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Chapter 44

John XXIII
28 October 1958 — 3 June 1963

 

Born on 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 success.

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 "Grandpa" John.

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 Peter. (Ibid.)

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 heretics.

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. 390, 391)

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 archdioceses.

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 springboard.

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 people.

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. 393)

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 the reader.

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 redeemed.

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.

 


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