It is 30 years since the opening of Vatican II, the general council which was called by John XXIII, and which met in four sessions between 1962 and 1965. The Pope's personal secretary at the time, Loris Capovilla, recently gave an interview to the journalist Robert Moynihan, who works for I Media in Rome.
It takes about seven hours by car to drive from Rome to the clean, bustling city of Bergamo in northern Italy, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. It is another half-hour drive through rolling hills to the tiny town of Sotto il Monte, where Angelo Roncalli, the future John XXIII, was born more than a century ago. There, living in retirement, resides Bishop Loris Capovilla, Pope John's personal secretary from 1953 to 1962 — the five years Roncalli was Patriarch of Venice and the five years he was Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.
Capovilla is now 77, a handsome man of medium height and slightly greying hair. In person, one is struck by his youthfulness — he could pass for a man of 55 or 60. The interview with him was conducted in Italian.
Was the idea of calling the Second Vatican Council a new one, or had it already been considered by Pius XII, as some historians say?
One point needs to be made clear once and for all: the idea of an ecumenical council was always present in the Church, and the Code of Canon Law devotes a section to it. It was nothing new. But there was a current in the Church which, after the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1869, said: "Why have a council? The Pope can decide things by himself. What he decides is right." This theological current did exist. But it had not studied attentively enough that that constitution which speaks of papal infallibility does not exempt the pope from having recourse, first of all, to the virtue of prudence and, second, to a council. The pope cannot simply get up tomorrow morning and proclaim a new dogma. So even the pope is bound. The Church was conceived by Jesus Christ as a communion, not as an absolute monarchy. One must distinguish quite clearly between the Church and a company in which there is a president who makes all the decisions. Do you recall John XXIII saying anything to you on this point, something which reflected his own view of his infallibility? Excuse me, John XXIII was so respectful of the communion of the Church that when Alexis Adzhubei, Khrushchev's son-inlaw, asked him, unexpectedly, if the Vatican and the USSR might not open direct relations, Pope John replied, with what I think was also diplomatic finesse, "You know, sir, this is not a dictatorship."
It was as if to say, "Your leader, your father-in-law, can decide whatever he wants, or thinks he can" — because it wasn't true even in Russia — "but this is not a dictatorship. The Pope doesn't act unilaterally. He must listen to his coworkers."
How did he come to the idea of a Council, and what was the reaction in the Curia?
It came about this way. This man, who was 77 years old, was elected Pope. He had a choice. He could have made a calculation of this type: "I don't have many years to live. I will give a few benedictions, make a few saints, create a few cardinals, conduct a few lovely liturgies, and leave other, larger problems to whoever comes after
me." He might have done that. No one would have criticised him for not doing more. They would have said: "He's an old man. They elected an old man Pope."
So he faced a problem of conscience: "These cardinals and bishops are presenting problems to me about their seminaries, about the liturgy, about their dioceses, about their relations with states, how to behave in the face of situations which are racing forward. The world is changing. I open a newspaper and look at the political page and the economics page and ask: 'Where is Christ?"
So, faced with this range of problems, the Pope said: "Obviously, I can't handle all these problems by myself, or even together with all my co-workers, for whom I have great esteem. We need a council."
That was his mentality. He had studied and come to believe in this instrument. Moreover, there is a biblical basis for the idea of a council. Open the Bible and see for yourself. Did Jesus ever speak to Peter by himself? No, the other disciples were always present.
Too heavy a burden
The first stage of the Council focused on the liturgy. With regard to the use of Latin in the liturgy and the decision to allow vernacular languages, what was John XXIII's own view?
John XXIII, because he was a welleducated man, trained in the classical languages, had a great respect for Latin. He loved the language. It happened one day in 1960 or 1961 that there was a religious celebration in one of the churches of Rome. The church was totally packed. It was during Lent, and the Litany of the Saints was chanted, which is long. After the litany, there was a psalm. And after the psalm, there were nine "Oremus" prayers. The Pope saw that some of the people were getting hot in that packed church, and tired, and some of the children were getting restless. He said, a bit jokingly, "We've got to do something about all this Latin, which is tiring the people". The Osservatore Romano censored these words of the Pope and did not publish that
remark. Some said, "The Pope is contradicting himself because on the one hand he supports Latin, as he did in the apostolic letter Veterum Sapientia, and on the other hand he says he would be better to stop using it". But there was no contradiction.
Latin remains the language of the Church's communications. And it is good that it should remain so. Because if you, an English-speaker, know Latin, you can translate it into your language with precision. But if I you give you a text only in Italian, there will be different translations in France, in Germany, in Australia, in Africa. This was the thought of Pope John: "Since every bishop must have experts in dogmatic and moral theology, canon law, liturgy and history, Latin should be kept everywhere as the Church's language of communication. This would also be good because this is a universal patrimony, and it is a good thing that everywhere there be scholars who know the two mother languages of world civilisation, Greek and Latin. But I cannot impose this on everyone."
That was his thought. And really, of what pastoral use is Latin to priests in South America, in Asia, in Africa? I recall that one day we were walking in the Vatican gardens. You know that there is the Ethiopian College there. There were two young men there, studying. And the Pope said: "Let us say hullo to these two young men." When we went up to them, we saw they were studying books in Latin. They greeted the Pope in Italian, and he asked them to show him the books they were studying. They were studying philosophy, and he praised them for their efforts. Later, after we had left them, the Pope said to me: "These. young men come from Africa. First they have to know their own language. Then they have to know English, because of the importance of England and the United States. Then they come to Italy and we ask them to learn Italian. Then we ask them to learn Latin. It's an enormous effort we are requiring of them, too much."
From study to action
Could you compare John XXIII to Pius XII?
Pius XII had a different family background. He came from the Roman nobility. And he had a different style of working, developed in the Curia and in the Vatican diplomatic service in Germany. His style was intense, methodical, extremely meticulous. He was an austere man, a man of prayer, of study, precise. I had the impression that he was a man of great transparency, of great simplicity, but at the same time profoundly shy. But good, noble, fine, attentive, anxious not to offend anyone. The service that he rendered during his 19 years as pontiff is to be judged primarily on the things he wrote. He himself said: "My life is all contained in the discourses I have delivered." He led a life which we could say was more one of a writer and thinker than of a man of action.
Pope John was a man more inclined to action than to desk work, even though he was a scholar and enjoyed studying.
I think history will do justice to Pius XII in regard to the "supra-nationality" of the Church. He sought to build bridges, and in this he was following the path which was initiated during the First World War by Pope Benedict XV, of whom he had been the secretary for the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs. I think he remains a very great figure whose historical role will be reinterpreted as time goes by.
Pope John had a different task. While one waited for the people to come to him, Pope John went out to meet them. One of the first things he said, during the first days of his pontificate, and he said it clearly both to the dean of the Sacred College and also to the Secretary of State, was: "I do not intend to be a prisoner." Before he died he told me that the time had arrived when the Pope could take an aeroplane and travel anywhere in the world. He said that he was too old for such trips, but that the popes after him would be able to. But he did begin to go out of the Vatican to visit the city of Rome and its surroundings. What were his relations with Cardinal Alfredo Ortaviani, prefect of what was then called the Congregation of the Holy Office, now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
Cardinal Ottaviani was one of those men who are born to be misunderstood. He was the victim of a good deal of calumny. The press labelled him the Holy See's "carabiniere" (policeman). He was a true Roman, a native of Trastevere. He was a man with a great heart who came from a poor family. His father was a baker, I believe, and there were 10 children in the family. He was extremely intelligent. The first one to speak of the inevitability of peace, that is, of the exclusion of war as a means for settling differences in our time, was Ottaviani in his book lstitutioni Giuridiche. When John XXIII announced the Council, what did the Curia expect, and what did John XXIII expect?
I only realised later, reading the press, that some were opposed to the idea. My impression at the time was that there was no opposition.
I would like to make one thing perfectly clear: the legislation regarding an ecumenical council was included in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. The code was provided for a council; the idea of a council was not an innovation.
I have said many times: which was a novelty, the announcement of the Second Vatican Council, or the inter-religious day of prayer in Assisi in 1986?
And your answer?
The day of prayer in Assisi. That was an absolute novelty. The announcement of the Second Vatican Council was not a novelty.
The Council opened at precisely the time that the Cuban missile crisis brought Russia and the United States to the brink of nuclear war. Was there a climate of great tension in the Vatican during those days in October 1962?
No. I never felt that we were on the edge of the precipice, even if the press depicted the situation in those terms.
John XXIII's chief action for peace in that period was the convocation of the Council itself: the very fact of gathering people, for the first time in history — and you should note this. Because there had never been a truly "ecumenical" council. The First Vatican Council was, to be sure, "ecumenical," but were there bishops from Africa there? From Asia? There were missionaries from those continents, but not native bishops. Do you know when the first African and Asian bishops were ordained? The first Chinese bishops are from 1926. The first Japanese bishop is from 1939. The first Indian bishop is from after the Second • World War. The first African cardinal is from 1960, created by Pope John: Cardinal Rgwamba of Tanzania.
This is a real change in the history of the Church. It makes the universality, the true "catholicity", of the Church shine forth in a way it never did before. At the Second Vatican Council, for the first time, the sons of all the cultures of the earth, of all the languages, of all the races, were represented.
What is your assessment of the Council?
I believe that the Council must be judged on the basis of its documents, not on the basis of newspaper articles or the gossip of the sacristy. If you ask me: "You: who are you?", I will reply: "I am a man, a Christian, a priest, a retired bishop, and I find my identity in Lumen Gentium." This was a great ecclesial document, dogmatic; I do not believe there is any disagreement on this in the Church. Why did I say "as a man"? Because I am part of the People of God, Lumen Gentium, Chapter 2. Why did I say "Christian"? Because I am part of Chapter 4, the laity. Why did I say "a bishop"? Because I am part of Chapter 3, on the hierarchy. If you ask me: "But your way of speaking, your humanistic culture, Graeco-Latin, Mediterranean, your enlightenment, where does it come from?"
And I would reply: "From Del Verbum: the word of God." If you ask me: "How do you pray?" I reply: "I find my prayer and liturgical guidelines in Sacrosancto Concilio, the document on the liturgy." If you then say: "But that document has led to so many errors and excesses", I reply: "There will always be things to correct and reform." Because, when I find myself, for example, listening to a symphony of Beethoven or a fugue of Bach, and then listen to certain songs that are sung in churches today, certainly I am upset. But I think that, within Sacrosanctum Concilium there is all the material necessary to indicate to me how I should pray, how I should administer the sacraments, how I should live this life of religion and piety. And then if you ask me: "How do you view the things happening in the world, in education, politics, the economy, the law, relations between men and women, the family and so forth?" I will respond: "Cum gaudio et spe, with joy and hope, the title of the fourth Council document." And you will say: "Really? Joy at what is happening?" And I will say: "Yes. Because I am a son of God and whatever happens I am always at home and joyful. And my hopes are not only the improvement of diplomatic relations here or there. We are not here in order to see the Church triumph. We ask for freedom for the Church, not for victory. Liberty for what? Liberty to serve. And I believe that this is occurring."
Do you recall the 4ast days of John XXIIIs life? The last two or three days, he was in a coma during which he had some rare moments of lucidity. Later, the newspapers reported his last words in different ways: "Magnificat anima me Dominum" ("My soul magnifies the Lord") or "Signore, mio Dio" ("Lord, my God"). You know, the life that is slowly ebbing away is like a light fading out. But what I think is important is that he gaye witness to his faith: he believed in the resurrection. He was not afraid of death.
When Pope John was a young priest, his bishop also fell ill of cancer and died in precisely the same way, at the age of 57. As the bishop was dying, he told the young priest: "Don Angelo, when it comes to your turn to die, you must die in the right way, as a priest. The viaticum must brought, solemnly, for the last rites."
And Pope John said to me: "You must tell me when my time has come, and tell me clearly, for sick men sometimes fool themselves."
When, on the night of 31 May, 1963, the Pope's cancer ruptured and the liquid invaded his entire body, the doctor said: "We've reached the final phase. There's little else we can do." He added: "He has between two and four days to live."
So I went to the Pope. "Holy Father", I said, "I have something I must tell you." "Well, tell me", Pope John said.
"I must be totally honest with you: your time has come."
And he, who still felt full of energy, said: "But we must see whether it is true!"
"The doctors have pronounced their sentence", I said.
And he: "Ah! If that's the case . . ." And he paused. "All right, wait a moment. Let's do things in order, as they should be done, without rushing. First of all, the Secretary of State, his last audience. Then my confessor. True, I saw him yesterday, but for my final confession, the viaticum, extreme unction, the benediction."
So the Secretary of State was summoned, Amleto Giovanni Cicognani. He had spent 25 years in the United States as Apostolic Delegate. He was well known in America, known above all for his balance, for his control of his feelings. And Cicognani came to the side of the bed of the Pope wiping the tears from his eyes with a cloth. The Pope said to him, citing the Bible in Latin: "Eminentissime domine, laetatus sum in his dictis mihi" ("I rejoice when they said to me, [Let us go to the house of the Lord!']"). He was citing the psalm of the Jews who were returning from slavery in Babylon to freedom in Jerusalem.
Then his confessor came and administered the last rites, and he received the final benediction.
Finally, he called each one of us to his side, me last of all, and spoke a few words. What did he say to you?
He thanked me for standing by him and serving him over the years, for my suffering. . .
How had you suffered?
When someone holds a certain post, he is envied by some and criticised by others. There are many ways to attack such a person. For example, through the pages of some fine Italian newspaper, like I! Borgh ese. We were hated by those who opposed the opening of channels of dialogue with Eastern Europe.
So Pope John said to me: "We have worked. We have served. We have loved. We have not stopped to gather the stones which were thrown against us from one side or the other of the way, to throw them back."
Do you recall any incidents from the years you were with Angelo Roncalli, from 1953 to 1962, which revealed his character and spirituality?
Yes. After Pope John was made Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, he wished to visit all the priests of the diocese. One priest, perhaps out of a natural tendency, perhaps because he has let himself go a bit, lived away by himself, in a rest home. He no longer celebrated Mass or said his breviary. There were occasional incidents where he may have drunk one or two glasses of wine too many.
After the cardinal had arrived in Venice, he said one day, "I must go and visit this Don Giovanni", as he was called. "No, don't go," the vicar general said. "He is very bitter. Who knows what he may say. He will criticise the curia. He may speak out even against you."
But the cardinal said, "No, I have to visit him". And the cardinal went to this rest home. First of all, he went to the chapel.
There were some residents of the home there, and some nuns, and he went to the altar and began to speak to them. As he was speaking, this man came into the chapel, with his tunic all torn and askew.
Perceiving that this was the man, the cardinal turned to the others and said, "Excuse me, but now I must leave you, because here is my friend Padre Giovanni, who is waiting for me". He gave his benediction and then went into a nearby room to talk with Don Giovanni.
The old priest began to rage against the hierarchy, against the former Patriarch, against the vicar general, against the priests, and he spoke of the injustice he had suffered at their hands. The cardinal let him go on, one minute, two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes. Then he put his hand on the old priest's back and he said, "Don Giovanni, we are both old men. And we must both appear soon before the tribunal of God. What use is it to dwell on these things? What use? Listen to what I am going to tell you: start to say your breviary again, start to celebrate Holy Mass." And he replied: "They don't want me to say Mass, they've stopped me . . ." The cardinal said: "I am your superior now, and I give you permission to say Mass. And bit by bit we'll clear things up." Then the cardinal called me. I was outside. (He told me all this later.) He said: "This Giovanni — he's lost his breviary. I want you to find one for him, new, nice-looking, and send it to him. And then, tomorrow, I want you to send a tailor here to measure him for a new cassock."
Then he took a small bag out of his pocket and gave it the priest. "Padre Giovanni", he said, "this is for you. It will help cover some of your expenses." It was about 50,000 lire, the equivalent of about 400,000 lire ($350) today.
Then the cardinal left, quite content.
That evening, the old priest was playing cards with his friends in the rest home. "This new cardinal is quite a good fellow," he told them. He turned to one of the men. "Take this money", he said, "and go and buy a couple of bottles of wine with it so we can drink to his honour." And they did.
The next day, the entire curia was laughing behind the cardinal's back. They said: "Did you hear? The cardinal thought that it would be enough to go visit Padre Giovanni, slap him on the back, pay him a compliment, for him to change his life. And what happened? Last night they were all drunk and singing like bums in the street!"
The vicar general said to me: "See, I was right. I knew he shouldn't have gone. Look at the result."
I was upset about the whole thing, so I went in to the cardinal. "Your Eminence", I said, "you were certainly right to visit Padre Giovanni, but you know what happened after you left? The first thing he did with the money you gave him was to buy two bottles of wine and get drunk and sing.
The cardinal looked at me. "Do you really think", he asked, "that I believed one visit would be enbugh to change that man's life? It wasn't to change his life that I went to see him, but to begin to take away the bitterness. If you can take away the bitterness, then, maybe, later, the life will change. But if you don't take away the bitterness, nothing else you do is of any worth."
"But the others won't understand", I argued. "They'll say you are weak, that you should discipline that priest."
He took up a glass in his hand. "Whose glass is this?"
"It belongs to the house."
"And who is the master of this house?" "You are."
"All right. So whose glass is this?" "Yours."
"And if I let it drop on the floor, the broken fragments, whose are those?" "Yours."
"And I must bend over and gather them up." He paused. "That priest is mine." There was a moment of silence. "This term 'mine', what does it mean? I must love. I may condemn a person, but I must love him. If I do not love him, my condemnation is a sign that I am not a Christian."