The Great Eights Series: 1958

The Age of the Council

Was there a more decisive year for the Church in our time than 1958? Pope Pius XII died. An old order passed away, and a new one was born. Pope John XXIII was elected and decided to call the Second Vatican Council. Or was 1968 more decisive? Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) and took the key decisions to reform the liturgy, all in the face of a spirit of rebellion in the Church and in the world. Perhaps it was 1978? The year of three popes brought to Rome a history-making pontiff from a faraway country.

Fifty years since the death of Pope Pius XII; 40 years since Humanae Vitae; 30 years since the election of Pope John Paul II. Indeed, the “eight” years — 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998, 2008 — are like chapter headings in reading the history of the Church in our time. Call the book the “Age of the Council.” Over the next few weeks, the Register proposes to “read” through these 50 years, using these six milestone years as bookmarks.

In 1958, all the popes for the next 50 years were at center stage or already in the wings. John XXIII would be elected; Giovanni Battista Montini (Paul VI) was archbishop of Italy’s largest diocese, Milan; Albino Luciani (John Paul I) and Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) were both ordained bishops that year; Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) was invited to take up a professorship in Bonn, from whence he would attract theological attention and be invited to Vatican II as a key advisor.

The curtain rose on a dramatic half-century in the life of the Church in 1958.

The Church was expecting the passing of Pope Pius XII, who died on October 9, 1958. He had been seriously sick in 1954, and in declining health since.

Despite rapid growth in mission lands and the health of local churches in Europe, Quebec, the United States and elsewhere, there was an aged and tired feeling in Rome. There were only 53 cardinals when Pius XII died, 17 short of its then full complement of 70.

Two more would die before the conclave began. Of the electors left, almost half (24) were older than Angelo Roncalli who, just a few weeks shy of his 77th birthday, would be elected as John XXIII.

In the two long pontificates of Pius XI (1921-1939) and Pius XII (1939-1958), the Church had weathered the rise of fascism, the regularization of her relations with Italy by the creation of the Vatican City State, the horrors of World War II and the occupation of Rome, the rise of communism and the falling of the Iron Curtain. Too much history can get in the way of theology, but it was also a fecund magisterial period.

Pius XI made important contributions to the Catholic social doctrine and sharpened the Church’s voice against totalitarianism, both Nazi and communist. After World War II, Pius XII contributed several major encyclicals on the liturgy, on biblical scholarship and on evolution and science, as well as numerous important addresses which broke new ground in bioethics. The dogma of Mary’s assumption was defined in 1950.

Yet, all this was thought insufficient for the Church facing a modern world shaped by the Enlightenment. Work had begun at the First Vatican Council in 1869, but it was cut short by war and the fall of the Papal States in 1870. In 1923, Pius XI considered calling an ecumenical council, but with the pope still a “prisoner of the Vatican” until the Lateran Treaty of 1929, it was thought better to wait.

In 1948, a substantial proposal was made to Pius XII, who struck several advisory commissions to examine the question. Two senior churchmen fleshed out a potential program. Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, archbishop of Palermo from 1945 to his death in 1967, had formerly been secretary of the Congregation of Seminaries and Universities. The future Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani also recommended a council. Both Ruffini and Ottaviani would later be considered conservative opponents of Vatican II’s principal decisions, with Ottaviani emerging as a leader as head of the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

That two such men would be recommending a council in 1948 indicates how widespread the consensus was that it was needed. But when?

Pius XII judged it not yet opportune, and carried forward much of the magisterial updating on his own initiative. Upon his death, and the election of an avuncular, elderly, caretaker Pope John XXIII, no such dramatic move was expected. The jolly new pope would bring smiles and peasant charm to the austere and regal Vatican of Pius XII, but nothing significant would change. Such was the common wisdom.

By his choice, Pope John was crowned on Nov. 4, the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, the greatest of the reforming bishops who implemented the Council of Trent. Within 100 days, John would announce his own ecumenical council. The speed of the decision indicated that even if the idea came to Pope John as a sudden inspiration — as he later explained it — he had full confidence that this was to be the great project of his pontificate. The caretaker Pope was going to do more than just rearrange the furniture.

The preferred metaphor was that the windows were thrown open. What would blow in would define the Church’s life for the next 50 years and beyond.

The man who may well have been elected pope in 1958 had he been a cardinal, Giovanni Battista Montini, was troubled by what he sensed in the breeze. St. Charles Borromeo’s successor in Milan initially feared a “hornet’s nest being stirred up,” as he told the Italian press. Yet, the new Cardinal Montini embraced Vatican II, and in fact, would become its architect as Pope Paul VI.

“It seems that [Pope John] had divined a hidden expectation not only on the part of the episcopal college but of the entire Catholic world as well,” Cardinal Montini would write to his own diocese. “A flame of enthusiasm swept over the whole Church. He understood immediately, perhaps by inspiration, that by calling a council, he would release unparalleled vital forces in the Church.”

In 1958, Pope John XXIII took a most benign view of what those forces may do once released. His landmark opening address, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Mother Church Rejoices), inveighed against “the prophets of misfortune who are forever forecasting calamity.”

“Today Providence is guiding us towards a new order of human relationships which, thanks to human effort and yet far surpassing its hopes, will bring us to the realization of still higher and undreamed of expectations,” Pope John said, when he opened the Second Vatican Council in October 1962.

Pope John would be dead within nine months. He would not live to see those great expectations fulfilled. Neither would those who survived him. To the contrary, what began in 1958 were 10 years that would rack the Church and consume his successor. The cataclysmic year of 1968 was already on the horizon.