Pope John XXIII (1958-1963)
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (1881-1963)

Pope John XXIII summoned the Italian bishops to the Roman Synod of 1959 as an anticipation of the Second Vatican council. In a massive reaffirmation of traditional practice, the pope solemnly confirmed the use of Latin, condemned all attempts at creativity on the part of the celebrant of Holy Mass, ordered Gregorian Chant, and forbade women entry to the altar area.

A year later the pope issued his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, On Promoting the Study of Latin, as the Church's cultural and religious heritage and as its living language -- universal, immutable, and non-vernacular. He bound bishops to "be on their guard lest anyone under their jurisdiction, being eager for innovation, write against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the liturgy, or through prejudice makes light of the Holy See's will in this regard or interprets it fa1sely." He attributed a very special importance to this document, promulgating it with a solemnity unique in the history of the present century -- in person, in St. Peter's upon the Confession of St. Peter himself, and in the presence of the cardinals and of the Roman clergy.

When he opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII charged the Council Fathers "that the Sacred Deposit of Christian Doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously [with a] renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teachings of the Church in their entirety and preciseness, as they still shine forth in the acts of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council."

In fact, the Second Vatican Council was apparently a great disappointment to the pope. According to Anne Muggeridge, the daughter-in-law of the famous British Catholic convert and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge), in The Desolate City, John Cardinal Heenan of Westminster reported that when, during the rebellious first session of the Council, the pope realized that the papacy had lost control of the process, he attempted to organize a group of bishops to try to force it to an end.

Malcolm Muggeridge, who reported from Rome on the Second Vatican Council for the British Broadcasting Corporation, considered Pope John "politically naive and unduly influenced by the handful of 'liberal' clerics with whom he is in close contact." In a 1985 interview, he gave his assessment of the pope thus:

Really Pope John -- who was built up as a saintly and perfect pope, the good man of our time -- whether consciously or unconsciously, did more damage to the Church than possibly any other individual man had ever done in the whole of its history.... It seemed almost as though Pope John was operating on behalf of the devil without being in any way conscious of it.

Whatever Pope John's disposition was, however, before the second session of the council could open, he died. His last words on his deathbed, as reported by Jean Guitton, the only Catholic layman to serve as a peritus at the Council, were: "Stop the Council; stop the Council." In any case, it is a fact that Pope John signed not one document of the Second Vatican Council.

Return Arrow Return to the Papal Photo Gallery.