In Your Midst

Pope John the Good's Good Idea

Dec. 2008

Remembering the Second Vatican Council

January 25, 2009, the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, marks the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the Second Vatican Council.  This is the first in a series of articles in our parish journal recalling the Council.
           Angelo Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice, was 77 years old when he was elected successor to Pius XII on October 28, 1958. He was widely known and respected for his warmth, his diplomatic skill, and his great personal holiness; and it was also clear that he would not be around forever.  After the tumultuous twenty-year reign of Pius XII, people were ready for a short, quiet papacy.  But those who expected John XXIII to be simply a transitional figure, an “interim Pope,” were in for a shock.

           As the story goes, a story the Pope himself told many times, the idea of the Council came to him in a sudden inspiration several weeks into his pontificate.  He was talking over the troubles of the world with Cardinal Tardini, his Secretary of State.  The Cold War was at its height, and the Church behind the Iron Curtain was painfully silenced; there was so much division, so much injustice in the world.  If only, said the Pope, the Church could do something concrete in the face of all these problems—a gesture of openness, of unity… “Suddenly my soul was illumined by a great idea which came precisely at that moment and which I welcomed with ineffable confidence in the divine Teacher.  And there sprang to my lips a word that was solemn and committing.  My voice uttered it for the first time:  a Council”!

           At least, that was how Pope John remembered it, looking back from the vantage point of 1962.  The reality, as Peter Hebblethwaite has shown in his authoritative biography John XXIII: Pope of the Century, was even more amazing.  The idea of the Council came to Pope John not in the first weeks but in the first days of his pontificate; he had mentioned the possibility to Cardinal Ruffini as early as November 2—two days before his coronation!  The timing is significant.  “The Council was not ‘accidental’ to the pontificate or a kind of afterthought,” Hebbelthwaite argues; “it was coterminous with the pontificate as a whole, and acted as its goal, policy, program and content” from the very beginning.

           Not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea—in fact, quite the reverse.  When the Pope asked his young secretary what he thought, Msgr. Capovilla raised many objections—the incredible challenges of organizing such an event, the potential for failure, even the age of the pontiff.  The Pope replied, with a smile, “The trouble is, Don Loris, that you’re still concerned with having a good reputation.  Only when the ego has been trampled underfoot can one be fully and truly free.”

           But the project stayed with him, and Pope John became more and more convinced that the idea of the Council was indeed an inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  (“The Holy Spirit doesn’t help the Pope,” he said; “I’m simply his helper.  He did everything.  The council is his idea.”)  Before the end of the year, he was reading up on Vatican I, paying particular attention to the logistical preparations that Pius IX had made.  As he delved into the archives, he discovered that his two immediate predecessors had also given the idea of a council serious consideration.  Pope Pius XI had seen a council as a possible instrument for reuniting the Church after the devastations of World War I; and for Pope Pius XII, a Council could be means of correcting “a mass of errors” that had arisen in the wake of Modernism.  But for a variety of reasons, neither of these councils had materialized.  In all, there had been just twenty ecumenical councils in the history of the Church, and Pope John XXIII explored them all as his idea for the twenty-first council took shape.
           That first Christmas in the Vatican, Pope John XXIII revived an old custom of Pius IX, and astonished the world, by leaving the confines of Vatican City to visit orphans and prisoners in Rome.  The children greeted him warmly, some of them mistaking him for “Babbo Natale,” Father Christmas!  The men at Regina Coeli prison knelt outside their cells to receive his blessing.  A man convicted of murder wept as he asked the Holy Father whether there could be forgiveness for him.  And as the tears ran down his own face, John answered him by raising the man and embracing him.  It was a new papacy—a human papacy.  An old custom had been revived and filled with life.  It would be the same with the Council, which was simultaneously rooted in history, and utterly new.  Pope John XXIII recognized that renewal was the tradition of the Church.
           Pope John decided to announce the Council on January 25, 1959, at the conclusion of the week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  After the Mass in the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, the Cardinals gathered with him in the chapter-room of the adjoining monastery.  And there he told them his plans.  He made it clear that it would be like no Council before it when he extended a “friendly and renewed invitation to our brothers of the separated Christian Churches to share with us in this banquet of grace and brotherhood, to which so many souls in every corner of the world aspire.”

           The response of the Cardinals to all this was, in the words of Council commentator Xavier Rynne, “a devout and impressive silence.”  Not only was there no enthusiasm, there seemed to be no interest.  “For all they appeared to care,” writes Hebbelthwaite, “he might have been reading out his laundry list.  He was bitterly disappointed.”  Later, John characteristically tried to put a positive spin on their reaction, suggesting that “they had been stunned into silence and needed time to gather their wits” (Hebbelthwaite).

           Outside of the Roman Curia, though, the Council evoked considerable interest.  “Pope John has a gloriously casual way of saying and doing the unexpected,” wrote Father John Sheerin in The Catholic World for March of 1959.  And while the mainstream press took relatively little notice of the Pope’s momentous announcement, the Catholic press responded.  In Seattle, the Catholic Northwest Progress provided extensive coverage of the announcement and of the entire period of preparation.  On January 30, 1959, there were articles explaining exactly what a Council was (“ecumenical” means “universal”) as well as detailed reviews of the last Council, which hastily defined the dogma of papal infallibility before the bishops were scattered by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.  There was already considerable speculation on what the Council would be about.  Would it primarily aim at the unity of the Church?  Or would it be a continuation of that interrupted Council, which had never formally been closed?
           If it had been up to the Roman Curia, the Council would probably never have gotten underway.  They dragged their feet for months, until the Holy Father took matters in hand, establishing a Preparatory Commission with Cardinal Tardini at its head in May of 1959.  Pope John did not want to dictate an agenda for the Council; instead, he wanted to let the bishops of the world to talk about the matters of greatest concern to them.  And that made some of the curial Cardinals—the so-called intransigenti—very nervous.  Wouldn’t it be enough to send a questionnaire and get the bishops’ responses?  No, the Pope insisted.  Let the bishops express themselves freely.  And they did:  responses from the bishops poured in from all corners of the world, expressing the fears and hopes, the concerns and priorities of the universal Church.  By the end of 1959, some 80 percent of the world’s bishops had responded.  As the work of tabulating the 1,600 detailed responses began, Pope John XXIII announced that the Council would be called the Second Vatican Council.  He hoped it would begin within two years.
           At the end of October, 1959, on the first anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s election, syndicated columnist Patrick Riley wrote of the many surprises of the first year of the new papacy.  He recalled the “electrifying effect” of the Pope’s compassion for the poor—his visits to orphanages, hospitals, and prisons.  He wrote of the new Pope’s accessibility to visitors, his spontaneity, his sense of humor—and he wrote of the Council, the greatest surprise in a year of surprises.  “A grateful world thinks back to that evening a year ago,” Riley concluded, “when Cardinal Canali appeared on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square and announced, ‘We have a Pope.’

           “How right the cardinal was.  We have a Pope.”

Corinna Laughlin is Director of Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

Back to the December 2008 Issue of In Your Midst

Back To In Your Midst Page