Is Pope John changing the Catholic church?
In just seven months John XXIII has all but rewritten the rules on how a pope should behave. For Catholics everywhere — and for the world at large — his comparatively radical conduct may have far-reaching implications. Here’s an on-the-spot report
In the seven months since Giuseppe Roncalii, or John XXIII, ascended the Throne of St. Peter, many changes in personnel and administration have taken place at the Vatican. But no change has been more surprising or even more significant than the way the new Pope, a traditionalist and still an innovator, has chosen to throw overboard many of the old rules about how the Roman pontiff should behave.
From 1871, when the armies of the Italian Risorgimento ended papal rule in central Italy, successive popes considered themselves prisoners in the Vatican. Even after the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929, which was supposed to have resolved once and for all
the vexing “Roman question." papal visits outside the Leonine walls took place only on such rare and auspicious occasions as the opening of the Marian Year or the dedication of a new pontifical academy.
In the twenty years of the pontificate of Pius XII, the predecessor of John XXIII, the pope left the Vatican barely a half dozen times. In contrast, the new Pope has slipped outside the Vatican at least thirty times to date. He has gone to see sick friends and old cronies in Rome proper. He has visited jails, orphanages, hospitals, seminaries. He has attended a couple of concerts given specially for him. During Easter week His Holiness went to one continued on page 73
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Not for a hundred years have the people of Rome seen so much of a Pope”
Rome church after another and even walked on foot with other worshipers in Holy Week processions.
John XXIII has, moreover, announced his intention of visiting, sooner or later, in his capacity of Bishop of Rome, all of
the Italian capital’s one hundred and ninety-two parish churches. Not since old Pius IX used to stroll the streets of Rome a hundred years ago. striking up argumentative conversations with tradesmen and workers, have the people seen so
much of a pope. To the distress of the capital’s police force, the Pope has even been guilty of causing several severe traffic jams.
Another w'ay the new Pope has broken recent precedent has been to ignore the
old unwritten dictum that the pontiff should always eat alone. The last six or seven popes have customarily eaten in solitary splendor.
John XXIII tried that, too, for the first week of his reign." But after that." he told his staff, "I could stand it no longer. I have searched the gospels and can find no command that one should eat alone. When I eat alone I feel like a seminarist being punished.”
The result is that visiting bishops, old friends and relatives now quite frequently receive invitations to lunch. The Pope
especially likes to have at his table people from his home town of Bergamo, in north Italy, and from Venice, where he served as cardinal-patriarch before becoming pope. Only recently, for example. His Holiness invited to lunch the old caretaker of the Patriarchal Palace at Venice and his wife. The papal kitchen is presided over, incidentally, by sixtyyear-old Sister Paola, of the Order of the Poor Little Ones of Bergamo, aided by thirty-two-year-old Sister Rosa. The good sisters are expert in preparing the Pontiff's favorite polenta-with-game dishes of
Lombardy. The generous proportions of John XXIII confirm the fact that he is no stranger to the dinner table, and he himself does not try to deny it. He once said: "A good table and a fine cellar are great assets.”
Under the new Pope the Vatican is a much livelier and freer place than formerly. The old pope was, in his late years, most reluctant to make appointments. Many offices remained unfilled, with the result that perhaps half the apartments in the vast Apostolic Palace remained vacant for years on end. But
John XXIII, almost immediately upon his election to St. Peter’s Chair, began filling the vacant posts, with the result that the Vatican now literally teems with activity. Even a casual visitor to St. Peter’s Square these nights can notice how brightly lit are the once-dark windows of the Apostolic Palace.
Pius XII, despite the many thousands he received in audiences, became more and more withdrawn until in late years he disliked having anybody around except his most trusted intimates. For example, when he went for his customary walk every afternoon in the Vatican gardens he ordered that all workmen and other personnel leave the premises. To make sure there were no eavesdroppers, even from afar, he also closed the roof of St. Peter’s and suspended elevator service to the dome of the basilica during certain hours. At times during those years the inner Vatican acquired the silence of a cemetery.
But all that is past now. Significantly, the new Holy Father not only has ordered the workmen to keep on with their jobs when he takes his strolls, but he makes a habit of stopping and talking with them. His Holiness has simultaneously ordered that elevator service to St. Peter's roof be continued throughout the day. Meanwhile, the Pope makes a habit of dropping in unannounced at the various offices of his one-hundred-and-eightacre domain. One morning he called at the Vatican Radio; another time he wanted to see the type being set at L'Osservatore Romano; still another time he dropped in to see how the Vatican grocery functioned. The Pontiff really broke precedent one day by walking in through the front gates of St. Peter’s. When members of his staff pleaded that a pope should traditionally be carried into that imposing basilica on his sedia gestatoria, the Pope is said to have answered: “Please let me use my legs as long as I can.”
Press relations improved
Not the least important change in the new pontificate has been the improved treatment of the press. The old regime's public relations policy left much to be desired. Vatican affairs seemed beclouded in an abnormal secrecy. It was often difficult for a resident newspaperman of Rome to come by the most elementary and basic information. To get around this there had sprung up a rather tawdry and quite unsatisfactory system whereby the various news agencies and newspapers put minor clergy and minor Vatican officers on their payrolls as informers.
This system, it must be admitted, still holds; old habits die hard. But at least, under the new Pope, there are some signs of a new and more cordial attitude toward the press. One of the first audiences granted by the new Pope was to correspondents who had covered the conclave which elected him. Similarly, in an unprecedented move, the new secretary of state. Domenico Cardinal Tardini, paid a formal call on the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Rome.
These changes in atmosphere at the Vatican have led to endless conjecture: is the church itself changing? Partly the change is one of personality. In background and character Giuseppe Roncalli is quite a different man from his predecessor, Eugenio Pacelli. Partly, also, the change is one of policy. Policies which seemed to apply twenty years ago, when Pacelli became pope, no longer seem quite as effective.
The most conspicuous difference between the old and the new popes can perhaps be seen in the type of families from
which the two sprang. The Pacellis have long been petty Roman nobility, one of them made a prince under the government of the late Benito Mussolini. The old Pope’s nephews moved — and still move — in the most fashionable circles of Roman society. In contrast, the Roncallis have long been peasants in north Italy. The new Pope’s nearest kin are dirt farmers who earn their living by tilling the soil. It is impossible to imagine any of them with a title.
The careers and education of the tw>o popes were also quite different. Pius XII never attended a seminary, never was a parish priest and never filled a bishopric. His entire career in the church was as a bureaucrat or a diplomat. John XXIII, by contrast, not only attended a seminary but served both as a parish priest and as a chaplain in the Italian army.
Pacelli spent many fruitful years as Papal Nuncio to Germany, where he learned good German and acquired a taste for German music and an interest in German politics. Roncalli spent his diplomatic years either in the Balkans or in France, where he learned to speak excellent French and acquired a taste for things Gallic.
The most basic difference in the two men can perhaps be noted in their manner of work. Pacelli was the meticulous administrator, very exacting, seldom satisfied with the work of his subordinates, insistent on crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s himself. Roncalli, on the other hand, is a great delegator of work. He pays scant attention to details, bothers little about how a thing is accomplished, is inclined to lay down general principles and let others work out the ways and means.
As any good business manual explains, too much attention to detail does not make a good executive. Thus there can be no doubt that John XXIII must be considered by most standards by far the abler administrator. During the late years of Pius XIl's reign the church’s administrative machinery had deteriorated considerably. Not only was there no proper head to many of the Vatican's departments, but many officials in high places were simply unable to see the Holy Father, even on important questions. The story is told that on one occasion even Cardinal Roncalli. Patriarch of Venice, waited around the Vatican in vain for weeks trying to see Pius XII.
During those years power at the Vatican was concentrated in the hands of a group of four or five aging Italian cardinals. Heading this group was Nicola Cardinal Canali, who was the pope’s viceroy for Vatican State and also acted as chairman of the pontifical commission in charge of the Holy See's considerable capital investments. More important still. Canali sat on nine of the twelve different sacred congregations of the Holy See and thus had an important say in all the major decisions made since the end of the last war.
Cardinal C’anali's closest collaborator during those years was Giuseppe Cardinal Pizzardo, head of the Holy Office and a member altogether of some seven congregations. The third member of this group was Clemente Cardinal Micara, whose
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chief job was that of vicar general of the Diocese of Rome but who also belonged to seven or eight congregations.
The fourth — and perhaps most interesting — member of the Canali group was the Vatican’s chief theorist, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani. It was Ottaviani, in fact, rather than Pizzardo. who has been for the last decade the real power of the Holy Office, which is easily the most important of the congregations. The Holy Office acts as protector of the faith, judges and condemns heresies, lays down decrees of conduct for the good Catholic and is
guardian of the famous Index of banned books.
As vice-prefect of the Holy Office, Cardinal Ottaviani was the author of most of the controversial decisions emanating from the Vatican during the postwar years. A few years ago. Ottaviani ruled that Catholics ought not to belong to Rotary (this ruling was later modified, on objection by the American bishops). He also once made a speech in which he set forth the argument that Protestants could not expect to have equal rights with Catholics in a Catholic country. It w-as
Ottaviani’s eloquence which persuaded the old pope in 1949 to sign a decree denying the sacraments to practicing Communists. This decree has recently been followed by another which excommunicates even fellow-travelers or those who would form a popular front with the Communists.
The former decree has never been enforceable at the village level in Europe, and has thus been long considered a virtual dead letter. Both lay and clerical circles in Rome, therefore, were rather surprised and perplexed when the present Pope signed this latest Ottaviani ruling.
This latest move apparently applies mainly to a very local situation in Sicily, where rebels of the Christian Democratic Party have recently teamed up with Socialists and Communists against the majority of the Christian Democratic Party. But it would not seem to apply at all in a place like, for example, Poland, assuredly a much more important place for Roman Catholicism than Sicily.
Many of Cardinal Ottaviani’s ideas seem tailor-made for Italy rather than the outside world. His pronouncements, in fact, usually have to do with the Italian
political situation. His entire career, in fact, has been spent in his native Rome. Critics of Ottaviani—and there arc many in the Vatican — say that although he is able and vigorous, he fails to realize that the church in the New World has no problems like infiltration by communism such as beset the church in Europe, and that a ruling which seems perfectly valid for Italy is perplexing, to say the least, in a place like Canada. The postwar threat of communism, which perhaps has been more serious in Italy than in any other country in western Europe, has apparent-
ly colored Ottaviani's thinking. At any rate, Vatican gossip has it that to give him broader experience far from home John XXIII chose Ottaviani as his own personal representative at the forthcoming celebrations next autumn of the tercentenary of the founding of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Canada.
A part of the reason why the Canali group was able to wield such great influence in the Vatican was that Pius XII was loathe to broaden the base of the Roman Curia by appointing new cardinals. During the late years of the Pacelli reign
there were only twelve or thirteen cardinals. all told, in the Curia, and several of them were too old to carry out their jobs. A group of four or five determined prelates thus constituted a cohesive force strong enough to impose their will on most issues. Obviously one of the pressing needs of the church was to inject new and younger blood into the Sacred College.
The Roncalli candidacy was attractive for many reasons. Cardinal Roncalli had taken no intransigeant stand on any public question. He was considered neither too leftist nor too rightist. He had steered clear of the obvious cliques in the Vatican. and had particularly never identified himself with the Canali group, whose political complexion during late years had been one of arch-conservatism. He had had a brilliant diplomatic career in France, and had endeared himself to the French prelates, who were, incidentally, to become the driving force of the conclave. But perhaps the chief reason why Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope was that he had also a rich experience in the administration of parishes and dioceses and could be expected to do a little needed housekeeping for the church.
John XXIII did not disappoint his supporters. Immediately after his election he began filling most of the Vatican's vacant posts. For the first time in fourteen years the Holy See had a new cardinal secretary of state. More to the point, within two months of his election the Pope had created twenty-three new cardinals, thus bringing the strength of the Sacred College of Cardinals to well over the traditional seventy. The new Pope quickly reinstituted the regularly scheduled audiences of cardinals and heads of orders and let it be known that he was accessible to all. Instead of a skeleton force of a bare dozen cardinals at the church’s headquarters in Rome, the strength of the Roman Curia was doubled to twentyfour. With this additional personnel, particularly at the top. the Vatican during the past six months has hummed with unaccustomed activity.
No complacency in Europe
Until such time as the new Pope chooses to issue his first encyclical, now expected sometime in late summer, it will be impossible to say with certainty what will be his policy toward big social and political problems. But certain guesses can be hazarded. Left and right are deceptive terms to use when speaking of the Vatican. and any notion that under John XXIII the Vatican has turned toward the left is far wide of the mark. But there are some signs of liberalization of method if not policy.
The Vatican attitude toward governments differs not only from country to country but from continent to continent. As far as North America is concerned. John XXIII is said to feel that there are few problems that cannot be settled by the bishops on the spot. The Vatican would prefer that countries like Canada. Australia and the United States maintain regular diplomatic relations with the Holy See. But there is no intention tu press the point and. in fact. Vatican officials will admit that the present loose, informal system works quite well.
It is in a Europe split right down the middle between Communist-run states and countries run on the free enterprise system that the Vatican feels that no complacency can be permitted. Especially in Italy, where can be found the largest Communist party in the world outside Russia and China, the Vatican feels that not to make its influence felt would be tantamount to criminal negligence. The question, as the Vatican sees it, is not
one of interference or non-interference in politics. Rather, the question is one of survival or non-survival of a way of life.
There can thus be no doubt whatever that the Vatican is in Italian politics. Up until now, however, this has been done through open support—and more or less open management, too — of the Italian Christian Democratic Party, which has ruled the country since the war. This has now turned out to be a little like putting all one's eggs in one basket, and has recently resulted in several near-defeats of Vatican policy. As one indication of the new flexibility of approach that John XXIII has brought to his high office, the Vatican seems now to be reconsidering its tactics. It is quite probable that the Vatican will decide that other non-Comniunist parties in Italy can also be trusted with power.
The problem of the church behind the Iron Curtain is particularly knotty, requiring constant revision. Should the church stubbornly oppose these Communist regimes, and therefore run the risk of persecution for her communicants, or should the church try to get the best deal possible and hope for something better in the future? The question is especially complicated in Poland, where a powerful church opposition might conceivably even overturn the government—and. incidentally, risk bringing about direct Russian intervention. Since becoming pope. John XXIII has had many long sessions with his old friend. Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski. primate of Poland, presumably on this very problem. A decision seems to have been taken to extend limited cooperation to the Gomulka government.
In perhaps the most dramatic and characteristic move of the new pontificate, the Pope has announced his intention of summoning an ecumenical council on Christian unity. A papal bull outlining the problems and defining more clearly the scope of this council will probably be issued sometime later this year or early next. Meanwhile, it can only be surmised that the chief aim of this meeting will be one of trying to smooth the way for union with Rome of some of the autonomous communities of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
A great deal of unwarranted optimism has been expressed about this council. But at the Vatican almost nobody expects that any of the main branches of Eastern orthodoxy, such as the churches of Russia. Rumania or Bulgaria, would be allowed by the Communist governments to unite with Rome. Similarly, nobody is optimistic that a way can he found at this point to bring togther the great body of Protestantism with Roman Catholicism. But there are many small historic Christian communities of the Near East and Africa which, it is believed, might now he ready to join with Rome, provided assurances were given that their local customs would be respected. To get them back into the fold would be the first big step in the reconciliation between East and West.
There can be no question of revision of what the church calls her great truths, the dogmas. Similarly, the Church's stand on such questions as birth control and divorce is not regarded as a proper subject for compromise or barter. Any religious body returning to Rome would, moreover, have to accept the sovereignty and infallibility of the Pope. But liturgy and certain disciplines of the church can be relaxed and changed. For example, the thousand-yzar-old discipline of celibacy for the clergy can certainly be modified, as indeed it already has been modified on certain occasions. The Roman Catholic Church even now lists numerous married priests in its Eastern rite and a
few even in the Latin rite. One of the proposals certain to come before the forthcoming ecumenical council will be that of creating a lower, married clergy. Such married priests, it is thought, would be especially valuable in serving sparsely settled, out-of-the-way communities such as can be found in Canada’s vast north.
Some old Vatican hands say that the most profound change of the new pontificate is the hardest to put one’s finger on. It is simply that there now exists a broader, more tolerant attitude on the part of the Roman Catholic Church toward the other religious communities of the Western world. The mere probability that rep-
resentatives of other faiths will be invited to attend, in one capacity or another, the forthcoming council represents in itself a considerable concession. One tiny but quite significant event took place on Good Friday of this year, when His Holiness repeated at Holy Week ceremonies the traditional invocation which asks for divine blessing even for the “perfidious” Jews. Quite on his own, John XXIII changed the reading of this invocation by dropping the epithet “perfidious.” The Congregation of Rites, which is in charge of such matters, is now expected to issue a revised version of this prayer to conform with the Pope’s editing.
Real changes take time in the Vatican. Normally everything moves at a snail’s pace there. The prevailing attitude has always been that the church has been around for centuries, will be around for centuries more, and that it is indecent to react too quickly or to make snap decisions. But the world is moving much too fast these days for such lengthy deliberation, and in the first few months of the new reign the pace has been noticeably quickened. If this short period can be taken as a true indicator of what is to come, the pontificate of John XXIII may well turn out to be a turning point in the history of the church, it