On the morning of Sunday, October 12, 1958, the mayor of Venice led a contingent of notables, clerical and lay, gathered on the platform of the new Stazione Ferroviaría Santa Lucia to see off His Eminence Angelo Giuseppe Cardinal Roncalli, aged 76 years, the accidental Patriarch of Venice bound for Rome and the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Pius XII. The Mayor fully expected to welcome him back a few weeks later.
In the consistory of February 1953, Pius elevated four of his nuncios to the Sacred purple: Gaetano Cicognani, Spain, later Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Rites and pro-Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura; Pietro Ciriaci, Portugal, later Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Council; Francesco Borgongini Duca, Italy, later an official of Propaganda Fide who died in the following year; and, Angelo Roncalli, (France).
When the list of 24 new cardinals was announced on 29 November, 1952, among their number was Carlo Agostini, Patriarch of Venice (since February 5, 1949). Sadly, His Excellency died (on 28 December) of complications from Parkinson’s disease before receiving his red hat. (India’s Valerian Gracias, 52, Archbishop of Bombay, was added to the list becoming that country’s first ever cardinal.)
When Nuncio Roncalli’s elevation had been announced, President Vincent Auriol of France, an erstwhile anti-clerical socialist, claimed the ancient privilege of the Head of State of a Catholic country and so presented him with his red hat in the Elysee Palace.
A year earlier, a bit of the personality which was to so capture the imagination of the world, and not just the Catholic world, was demonstrated when Nuncio Roncalli, Doyen of the Corps Diplomatique, led the corps in presenting their traditional best wishes to President Auriol on New Year’s Day, 1952. The President related what happened in a statement issued when Good Pope John died in June 1963: “On New Year’s Day of 1952, mindful of my disputes with the mayor and parish priest of my town, he gave me as a present a book by Giovanni Guareschi, The Little World of Don Camillo, with these words on the flyleaf: To Monsieur Vincent Auriol, president of the French Republic, for his amusement and for his spiritual profit, from J. Roncalli, Apostolic Nuncio.”
Of course, French pride would only be satisfied should their Nuncio receive a suitable, lofty appointment upon his elevation. Customarily, Nuncios newly elevated were allowed a bit of a sabbatical before taking up new duties in the Roman Curia. Carlo Agostini’s death in Venice ensured that French pride would not be hurt by a much delayed, minor Vatican appointment; which, apparently, was exactly what had been in store for Angelo Roncalli: a sinecure to see out his remaining days.
When Patriarch Angelo departed Venice bound for Rome and the conclave aboard the 9.40 train, he had in his pocket a return ticket. However, as soon as he found himself in Rome, he also found himself being talked of by at least some of his brother cardinal electors as a strong candidate in the succession stakes. Cardinals Cicognani (above), Maurilio Fossati, Archbishop of Turin, and Elia Dalla Costa, Archbishop of Florence, were principal among those who favoured Roncalli’s candidacy.
For reasons known only to himself, Pius XII had held only two consistories for the naming of new cardinals during his almost twenty year long pontificate. By the time of his death there were only 53 cardinals and two of those died before the conclave opened. Thus, there were nineteen cardinal electors less than the maximum of 70 allowed under the Apostolic Constitution. Of that 51, 24 were older than Cardinal Roncalli!
On the afternoon of 28 October, feast day of the Holy Apostles Saints Simon and Jude, the third day of the conclave, at ten minutes to five the cardinal scrutineers announced that Cardinal Roncalli had secured 38 of the 51 available votes and so under the Apostolic Constitution, providing he accepted election, the senior Cardinal Deacon could declare “Habemus papam” from the central loggia, balcony, on the front of St Peter’s Basilica.
Accepting election and choosing to reign as John XXIII, the new Pope began his pontificate as he intended to go on. Before the members of the Sacred College dispersed from the Sistine Chapel, the new Vicar of Christ did something which had once been traditional but had been abandoned in recent times. He took his red zucchetto (skullcap) which obviously he would no longer need, and placed it on the head of Msgr Alberto di Jorio, who had served as Secretary to the Conclave. His Holiness thereby created him cardinal. He was to be the first of many.
Pope John’s first consistory, the first for almost six years, began on Monday, 15 December. Since one of the new cardinals was to be Mgr André Jullien, retiring Dean of the Sacred Roman Rota (another revived tradition), he should have been succeeded in that position by the vice Dean, the next most senior auditor by length of service. However, that poor man was terminally ill and in no position to accept the job. And so the Deanship fell to the next most senior judge, a proud Scotsman: Mgr William Theodore Heard MA (Oxon), DCL, PhD, DD.
By naming 23 new Cardinals, Pope John swept away four hundred years of tradition. It was not the actual number of cardinals created which destroyed the tradition, but the fact that they took the total number to 74. This exceeded the limit of 70 set by Pope Sixtus V in 1586, a total which was in practice seldom, if ever, reached.
Under that Sixtine disposition the Sacred College was to consist of, as a maximum: 6 Cardinal Bishops, 50 Cardinal Priests and 14 Cardinal Deacons. These latter were priests associated with the various administrative offices of the Vatican, the so-called cardinals in curia, and they were not bishops. Indeed, until the 1917 Code of Canon Law came into effect the cardinals deacon did not even need to be priests, although they did have to be in minor orders. Incidentally, according to that same Code of Canon Law, His Holiness should not have created one of the cardinals: Amletto Giovanni Cicognani, long time Nuncio to the USA, had a brother Gaetano (above) who was already a cardinal. The rules relating to the prevention of nepotism preclude two close relatives being cardinals at the same time, but since the Pope willed it…
Since John XXIII was choosing as one of his first acts to abrogate this Sixtine disposition, he decided to state clearly why he was doing so. Generally the new cardinals were being created in order to “(meet) the needs of a growing Church” and to “lighten the duties of the Roman curia”. He wished to create a situation in which “authority could be delegated”. He added that he “also had in mind that the very grave duties ― and in certain cases multiple duties ― incumbent upon some of you in the City of Rome might be lightened to some extent.”
His Holiness was considering not only the age and health of some of the members of the Sacred College but ― “and this was foremost in our mind” ― that the Roman Curia might be better able to expedite the matters referred to it. This, he believed, would be for the good not only of the Vatican and its staff, but also for the Universal Church. He also indicated that this was not to be his last word on the matter and that more elevations were likely. He said: “There are many others whom we have in our mind and heart and whom we judge most worthy of the same honour and whom we hope to honour at a future date with the same lofty dignity.”
The problem was that there were not enough titular churches in the Eternal City to go round; but that would soon be rectified.
The Beijing Olympics having now passed and the persecution of the Church having been resumed on its very last day with the arrest of a Bishop, it is worth recalling that in this his first major public utterance as Pope, Blessed John also launched a scathing attack on the Chinese communist government for its persecution of the church, of its missionaries, bishops, priests and people.
Perhaps Good Pope John was influenced in making these remarks by the death during the sede vacante of an old friend, Cardinal Costantini. In August 1922, Archbishop Celso Benigno Luigi Costantini was sent by Pope Pius XI to China as first Apostolic Delegate, serving there until 1933. He called the first Chinese Episcopal conference in Shanghai in 1924, which established a constitution for the mission to China, founded several regional major seminaries, and helped found the Fu Jen Catholic University. To the great delight of Pius XI, he brought six native Chinese priests to Rome for Episcopal ordination on 26 October 1926 in St Peter’s. (They are often described as the “first Chinese bishops”, but this is not correct. The Dominican, Msgr Lo Wen-tsao O.P. was both the first Chinese to be ordained priest, 1654, and bishop, 1685.)
As he drew his consistorial remarks to a close, His Holiness said: “It is our wish that our admonitions should reach also those who taking over the places and Sees of sacred pastors by unlawful means have unfortunately paved the way for a deplorable schism. This word ‘schism’ as we utter it seems almost to burn our lips and wound our heart. We cannot but beseech God that in His mercy he may avert such a calamity as is now threatening the Catholic community of China.”
Ironically, shortly thereafter, by announcing his intention to call a Council, Good Pope John found himself being accused from within his own curia of fomenting schism. He announced his decision to summon a Council when, on January 25, 1959, he addressed a group of eighteen cardinals gathered at St Paul’s Outside-the-Walls to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A communiqué issued that evening read: “The Holy Father does not envisage that the aim of the Council is only to procure the spiritual good of the Christian people; it is also to be an invitation to the separated communities to join in the search for unity.”
In the following month, our Msgr Theo Heard should, according to the rules and regulations governing the Roman Curia, have submitted his resignation as Dean upon reaching his 75th birthday, on 24 February. However, with the new Pope contemplating sweeping changes, and not just within the Vatican, and not with just the Council, it seems that it was made clear to Dean Heard that he was expected to soldier on for a little while yet.
One of the changes which His Holiness soon acted upon was the creation of a department within the curia to deal with questions relating to Christian Unity.
Fr Augustin Bea SJ, a Rhinelander, was Pius XII’s confessor. For many years he had edited Biblica and the commentary Cursus Scripturae Sacrae. He was consultor to the Holy Office, to the Sacred Congregation for Rites, to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and to the Congregation that dealt with Sacred Studies. Said to be a “most impressive” administrator, when he was nominated to the Sacred College of Cardinals in December of 1959, he was reckoned a worthy addition to that line of Jesuit cardinals running back to 1593 and Cardinal Toledo.
Fr Bea’s elevation to the Sacred College in December 1959, at the same time as Cardinal Heard, had been urged upon Pope John by some both within and outwith the curia anxious that the Holy Father’s determination that the Second Vatican Council should contribute to the process of reconciliation among Christians of all churches should not be sidetracked by the reactionary cardinals and other officials in the curia. Cardinal Bea was to go on to play a very influential role in the work of the Council; a role central to the legacy Good Pope John bequeathed the church and peoples he loved.