August 27, 2012

Pope John XXIII was known for his sense of humour and his positive outlook on life. Perhaps it was these factors that led him to say, two years after his Jan. 25, 1959 announcement that the Church would hold a worldwide council, that the announcement was greeted by the cardinals present with "a devout and impressive silence."

No applause greeted the papal announcement in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Church historian Giuseppe Alberigo says the reaction of the 17 cardinals present was "characterized by bewilderment and worry."

No one in the know could see any reason for a council. For the Rome-based cardinals, who had run their offices at the Vatican with little oversight from the ailing Pope Pius XII for several years, a general council could only mean trouble. The Vatican would be flooded with bishops from around the world, bishops unfamiliar with Roman ways, the vast majority of whom the cardinals themselves did not know.

Even Cardinal Giacomo Lecaro of Bologna, who would later become one of the progressive leaders at Vatican II, groused, "How dare he summon a council after 100 years and only three months after his election? Pope John has been rash and impulsive. His inexperience and lack of culture brought him to this pass, to this paradox."

Raised in the tiny village of Sotto il Monte by peasant farmers who kept cows in their house, Pope John had the audacity to convoke an ecumenical council of the entire Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, he didn't even have a plan for this whimsical council.

Pope John XXIII's enthusiasm for the council was not shared by many others in Rome.


Pope John XXIII's enthusiasm for the council was not shared by many others in Rome.

What did the pope expect out of Vatican II? He said it would provide for "the enlightenment, edification and joy of the entire Christian people" and that the faithful of other Christian churches would be invited too. The pope said the idea to call the council came to him "like a flash of heavenly light." Other Church leaders felt quite in the dark.


But if the cardinals were dubious about the council, the rest of the world was not. Almost spontaneously, people around the world – Catholic and non-Catholic – saw the council as a great sign of hope and renewal in the Church. The expectation created overnight was tremendous.

Alberigo writes, "The approval by public opinion . . . provided John XXIII with a very significant confirmation and created difficulties for those who wanted to rein in his initiative."

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI, was initially cool to the call for a council.

But perhaps inspired by the excitement in his Milan Archdiocese, he wrote a pastoral letter stating, "A flame of enthusiasm swept over the whole Church. He understood immediately, perhaps by inspiration, that by calling a council he would release unparalleled vital forces in the Church."

Back at the Vatican, the reaction remained muted. On Jan. 26, L'Osservatore Romano ran the text of a papal speech against communism on Page One; the announcement of the ecumenical council was printed inside the newspaper.

The authoritative Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica completely ignored the papal announcement until April 25 when it published a survey of comments from the secular press. After that, not a single article on the council appeared in the Jesuit journal.


As the pope continued to talk publicly about the council, L'Osservatore completely ignored his comments while giving its regular profuse coverage to everything else the pope said and did. Even in its coverage of the Jan. 25 announcement, the Vatican paper left out the pope's comment linking the council to the search for Church unity.

One is inclined to conclude that the Catholic press in Rome felt that if it didn't write about the council, it would go away.

Nevertheless, the good Pope John, buoyed by public support, began to speak of the council in extravagant terms such as "a new Pentecost." How could the council possibly live up to this advance billing?


Yves Congar, an orthodox theologian who was nevertheless under a cloud in the suspicious theological climate of the time, wrote in mid-1959, "The hopes raised by the announcement of the council were gradually covered over with a thin layer of ash. . . . The impression was abroad – confirmed by people coming from Rome and reporting the latest gossip from the wretched Curia – that a whole team was busy sabotaging the pope's plan."

The silence that greeted Pope John's announcement was perhaps neither devout nor impressive. With more than three years remaining before the council began, there was still plenty of time to bury the pope's "new Pentecost" under a mountain of legalese and dreary documents.

(Information for this article was gleaned from History of Vatican II, vol. 1, by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak and from John XXIII: Pope of the Council by Peter Hebblethwaite.)