Pope John XXIII launched the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago with the hope for a new Pentecost
by Joe Bollig
There, in the third paragraph of a story about the closing ceremony for a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on Jan. 25, Pope John XXIII called for an ecumenical council.
To say that he caught the church by surprise is an understatement.
Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was almost 77 years old when he became pope. That’s why some cardinals voted for him.
There had been some uncertainty among the cardinals about the direction the church should take after Pope Pius XII, so they elected an elderly pope who, they figured, would serve a few years until they got things sorted out, said Msgr. Michael Mullen, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan.
In their calculations, however, the cardinals neglected to factor in the Holy Spirit.
“We must not forget the Holy Spirit was who was really guiding the church,” said Msgr. Mullen.
The unexpected council
Ecumenical councils do not occur with great frequency. In fact, up until Pope John XXIII’s announcement, there had only been 20 such councils in the 2,000-year history of the church.
The Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II) was preceded by the First Vatican Council, which was suspended in 1870 because the Kingdom of Italy invaded Rome and conquered the Papal States.
Before that First Vatican Council, the most recent council was the Council of Trent, held from 1545 to 1563. This was the council that dealt with the Protestant Reformation.
And to many in the church in 1958, there seemed to be no need for a council.
“When Pope Pius XII died in 1958, to the outside observer looking into the Roman Catholic Church, it looked like we were in really great shape,” said Sister Maureen Sullivan, OP, an assistant professor of theology at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N. H.
“We had more nuns and priests than we could have possibly needed at the time,” said Sister Maureen. “Catholic schools had waiting lists. We looked like the perfect society.”
But there was a dark side to the church, she said. The church at that time had a suspicious view of the world. This attitude came out of a reaction to the devastating effects of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
“As each succeeding period of history came . . . the Catholic response frequently was, rather than engage in the challenge we would condemn the challenge, and then retreat,” said Sister Maureen, “and do our theology apart from the real world. It was doing theology in a vacuum quite frequently, doing it in isolation — what we call an ‘ivory tower’ approach.”
Deep in the church, however, there were rumblings of forces calling for a different approach. During the 19th century there were tremendous advances in biblical scholarship, and the rise of a school of theologians called “modernists.”
“Basically, what [the modernists] were saying to the church at large was, ‘If you want to leave a mark on the world, you have to engage in conversation with that world,’” said Sister Maureen, who has written “The Road to Vatican II: Key Changes in Theology,” and “101 Questions and Answers on Vatican II.”
Some of the theologians who did pioneering work before the council included Father Karl Rahner, SJ; Father John Courtney Murray, SJ; Cardinal Yves Congar, Father Henri de Lubac, SJ; and Father Joseph Ratzinger — who we know today as Pope Benedict XVI.
Although he is rarely credited with it, in many ways Pope Pius XII set the stage for Pope John XXIII to take make his dramatic initiative, said Msgr. Mullen, a seminarian when Pope Pius XII died.
Pope Pius XII was a skillful theologian who had led the church through a traumatic period. The Nazis plunged Europe into the devastating World War II, and half of Europe had been taken over by communist dictatorships.
“World War II brought in an era of secularization and, in some cases, nihilism,” said Msgr. Mullen. “The Cold War [between communists and non-communists] was a reality.”
Pope Pius XII promoted liturgical reform in his encyclical “Mediator Dei,” and biblical scholarship in his encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu,” said Msgr. Mullen. The pope also approved limited use of vernacular languages, rather than Latin, in monasteries and some mission countries.
Why did Pope John XXIII call a council? There was nothing in his background that would suggest that he take such a bold step.
He came from a large, poor family that was also very devout.
It was clear that John XXIII, from his childhood, was quite spiritual and authentically humble. Personally, he was an optimistic person and had a positive view of humanity. He did not have the reputation of being a rebel — or someone who rocked the institutional boat.
As a churchman, he had a broader experience of the world outside of the church than many other cardinals, thanks to his experiences as a Vatican diplomat to the non-Catholic countries of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Thus, he had the opportunity to dialogue and find common ground with people who did not share his beliefs.
Pope John XXIII called the council because he wanted a new Pentecost in the church, said Sister Maureen.
“This is what Pope John XXIII wanted — another rejuvenating moment in the lives of Catholics,” said Sister Maureen.
The pope wanted to reignite the faith in the hearts of believers, reform the institutions and life of the church, promote Christian unity, and engage non-Christians in new ways. His watchword was “aggiornamento,” which in Italian means to “renew, bring up to date, and to revise.”
Some, like Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, said that Pope John XXIII had been thinking of a council since the moment he was elected pope. Others said he was present when the idea of a council had been bandied about among other clerics.
As for himself, Pope John XXIII related a story to some pilgrims on May 8, 1962. Soon after he was elected pope, he conversed with a cardinal about the troubles of the world and the challenges facing the church.
“My interlocutor [Secretary of State Cardinal Domenico Tardini] listened with reverence and attention,” said the pope. “Suddenly, my soul was illuminated 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!’”
Acceptance and resistance
The cardinals at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls didn’t stand on their chairs and cheer when Pope John XXIII announced the council on Jan. 25, 1959.
“It was stunned, shocked silence,” said Sister Maureen. “They could not believe that he was calling a council, because in the minds of many there was nothing wrong with the church.”
“The previous 20 ecumenical councils the church had in its history had all been called to address some doctrinal crisis, a heresy,” she said. “There was nothing like that. They could not comprehend what he could possibly have on his mind to call this council.”
There was real fear by some in response to the call for a council. Some felt Pope John XXIII was stirring a pot that didn’t need stirring. Many in the pope’s inner circle tried to dissuade him. Some even tried to sabotage the council.
The archbishop of Milan — Cardinal Giovanni Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) — received a letter from a friend within the Roman Curia (or church’s central administrative offices) during the two years of preparation between the announcement and opening of the council. In his letter, the cardinal’s friend said that after their initial fright, the “old buzzards” of the Curia who were against the council had regrouped and were “tightening around the dear head of John XXIII.”
But Pope John XXIII was an optimist. He was optimistic about humanity — and he was optimistic about the church.
This was reflected in the headline of an article published in the Oct. 19, 1962, issue of the Eastern Kansas Register (predecessor of The Leaven): “Stop Sighing for Old Days, Pope Tells Gloom Prophets.”
“In the present order of things,” the article quotes the pope, “Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the church.”
Cardinal Congar spoke for many when he said that the council could be a catastrophe — but if it was the work of the Holy Spirit, it would be magnificent.