Letters From Vatican City
by Xavier Rynne
Farrar, Straus, 289 pp., $3.95
One of the contradictions of the modern world is that hundreds of millions of people believe in truth as revealed by experiments and statistics; hundreds of millions in truth as revealed by apparitions and miracles. Sometimes they are the same people: a Protestant friend in Dublin was treated by a radiologist who first rubbed the affected part with Lourdes water; Irish Airlines has its aeroplanes blessed annually. This contradiction can rapidly turn into persecution. Lack of enthusiasm for the Bleeding Statues of Templemore or the Kerrytown apparitions, particularly if combined with concern about infant mortality or the flogging and cropping of innocent school children, would blast the career of any Irishman. A Yugoslav bishop who had his hips broken by Communists—men, no doubt, with a proper reverence for science—is one of the heroes of a remarkable document called Letters from Vatican City. This report, written by the pseudonymous “Xavier Rynne”—rumored to be two or maybe three persons—is an account of the proceedings of the Ecumenical Council, before it was interrupted by the death of Pope John XXIII.
What has produced such enormous interest in the present Vatican Council is the question whether the miraculous and the practical can continue to exist side by side. When I read of a Spanish bishop asking “how much longer the Church was to be embarrassed by such ‘relics’ as Our Blessed Lady’s milk and veil, St. Joseph’s sandals and the like,” I for one cannot “forebear to cheer.” For me, neither the purely materialistic type of mind nor the purely spiritual type of mind is sufficient. I need the right to hope and pray as I need the right to doubt and experiment.
Reasonable people inside and outside the churches have recognized this difficulty for a very long time, but any common ground between the two faiths had begun to seem impossible. A vague hope emerged suddenly in the person of a remarkable old man—Pope John XXIII. His predecessor, Pius XII—I write this with profound respect for others like the authors of this book who think otherwise—was the sort to make reasonable men despair. He saw visions of the Blessed Virgin and left the administration of the Catholic Church to its civil service, the Curla. Pope John took to limiting the powers of the Curia, and the only vision he ever seems to have seen was one of charity and brother-hood. “Wherever I go in the world,” he told the Orthodox Christians of Bulgaria, “if any Bulgarian passes my house at night in misery, he will find a lamp lit in my window. Knock, knock at the door! I shall not ask if you are Catholic or not, my Bulgarian brother. Just come in! Two brotherly arms will greet you, and a warm and friendly heart will make you at home.”
Fine, flowery Italian rhetoric, if you like, but this same old man stopped a service in St. Peter’s until an epithet offensive to …