Letters From Vatican City
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 Jews had been removed. His enemies—and he had plenty within the Church though few outside it—secretly called him a Communist and openly a “television personality.” Yet, even on television, he was unlike anybody else. A friend noticed that instead of saying “I love children,” as any television personality would, John said “I’m good with children,” showing that he thought about the children’s reaction rather than his own.
Because the Council was so much Pope John’s creation, “Xavier Rynne’s” report of its proceedings would under any circumstances be an important document. Because of the personality of the writer or writers—generous, liberal, and humane—it has a literary value that will outlast its documentary value, though this is enough in itself. Summarizing debates—particularly debates that have no interest for the majority of us—is a dull affair at best; but in paragraph after paragraph the reader is made aware of the personality of the speaker. “As the Cardinal droned on, many of the fathers retreated to Bar Jonah.” This is our Irish cardinal, Browne, hit off; and here, to switch from masochism to sadism, is your cardinal, Spellman: “On the Cardinal’s behalf, it is only fair to add that a certain theologian had told the American bishops that when 100 priests concelebrated, the Church was 99 masses short.” But the late Cardinal Godfrey of England is my own favorite. “He was afraid that the return to the practice of giving communion with both bread and wine in a country such as his would lead people to think that the Catholic Church was giving in to the Anglicans…. But he was even more concerned for hygienic reasons because women with lipstick regularly approached the altar for communion.”
If only one knew what the holy old man upstairs thought about it all! His rare interventions were striking. The Yugoslav bishop I have referred to, who had a nervous impediment, attempted to get the Council to put in a good word for St. Joseph. He was rudely treated by the Council, but, all the same, St. Joseph’s name was promptly added to the Canon of the Mass by the Pope himself, because he knew what the fathers did not know—that the old bishop had suffered for years in one of Comrade Tito’s camps and had had his hips broken in a faked accident.
What, then, will his disciple and successor do? We may be quite sure that by the time the Council meets again, conservative opposition will have hardened. Already, even I hear mutterings to the effect that “the Pope himself can be deposed.” Pope Paul is not only an intellectual and a liberal; in his own right he is a very brave man who denounced Fascism when his superiors compromised on it, but his very first words as Pope disconcerted those who had grown accustomed to the magic of John.
It would not be fair to judge him by these. After all, who could have succeeded Lincoln? And the present Pope may well have to face the same sort of decision that Lincoln had to face, because the present position of the Council suggests that it has little choice between Reform and Schism.
But was Reform all that Pope John was thinking of? My own impression was that his ideas had gone far beyond Reform. Every civilization expresses itself ultimately in one word, and when the word becomes clear the civilization is near its end. Greece said “Beauty,” Judaea “Holiness,” Rome “Order,” while ours says “Truth.” Already “the desolation of reality” is in sight. John XXIII seemed to be searching for a new word, a word through which a declining civilization might renew itself, just as Rome renewed itself in Christ.