It was shortly after noon on Monday, October 11, 1962. Under a tall bishop’s miter, the homely little man scrunched over his manuscript of oversized type of Latin text, peered through thick eyeglasses, and began in a firm, clear voice. “Venerables Fratres,” he read: “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia… optatissimus iam dies illuxit.” “Dear Brothers, the entire Church rejoices… the longed-for day has finally dawned …” Before him on long tiers of red-lined benches was the largest gathering of Catholic bishops ever assembled. Vatican Council II had begun.
At first appearance, the Holy Father, John XXIII, seemed the most unlikely of men for such a role. He was 81 years old and in failing health. Some, in the press, caricatured the pope as a kindly country bumpkin of little intellectual merit. But His words sang that day. The pope spoke of Christ walking with the church “through nineteen centuries in a cloud of sorrows and of trials.” Among the ranks of 2400 bishops, many leaned forward to catch the meanings of the words of this man with memories of a Church that most of them had never known.
Angelo Roncalli, born the fourth of a family of 13 children of a family of sharecroppers in Northern Italy in 1881. He had entered the seminary at the age of 11, and by his early twenties he had been sent to Rome to finish his ecclesiastical studies. Ordained a priest (his parents were too poor to attend the ceremony), he was shortly thereafter appointed Secretary to the Bishop of the diocese of Bergamo in the northern Italian hill country. In the first decade of the twentieth century the Vatican had severely condemned virtually all forms of progressive Catholic scholarship. Teaching in the relative backwater of the diocesan seminary at Bergamo, Roncalli discovered one day that a priest colleague had summarily been dismissed from his post for allegedly conspiring against the interests of the church.
From the beginning, however, Roncalli’s vision of the Church was far broader than that of many of his contemporaries. Accompanying his bishop on pastoral visits, the young priest came upon the journals of Charles Borromeo, the saintly Archbishop of Milan who in 1575 had conducted an in-depth visit to theDiocese of Bergamo to implement the Council of Trent. The records revealed a local church in confusion, riddled with jealousies, failings and opposition to the reform decrees. But in the ultra-conservative thinking of the time, any acknowledgment of ecclesiastical failings was viewed by some as a criticism of Holy Mother Church, and the young priest trod lightly.
Fifty years later, such narrowness still persisted within some of the Roman offices and seminaries, and in his address to the council fathers, Pope John was finally able to address this topic. There are those,” he declared, who “behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty…They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. …We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”
Certainly, in his personal history, life had been his teacher in him many things. During World War I, Roncalli had been pressed into service in the Italian Army in the medical corps, where he ministered to the wounded, and the dying. In 1921 he was made a monsignor and was appointed the Vatican’s fund-raiser in Italy for Catholic missions. He also served as a papal visitor to the poor dioceses of Southern Italy and Sicily. Although recognized by some as a talented, problem solver, Roncalli found that his theological views were still viewed with suspicion. Less than six months after being appointed lecturer on the Early Church Fathers at the prestigious Lateran University in Rome in 1924, he was summarily relieved of his position. His Vatican personnel file indicated that he was suspected of “modernist” tendencies.’
But life went on for the man, who had adopted the Episcopal motto of “Obediantia et Pax” (“Obedience and Peace”). When the political situation in Bulgaria began to collapse in 1925, Roncalli was hurriedly given the rank of archbishop and dispatched to a largely Greek Orthodox country that had not seen a papal visitor since the 13th century. “Bulgaria is my cross,” he later confided. Seeking out Catholic communities with their decaying churches, among a nation of Muslims and Greek Orthodox, he traveled by horse drawn carriage or horseback. Everywhere he went, he formed new friendships and brought fresh air to long-standing conflicts between religious groups.
In the late 1930’s he was reassigned as papal ambassador to Turkey, a Nazi leaning country that served as an important conduit between the Vatican, Germany, Russia, Vichy France, and the allies. In addition to his diplomatic duties, Roncalli aided thousands of Eastern European Jews, particularly children, obtain the exit papers needed to reach Israel.
The post war years found Roncalli serving as papal nuncio in Paris. As always Roncalli, reached out to others. He befriended writers, atheists, and masons, and maintained close contacts with the French Jewish and Protestant Communities. Meanwhile the Church was struggling with the modern age. Communism was particularly feared, but so too – once again — was “theological modernism.” Books were banned, writers told not to publish; individuals were deprived of teaching posts and assigned to obscure ministries. Concern was expressed for unacceptable forms of religious art and church architecture. Social reform efforts, such as the worker-priest program were also suppressed. These complaints fell particularly hard upon France, and Archbishop Roncalli had frequently to moderate tensions between the French hierarchy and Rome. As always, he handled all of these concerns with charity and tact.
With the hot, bright lights of St. Peter’s Basilica, prelates sweated under their layers of vestments. But their eyes remained glued on the speaker with the mannerisms of a kindly old professor working through pages of his text. But the issues he raised– some of which dealt with the Papal court itself – were incisive.
“In the daily exercise of our pastoral office,” Pope John noted, “we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure…. [But] the truth of the Lord will remain forever…And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun.” He spoke of a Church that emphasized compassion and not condemnation. “The Church has always opposed …errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”
Throughout his life, Angelo Roncalli had always regarded himself as someone who now and then was allowed to trot in the place of the better horses of the Church. But in 1957, Pius XII had died, and shortly there after, on the eleventh ballot of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Roncalli was elected as his replacement and took the name of Pope John XXIII.
With his final words, “The Council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak…To Jesus Christ…be love, power, and glory forever,” the address ended. Pope John moved to a portable throne where a dozen footman in red liveries lifted him into the air and began to traverse the long nave of St. Peters. As he passed the ranks of bishops they removed their headpieces and applauded and Holy Father. He had set out the course of the council. He had given a speech for the ages.
“Good Pope John” as the world knew him, would die in less than a year, long before the great work of Vatican II had been completed. But the council, with its powerful documents on the Church, liturgy, religious liberty, revelation, and ecumenism, would forever remain an enduring monument to his faith. “He was courageous,” Pope Francisco later said, “a good country priest, with a great sense of humor and great holiness.” He was “a pastor, a servant-leader, …the pope of openness to the Spirit.” On April 27th, 2014, Angelo Roncalli, was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church.