successful destruction of
European Communism almost three decades later. Whether John saw it as
such is doubtful. This first move, so outwardly favorable to the Soviet
Union, but ultimately fatal, has appeared to pass the notice of
historians of the era.
The "Message to Humanity: issued at the beginning of
the Second Vatican Council by its fathers with the endorsement of the
supreme pontiff," commenced with an admirable first paragraph:
We take great pleasure in sending to all men and
nations a message concerning the well-being, love, and peace which
were brought into the world by Christ Jesus, the Son of the living
God, and entrusted to the Church. (The Documents of Vatican II,
edited by Walter M. Abbott, S.J. with introduction by Cardinal
Lawrence Shehan, Archbishop of Baltimore)
Oh! that the Roman Catholic Church had ever brought
Christ’s desire for our well being, His love and His peace to all men.
The second paragraph set forth the unwarranted claims
of the Papacy.
For this is the reason why at the direction of the
most blessed Pope John XXIII, we successors of the apostles have
gathered here, joined in single-hearted prayer with Mary the Mother of
Jesus, and forming one apostolic body headed by the successor of
John’s decision to call the Council had been
announced at St. Paul’s-outside-the-Walls on January 25, 1959. Such a
bold move was not expected of an "interim" pope. Perhaps it was
generated by a personal, unexpressed discontent with the recent course
of the Papacy, so apparently distant from the cruelties of mankind.
Some quite logically questioned the need of a Council
of Bishops, since Pius IX in 1870 had issued the Dogma of Papal
Infallibility. Members of the Curia reasoned that even if necessary the
preparation for the Council could occupy two decades. With 2,381 bishops
from all parts of the world attending the opening session, the costs
were undoubtedly high.
As John XXIII entered St. Peter’s Basilica in style,
carried in a sedia gestatoria on October 11, 1962, some detected
tears in his eyes. In contrast to previous councils, non-Catholic
observers were present at this one. This invitation was a stroke of
genius. Protestant and Orthodox sensitivities, so increased by the
previous pontificate, were now softened and in some cases dispelled. Yet
there were some prelates in attendance who whispered the words
"Communicario in Sacris." They had no sense of the future benefits
to Rome of these invitations. The whispered words in effect were an
accusation that John XXIII was involved in wrongful association with
The drafts of the Council documents had been drawn up
by conservative curial officials. They employed very confrontational and
legalistic language, a course which had been adopted by the sixteenth
century Counter Reformation. De Rosa reports—
A well-founded story [which] tells of Pope John
receiving an old priest friend in the Vatican. He held up an imaginary
ruler to the most recent Curial offering. "See, five inches of
imperatives, seven of condemnations." (Vicars of Christ, pp.
Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the head of the
Congregation of the Holy Office which dealt with the protection of faith
and morals, was particularly obstinate in his contrary views to those of
the pontiff. He had spent his entire priesthood in the Vatican and was
steeped in its ancient traditions. Some historians have painted
Ottaviani as near to a "devil" in contrast to the "saintly" John. We
must be careful in drawing such conclusions. God will ultimately judge.
No doubt it took conviction to stand out against the will of the pontiff
in the period of Vatican II. But Ottaviani and his curial clique were
quite faulted in their notions.
The tide was turned when the Archbishop of Cologne,
Germany, Cardinal Frings and the Archbishop of Lille, France, Cardinal
Liénart, protested that the proposed members of the commissions were all
administrators in the Curia. The vote of the bishops supported the view
of these two men who were closer to the people of their respective
But not all cardinals leading archdioceses saw the
need for change in the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal Francis Joseph
Spellman of New York, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles and
Cardinal William Godfrey of Westminster (London) were among the
doubters. They believed that their church was succeeding as it was and
did not see beyond to the far greater healing, for which Vatican II with
its apparent softening towards non-Roman Catholics was to provide a
From an unusual quarter came a voice for change. In
the early eighteenth century a group of Eastern Orthodox believers
reunited with Rome, while maintaining their Orthodox rituals. These were
Melchite Greek Catholics whose leader was the Patriarch of Antioch. Its
members in 1962 resided largely in Syria, Egypt and the United States
with a small community in Galilee. Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh spoke on
October 29, 1962, in the French language, ignoring Latin, the lingua
franca of the Roman Catholic Church. Here, by implication, was a cry
for change from the "mystic" language of the church to the language of
The Patriarch, although eighty-four years of age, was
a voice for common sense. He stated,
Take for instance, the catechism. We make it an
obligation for the faithful to abstain [from meat] on Fridays and to
assist at Mass on Sundays under pain of mortal sin. Is this
reasonable, and how many Catholics believe this? As for unbelievers,
they merely have pity on us. (Quoted in de Rosa op.cit., p.
It was a matter of irony that Cardinal Spellman of
New York chaired the session at which the Patriarch spoke. His theme
would not have been music to the ears of a man resistant to change. No
doubt Spellman’s views had been established when he had been the first
American to serve in the Secretariat of State from 1925 to 1932.
De Rosa perceptively saw the foolishness of much of
his own church. (pages 394, 395)
The worst sort of casuistry was applied to every
detail of morality. It paralyzed the life of the Spirit. God did not
come across as a God of love who had incarnated Himself in Jesus’
life, death and resurrection, but as a legalistic judge trying to
catch his creatures out, and when they did not conform to the letter,
sending them, with very little provocation, to hell.
Hell was far more vivid than heaven, which seemed
little better than a medieval monastery. There was no food and no sex.
Why one needed a resurrected body was not clear. What did one do in
heaven, except engage in highly intellectual exercises, gazing
uninterruptedly at the divine essence, as if death gave everyone an
obsession with theology.
While de Rosa, himself, possessed some
misunderstanding of heaven, he did at least appreciate the dilemma of
his fellow Roman Catholics.
Ellen Harmon White in the nineteenth century
presented a Biblical insight into heaven which challenged the heart of
There the redeemed shall "know, even as also they
are known." The loves and sympathies which God Himself has planted in
the soul, shall there find truest and sweetest exercise. The pure
communion with holy beings, the harmonious social life with the
blessed angels and with the faithful ones of all ages, who have washed
their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, the sacred
ties that bind together "the whole family in heaven and earth"
(Ephesians 3:15)—these help to constitute the happiness of the
There, immortal minds will contemplate with
never-failing delight the wonders of creative power, the mysteries of
redeeming love. There is no cruel, deceiving foe to tempt to
forgetfulness of God. Every faculty will be developed, every capacity
increased. The acquirement of knowledge will not weary the mind or
exhaust the energies. There the grandest enterprises may be carried
forward, the loftiest aspirations reached, the highest ambitions
realized; and still there will arise new heights to surmount, new
wonders to admire, new truths to comprehend, fresh objects to call
forth the powers of mind and soul and body.
All the treasures of the universe will be open to
the study of God’s redeemed. (The Great Controversy, 1888
edition, p. 677)
Despite the rumblings of the traditional elements
that Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors and the like were being gutted
by the Council, majority consent was found for a Papacy with a fresh,
more appealing face to the world. It was an essential, indeed a defining
step in the healing process. There is no evidence of John having called
this Council by cunning design but thus it has proven. Roman Catholic
medieval values had to be challenged, the non-Catholic world sedated by
this act, before a pope could arise who would reimpose the fearful
concepts of the medieval Papacy while retaining worldwide adulation.
How different was the First Vatican Council of Pius
IX from that of John XXIII! In some ways one could conclude that the two
Councils were promoted by two utterly distinct churches. The First
Council with its repugnant Dogma of Papal Infallibility, called only six
years after the issuance of Pius IX’s reviled Syllabus of Errors
and the Second Vatican Council seemed millennia apart. But the Second
Vatican Council notwithstanding, the philosophy of the medieval Papacy
was not extinguished by the Council. It slumbered on through two further
pontificates until it found a pope in John Paul II who would restore the
medieval Roman Catholic Church to preeminence once more.
We wonder whether the decision of Pope John Paul II
to beatify the medieval-minded Pius XI and the pope of change, John
XXIII, on the same day, September 4, 2000, was not a masterly and shrewd
move to dampen opposition to the process of canonization of Pius XI, who
more closely voiced John Paul’s views, in this association with John,
whose modest changes have been largely reversed by John Paul II.
To set in motion the canonization of Pius IX, the
stern opponent of religious liberty, the arrogant proclaimer of his own,
his predecessors’ and his successors’ infallibility, the declarer of
Mary’s immaculate conception, surely shows where the present Papacy,
despite its popularity rating, stands.
It is most unlikely that John XXIII had the slightest
understanding that the very reforms he set in motion were to open the
way to worldwide quietude when the worst excesses of the Papal
assertions were restored under a façade of a friendly, somewhat affable,
pope, ruling at the turn of the twenty-first century.