John XXIII: His Council and Achievement Remembered

by J. Robert Nelson

J. Robert Nelson, since 1985, has been director of the Institute of Religion at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 6, 1982, p. 978. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The wall of division, built up during 1,000 years, had been breached.  Pope John XXIII, the jolly old caretaker, had done it, and for reasons which were transparently in accord with the purpose declared in the New Testament.

Twenty years have passed since that October 11, 1962, when Pope John XXIII looked across the transept of the Basilica of St. Peter and saw, to his immense satisfaction, the living sign of the Catholic Church’s break with the unholy tradition of ecclesial exclusivism. The 39 human components of this sign were the separated brethren of Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches, who, mirabile dictu, had been invited to the Second Vatican Council as observers. If, in the currently popular colloquial style, we should call them “the Vatican 39,” we would do so in sober realization that they symbolized the breach in a dogmatic wall which for centuries past had kept Roman Catholics alienated from their hundreds of millions of sisters and brothers in Christ. So far as Catholics are concerned, the era of ecumenical openness began on that day. Pope John was personally and primarily responsible.

Celebrations of the centennial of the “good” pope’s birth have been held recently in many places. Now they all culminate in the “ventennial” of his historically unprecedented ecumenical achievement. A generation of young men and women has now come to maturity without having known either that time of Catholic exclusivism or the personality of the pope who strove to end it.

Contrary to what millions of people learned in the 1960s, Pope John did not invent ecumenism. The real pioneer and patriarch of the ecumenical movement was another man named John: the American layman John R. Mott, of whom Pope John probably knew little. When Mott convened the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910, Father Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, as Pope John was known then, was only 28 years old. However, though the pope did not invent ecumenism, had his fellow cardinals in 1958 not sent up the white smoke to announce his election, some of us might still be having meetings with our Catholic friends in an atmosphere of uneasy secrecy: like some of those sub rosa sessions in Geneva, Lyon, Mainz and Evanston with such Catholic proto-ecumenists as Fathers Weigel, Lortz, Congar, Dumont, Villain, Willebrands and Tavard. By convening his council, Pope John vindicated their foresight and courage; he brought them to the light of recognition and approval. Pope John’s words and actions were, in effect, saying nihil obstat to ecumenism. That nothing stands in the way of ecumenism was also the formal declaration of the Vatican Council. All that hinders unity now is the indifference, sloth, misunderstanding and prejudice of some Christian people. The pope’s example demonstrates to all the world how deplorable and inexcusable these remaining impediments are.

As we look back on the 100 years since this man joined the human race, we can only be amazed. How does it happen that one person can rise to such prominence as to redirect the course of history? Pope John’s biographies tell much about the first 77 years of his life which made possible the remaining four years of his pivotal papacy. But no biography can really explain him. In the last analysis we must simply repeat the familiar words of St. John’s Gospel: “There was a man sent from God whose name was Giovanni.”

There was neither sentimentality nor purple pomposity in the commemorative words of Cardinal Leo Suenens when he eulogized the late pope before the second session of the Vatican Council on October 27, 1963:

John XXIII was a man singularly natural and supernatural at the same time. Nature and grace formed a single whole in a living unity full of charm and unforeseen variety. . . . He breathed his faith, as he breathed physical and moral health, with open lungs. . . He lived in the presence of God with the simplicity of one who strolls along the streets in his native city.

That city was Bergamo, and one of its small borgi, or suburbs, Sotto il Monte (Below the Mountain), north of Milan. He was born there, one of 13 brothers and sisters, to impoverished sharecroppers. Italian peasants were not like the happy, colorful contadini singing and dancing on the stage of La Scala. They were, instead, like the longsuffering, barely paid laborers of Olmi’s great film Tree of Wooden Clogs. Like the child in the film, the boy Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli walked barefoot to school, carrying his shoes to save the precious leather.

Roncalli’s life was a contrast to that of Bergamo’s other famous son, Bartolomeo Colleoni, the great mercenary general, or condottiere, of Venice in the 15th century. The two local heroes symbolize contrasting concepts of greatness. One can see Colleoni today astride his horse in Venice, in Verocchio’s greatest of all equestrian statues. He considered himself the genetic descendant of Hercules, and the superior military descendant of Julius Caesar. In Bergamo, which for four centuries was ruled by Venice, Colleoni planned a gorgeous monument to himself, his own mausoleum, smaller yet grander by far than Napoleon’s tomb in Paris.

Angelo Roncalli’s life witnesses to a different kind of greatness. In a local church, young Angelo found the motto Oboedientia et Pax. It was branded into his mind as the guiding concept of his life. He chose it as his episcopal motto, and was a bit disappointed to learn that tradition would not allow its being added to his papal coat of arms.

Hercules, Caesar, Colleoni: there is symbolized brute strength, military power, political power, economic power, the power to enslave and destroy; the power of international arms sales, nuclear stockpiles, oil cartels and transnational corporations; the spiritual power of imposed belief and religious triumphalism demanding obedience and maintaining an uncertain peace by the balance of terror, whether by threats of hell or atomic apocalypse. Roncalli chose obedience to a master whose new commandment was “to love one another.” And he strove for a peace which is “not as the world gives.”

His Master asked, “If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt. 5:46). To love the people you like: that is easy. To love fellow Catholics, yes.

To love so-called schismatics, Orthodox and Protestant, or to love Jews and persons of other faiths  -- that is harder for a Catholic bishop, cardinal and pope. To love those of no religion, to love even communists: what a strain on oboedientia to Jesus’s mandate!

Yet Angelo Roncalli loved them all. For ten years as the Vatican’s vicar apostolic in Sofia, he learned to know, admire and love the Orthodox Christians of the Patriarchate of Bulgaria. Even though the presence of the Uniate Catholics was a thorn in the Orthodox flesh, they responded in kind to Roncalli’s manifest openness and affection. During the next decade (1934-44) in Istanbul, his capacity for love was tested not only among the Greek-speaking Orthodox of the Ecumenical Patriarchate but among Turkish Muslims. Archbishop Roncalli came to care for these people most genuinely, and they for him. He had received from God the charisma to love both humanity in general and individual human beings.

When, as pope, he spoke so conversationally with the non-Catholic delegates/observers to the first session of the council, it was the experiences in Sofia, Istanbul and Athens which he recollected as his ecumenical formation. But he made no mention then -- and modestly seldom mentioned -- how, during the war years of Nazi occupation, he had endangered himself by arranging for Jewish refugee children to escape by providing baptismal certificates and passage on ships.

Angelo Roncalli was named papal nuncio to France in 1944. There, at the request of Pope Pius XII, and following an old tradition of the heads of French government, the cardinal’s red biretta was placed on Roncalli’s massive head by Vincent Auriol -- first president of the French republic after World War II and a non-Catholic Christian.

How do love for humanity and yearning for world peace find effective institutional expression? The postwar answer was the formation of the United Nations in San Francisco and of UNESCO in Paris. Cardinal Nuncio Roncalli did not hesitate to press for the Catholic Christian influence upon these instruments of international order and peace. From the start, thanks to him, the Catholic Church has had close and official connection with the UN, UNESCO and related agencies. Sean MacBride, a Nobel laureate for peace, has recently reminded us that Roncalli contributed vigorously to the conceiving and drafting of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His concern for human rights and freedoms reappeared with papal authority in his crowning encyclical, Pacem in Terris in April 1963, which complemented his witness to human justice in Mater et Magistra.

Richard J. Gushing, the late archbishop of Boston, once told about a conversation he had had with Pope John. The pope had asked him if he were a theologian.

“Your Holiness, the only theology I remember is in Catechism No. 2. All my priesthood has been spent in helping others,” Gushing answered.

“Shake hands, you will never have any problems,” the pope replied.

But although Roncalli, unlike the present Pope John Paul II, had little interest in the nuances of philosophy and theology, during his time in France in the ‘40s he learned to appreciate what the new progressive theologians were saying about the meaning of historic Christian faith for men and women in the present epoch of culture and civilization. He also learned to know the forward-looking leaders of the French and Belgian hierarchies: Saliège, Liénart and Suenens, as well as the venerable, heroic Gerlier of Lyon. And in Paris was the Centre Istina, devoted to studying ecumenical relations with Orthodoxy and with the newly organized World Council of Churches. Istina became a training camp for Catholic ecumenists who were led by Dominican Père Dumont.

In Lyon lived the modest little “apostle of unity” through prayer, l’Abbé Paul Couturier. His vocation was to promote the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, in the belief that God alone knows the time and the form of the full unity of the church on Earth. Was it not significant that Pope John later had his inspiration for a Vatican Council during the Week of Prayer 1959, and announced it on the closing day of that period of intercession?

But in 1952 no one could have foreseen such an event. Then Cardinal Roncalli, 71 years old and having accomplished a magnificent service to Christ and the church in constant oboedientia, was given the opportunity to enjoy the pax of a quiet old age. Next to the dazzling beauty of San Marco Cathedral, with tourists and pigeons swarming over the overripe vestiges of the Most Serene Republic, he could relax as a patriarch of Venice. Here Roncalli could smile and wave to the Condottiere Colleoni on his Verocchian horse, and remember Bergamo with a sigh, as old men are expected to do.

A curious book of facts, published in Philadelphia in 1795, advises the reader that Thomas Jefferson, having served his new country well through the Revolution and inauguration, was now retired in Virginia. The writer was excusably unaware that Jefferson’s greatest political work would be done in the coming 30 years! Like Jefferson, Roncalli still had his most important work to do. The story of Patriarch Roncalli’s journey to Rome in 1958 is now a legend of ecclesiastical folklore.

When it became apparent that the conclave was going to elect him pope, he spent the night, weeping, in his cell. “Horrefactus sum!” he exclaimed. “I am horrified!” Nevertheless, when the words “Habemus Papam” announced his election to the thousands compressed into the vast Piazza San Pietro, there he was: fresh, jovial and apparently full of energy.

Here was the Vatican’s greatest surprise of the century. The cardinals thought that they had elected a caretaker, a pope pro tempore, un papa di passagio. It was never reported what the Curia said when it saw what this old, new pope was actually doing to change everything. Perhaps the members cried in chorus, “Horrefacti sumus!”

For his papal name, Angelo Giuseppe looked to the Bible. Other modern popes wanted to be known as Pius, or Benedict, or Leo. But two biblical witnesses to Jesus Christ gave Roncalli his new name: John the Baptist, the pro-dromos, forerunner of the Messiah; and John the beloved disciple of Jesus. This choice, he said, was quite deliberate.

The stories about his first months in the Vatican are numerous and wonderful. An unpublished one was told by Cardinal Suenens ten years ago in Louvain, Belgium. In one well-known joke about the sede gestatoria, John had said that being carried aloft by a team of lackeys made him seasick. Cardinal Suenens told about the time when John leaned down and said to the men, as they began the procession, “My predecessor was not so heavy as I am -- but I’ll pay you more.”

Cardinal Bea told this one: A certain bishop complained about all the troubles in his diocese. The pope said to him gently, “Excellency, I too have a diocese, and sometimes I too have difficulties. At such times I go to my chapel. And once it seemed to me that Jesus said to me, ‘Now, Johnny, don’t take things too hard. There’s me, too, still in my church.’”

Despite his warmth and humor, responsible leaders of the Orthodox and Protestant ecumenical movement in 1958 saw little reason to rejoice over the accession of this aged pope. The general reaction was one of skepticism. A Baptist editor, doubting the possibility of any change taking place in the Catholic Church under Pope John, summed up the feeling in 1958. He wrote: “Only the ashes of vision remain in a man of 76 years.” In fact, this gloomy editorial appeared the week of Pope John’s 77th birthday. No one yet knew what live coals burned under those external ashes. What pneumatic power made the coals become a flame? God’s Holy Spirit blows as he alone directs.

That moment of ignition was recorded in the pope’s journal. The day was January 20, 1959, and the place was his private apartment. As the pope and his cardinal secretary of state, Tardini, conversed, suddenly, unexpectedly Pope John exclaimed, “Un concilio!”

“Si! Si! Un concilio!” answered Tardini.

“A flash of heavenly light,” the pope called it in his opening address to the council.

Francis X. Murphy, the erudite Redemptorist also known as “Xavier Rynne,” wrote in his widely read journal of the council that it was the pope’s desire “to give the world an example of peace and concord.” Methodist theologian Albert Outler has proposed a much different reason: when Pope John realized how thoroughly the Roman Curia controlled the papal office, this “shock of recognition” made him think of a council. Perhaps Murphy and Outler are both correct, if their remarks are understood in light of the pope’s triple purpose. Pope John’s conciliar purpose applied to three concentric circles: human unity and peace, the broadest circle; the unity of all Christians, with Special hope for the reunion of Orthodox and Catholics, the ecumenical circle; renewal and reform of the Church of Rome, beginning with the Curia itself, the inner circle.

Five days after the idea of holding a council came to Pope John, on January 25, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul and the culmination of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he announced his inspiration to an assembled group of 18 cardinals. Near the traditional site of the decapitation of St. Paul, this successor to another martyr, St. Peter, said:

“Venerable Brethren and beloved sons: Trembling a little with emotion, but with humble firmness of purpose, we now tell you of a twofold celebration. We propose to call a Diocesan Synod for Rome, and an Ecumenical Council for the Universal Church.” It is reported that none of the 18 cardinals could think of a single word in response.

Osservatore Romano, delaying until a second day’s edition, reported the announcement not of two, but of three, events in this order: “a Diocesan Synod for the city, an Ecumenical Council for the universal Church, and a bringing up to date of the Code of Canon Law.” And then the paper added in some surprise: “In the thought of the Holy Father, the Council does not have for its goal only the spiritual good of the Christian people but he also wants it to be an invitation to separated communities to seek unity.”

At that time, in early 1959, even Pope John was a bit unclear about Christian unity. His first encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram, invited schismatic Christians to come home to Rome. With unbounded optimism, he prophesied that the council would bring the church to “all her splendor, without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:27). Then the church will be able to say “to all those who are separated from us, Orthodox, Protestants and the rest: Look, Brothers, this is the Church of Christ. . . . Come: here the way lies open for meeting and for homecoming: come, take or resume that place which is yours, which for many of you was your father’s place.” No wonder that ecumenists, reading this encyclical, could agree with John Courtney Murray’s provisional judgment of the pope. Said this famous American Jesuit: “The symbol of him might well be the question mark -- surely a unique symbol for a pope.” At the end of that summer of 1959, still unpredictable, Pope John publicly announced his unprecedented, revolutionary idea: delegated observers from Orthodox and Protestant churches would be invited to the council sessions. Certainly, the pope gave members of the Curia something to discuss over supper that August evening.

Even the words of the supreme pontiff do not automatically assume flesh and dwell among us. In order to turn his words and ideas into acts, Pope John needed to find someone to be his ecumenical broker, enabler and change agent. If for nothing else, the events of this papacy should be of highest interest to gerontologists, for the pope, now near his 79th birthday, chose Augustin Bea, S.J., as his ecumenical executive officer; Bea had been born in Germany in 1881, the same year as the pope. Again we can only marvel over the ways of God and the mystery of the kairos. In retrospect it is easy to see that Pope John’s summoning of this Old Testament scholar from the Pontifical Biblical Institute on Piazza della Pilotta to an office across the Tiber was a crucial act. A shrunken little man with a constant glint of humor in his eyes, Bea had for many years been a slowly rising leaven of biblical and ecumenical theology in the Roman loaf. He would serve Pope John well.

I inject a personal memoir to illuminate the practical theology of Cardinal Bea. In June 1961 I had a two-hour talk with him. Along with matters of Christian church unity, we discussed unity in mission throughout the world. “Can Catholic missions work with, rather than against, Protestant missions?” I asked.

With that waspish smile, he replied in German:

“Theologisch ist das unmöglich, praktisch ist es notwendig” (“That is theologically impossible, but practically necessary”). With Pope John and the cardinal, practical ecumenism began to override the theologically impossible.

On the day of Pentecost 1960, Pope John announced the creation of Cardinal Bea’s vehicle for ecumenical implementation: the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. Again, it was kairos for a Dutch ecumenist to be named secretary: Jan Willebrands (today, primate of the Netherlands and president of the secretariat). Willebrands was already a veteran ecumenist. He and W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, had been friends for years. As a result, the chief executive of this formidable ecumenical organization became a confidential consultant to the new secretariat in the Vatican.

Cardinal Bea picked his members of the secretariat according to a hierarchy, placing Archbishop Lorenz Jaeger of Paderborn at the top. No Italians were selected. His theologian consultors were Fathers Dumont, Gustave Weigel, George Tavard, Gregory Baum, John Oesterreicher and Jerôme Hamer. They, among others, became the authors of the great Decree on Ecumenism, adopted by the council in November 1964.

With Pope John’s encouragement, and against strong curial opposition, the secretariat sent five Catholic observers to New Delhi in 1961 for the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches. This act set up the needed reciprocity for inviting the World Council to send observers to the Vatican Council. And then came invitations to various Orthodox churches and to the world organizations of Protestants, as well as to the Old Catholic Church, nearly all of whom responded by sending official observers. When the Second Vatican Council opened, there they were -- the 39 non-Catholic observers. They agreed with Cardinal Bea’s exclamation, “It is a miracle!” When Yves Congar, theological mentor to the council, saw them he wrote in his diary the simple words: “ils sont la! Dieu soit loué!” (“They are there! God be praised!”)

Pope John told them two days later, in special audience: “Every now and then my eyes turned to all my sons and brothers. And when my glance fell on your group, on each one of you, I found that your presence gave me joy.”

The wall of division, built up during 1,000 years, had been breached. The jolly old caretaker had done it, and for reasons which were transparently in accord with the purpose declared in the New Testament. As Cardinal Bea explained, “There is no desire for power, no earthly interest, no mere activism, no routine, but the true spirit of Christ.” The New Testament speaks of “the wall of hostility” between people, which Jesus Christ’s life and death have broken down. Christ’s act of atonement is the mandate for all Christians, in oboedientia et pax, to strive for reconciliation and unity. Angelo Roncalli lived in obedience to that mandate.