Open to the world

Daily Reading for June 4 • John XXIII, Bishop of Rome, 1963

Cardinal Roncalli, a former Vatican diplomat enjoying the honourable semi-retirement of the Patriarchate of Venice, was elected John XXIII in 1958 largely because he had few enemies, and because no one involved in the election thought that he could do much harm; he was seventy-six and it was (rightly) thought that he would not enjoy a long period in office. After the last exhausted years of Pius XII, it was sensible to look for a man of peace who would give the Church a chance to find a decisive leader to set an appropriate direction for the future. . . .

The new pope’s ebullience and boundless curiosity, so disconcerting to churchmen conscious of papal protocol, was matched by a shrewd ability to get what he wanted. What he wanted did not coincide with the wish of prominent members of the Vatican’s Curia to defend old certainties without much further discussion. Instead, to the horror of Curial officials, in 1959 he threw everything open to discussion by announcing his intention of calling a new council to the Vatican. . . .In 1962 more than two thousand bishops [arrived] in Rome, with Europe contributing less than half of their number. The bishops had been consecrated from within an ecclesiastical system paranoid about Modernism, but they brought with them a myriad of different practical experiences of what it was to be a Catholic in 1962. . . .

This unprecedented gathering of Catholic leaders listened with fascination to a pope who in his inaugural address spoke excitedly of the providential guidance of the world’s inhabitants to “a new order of human relationships,” and, far from lecturing the world, criticized those “prophets of misfortune” who viewed it as “nothing but betrayal and ruination.” . . . All the defensive draft documents so carefully prepared by the Curia were rejected and replaced with completely different texts. Two crucial agreed documents [Lumen Genium, “The Light of Peoples” and Gaudium et Spes, “Joy and Hope”] have remained central to the council’s legacy—they have provided a springboard for action to some Catholics, an obstacle course to others. . . . The whole statement breathed the happy confidence, already expressed in Pope John’s opening address, that the Church need not fear opening discussion with those outside its boundaries.

From Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (New York: Viking, 2009).

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