THE “JOHANNINE TURN” WAS CARRIED OUT BY OTHERS
Pope John XXIII through the Testimony of Silvio Cardinal Oddi
By Beniamino Di Martino (Translated by N. Michael Brennen)
Fr. Beniamino Di Martino, a Catholic priest from Naples, Italy,
teaches “History of the Churches” at the Higher Institute of Religious
Sciences in Benevento and “Social Doctrine of the Church” at the Higher
Institute of Religious Sciences in Castellammare. He is a visiting
professor at the Claretianum Institute of the Pontifical Lateran
Brennen is a freelance translator who lived in Italy for two years. He
is nearing completion of a master’s degree in the philosophy of
economics, with concentration on the ethical dimensions of economics. He
translates in philosophy, ethics, economics, political theory, and
related areas. His website is nmichaelbrennen.com.
Popes John Paul II and John XXIII were canonized on April 27, 2014, the
Feast of Divine Mercy (a feast created by Pope Wojtyla during the
Jubilee Year 2000). On that same feast day, on May 1, 2011, John Paul II
had been beatified, six years after his death. The beatification of
John XXIII had already happened a few years previously, on September 3,
2000, when John Paul II simultaneously elevated him and Pius XI to the
“honor of the altars.”
Pope Francis’s decision to preside over a single ceremony for John Paul
II and John XXIII came as no surprise. He had expressed this preference
while talking to journalists during the return flight from the 2013
World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. A Mexican journalist asked the Pope
what model of holiness emerges from these two great figures. After
illustrating some of the characteristics of the spirituality of the two
popes, Francis concluded, “I believe holding the canonization ceremony
of both popes together is a message for the Church.”
What might this message be? Italian journalist Antonio Socci interpreted
the simultaneous canonization as “a decision that gives a sign of unity
and that finally takes the Church beyond old controversies concerning
the [Second Vatican] Council that characterized the second half of the
twentieth century.” In other words, the simultaneous proclamation of the
two saints would emphasize magisterial continuity and help set aside
interpretations that in the past few decades have contrasted not only a
post-conciliar Church to a pre-conciliar Church but also John XXIII to
the popes who preceded him, and that have pitted “Wojtyla the Restorer”
against “the Good Pope John.”
The commitment of some scholars to reconstruct the figure of John XXIII
in order to purify his image and avoid any sort of “mythologizing” that
could be used to consolidate biased interpretations and ideological
ploys is certainly not without historical significance; several recent
studies have contributed to this end. Though in a more modest and less
articulated form, a further contribution can come from a witness to the
times of John XXIII and the Council in the person of Silvio Cardinal
Oddi. In light of the canonization of Pope Roncalli, the contrarian
opinions expressed by Cardinal Oddi about the personality and tendencies
of John XXIII are again of current interest. The event prompted me to
dust off the notes of an interview that Cardinal Oddi granted me — in
the form of a long conversation — in the now distant time of November
Silvio Angelo Pio Oddi was born in 1910 in a small village in the
Italian province of Piacenza. The twelfth of fourteen children, he was
born into a large and pious family. Oddi was accepted into seminary at
an early age, and was ordained a priest at the age of 21. After
completing a degree in canon law in Rome, he entered the diplomatic
service and was soon sent to the Middle East (Iran, Lebanon, and
Istanbul), Paris, and Belgrade. As a young diplomatic attaché in the
Paris nunciature, he was held in high esteem by Msgr. Roncalli, who
treated him as a close collaborator. Elevated to the episcopacy in 1953,
Oddi was appointed apostolic delegate to Jerusalem, then nuncio in
Egypt, Belgium, and Luxembourg. He also carried out delicate assignments
in a few communist countries. He was appointed a cardinal in 1969 by
Pope Paul VI; from 1979 to 1985 he was prefect of the Congregation for
the Clergy. Cardinal Oddi was one of the personalities who stood out in
the ecclesiastical panorama of the 1980s. He strenuously defended his
views and was frequently accused of being outright belligerent. A target
of those who saw themselves as progressivists, and of some of the
Catholic press as well, he enjoyed the trust of Pope Wojtyla.
In that 1991 interview with Cardinal Oddi, I heard firsthand from a
principal actor a highly qualified evaluation of the life of the
universal Church in those years, and I got an overview of a few
hot-button issues in Catholicism in the preceding decades. I now want to
extract a few parts that offer a priceless witness to Angelo Roncalli.
In fact, Cardinal Oddi can be considered among those who knew John XXIII
best, and among those with whom the Pope maintained a close and
Your Eminence, one of the relationships that has most influenced your life was the one with Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.
“Yes. That relationship originated in rather adventurous
circumstances…. I had been opposed by the Italian consulate in Beirut — I
was working in the nunciature there — and Msgr. Montini [assistant
secretary of state at the time, and later Pope Paul VI — Ed. ]
had recalled me to Rome to tell me that I would have to transfer to
Cairo. I could not reach my new destination, the apostolic delegation in
Egypt and Palestine, by sea because the Mediterranean was impassable,
which necessitated a long journey through Hungary and the Balkans.
However, I found the border between Turkey and Syria closed, and while
waiting for it to re-open I was a guest in the residence of the
apostolic delegate to Istanbul, Msgr. Roncalli. It was there in 1941,
during a forty-day wait to resume my journey, that our friendship
A friendship destined to solidify when you were assigned to the nunciature in Paris.
“Msgr. Roncalli became the nuncio in France in 1944…. We spent three
years together in Paris — precisely from September 1946 to June 1949 —
and I worked with him as an auditor and counselor in the nunciature.
Msgr. Roncalli remained in France until 1953, when he was sent to the
patriarchal seat in Venice, while I had already been transferred to the
highly sensitive nunciature in Belgrade in 1949.”
In Paris what were the general impressions of Europe and the Church?
French Catholicism at the time anticipated in many ways the proposals
for reform that spread a decade later.
“I must say that the nuncio gave little attention to that great
turmoil. Teilhard de Chardin had long been ignored, and that was
accounted as unjustified carelessness on the part of Msgr. Roncalli.”
“Directly from the Pope. I believe Pius XII reprimanded Msgr.
Roncalli. Roncalli did not like Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas, but he did
not give them much weight. Roncalli asked jokingly why de Chardin was
not content instead to keep himself busy by teaching the catechism. But
Msgr. Roncalli really was little inclined to inquire and investigate.”
There were, however, other recalls by the Pope.
“Yes, that is true. Pius XII did not like Msgr. Roncalli’s habit of
traveling frequently. The Pope would have preferred that the nuncio
dedicate himself more strictly to diplomatic work and taking care of his
institutional functions. The Pope actually came to the point of
directing that Msgr. Roncalli should not leave Paris more than four
times a year!”
Despite all that, Roncalli’s nomination to the nunciature was a personal decision made by Pius XII.
“The Pope wanted Msgr. Roncalli to occupy the very important diplomatic seat in Paris.”
Thus, as much as Pius XII had wanted Roncalli in Paris, that did not spare the latter from the Pope’s reprimands.
“Pius XII thought highly of Msgr. Roncalli, even if he thought his judgments somewhat superficial.”
A “superficial” representative of Pius XII in a country full of theological turmoil such as France?
“Yes, a theology that was already in a renewal phase.”
An ecclesiological, secular, patristic, liturgical, and biblical
renewal: that was the nouvelle théologie that worried Pius XII. And the
first signs of dissent were already evident. Those were also the times
in which Pius XII evaluated the possibility of convening a Church
“Yes, but I was not among those informed. Pius XII held a very
limited consultation among the bishops, and I believe Roncalli was made
aware of it.”
Pius XII thought inopportune what his successor launched?
“In the end, Pope Pacelli abandoned the idea, fearing an unwanted
slippage. He felt old, and he was suspicious of the new theologians.”
A new chapter in the life of Msgr. Roncalli opened in 1953.
“Roncalli left Paris as a cardinal to be named the patriarch of
Venice. He wrote me the day after the announcement: ‘The assignment to
Venice came to me in the same form as the one to Paris, and I responded:
In the rigid Pacellian Church, the inaugural telegram that Patriarch
Roncalli sent to the Socialist Party convention held in his city raised
“True. I know well the displeasure Roncalli felt when he was
reprimanded for this gesture. He always loved to show goodness and
tolerance. That gesture was intended as a courtesy and a welcome, in the
hope that the dialogue might reduce the aversion they felt. He did not
consider that these gestures might be exploited as propaganda. I will
cite a particular event. As the nuncio in Paris, Msgr. Roncalli was the
dean of the diplomatic corps; the Soviet ambassador was the vice-dean.
At the time, the diplomats of the Holy See did not speak with the
diplomats of the communist countries; we ignored each other; we did not
even greet each other. In all the public meetings, Roncalli was in the
first place, and the Soviet ambassador was in the second. He always
acted lovingly toward the Soviet representative. The communists took
advantage of that, circulating photographs depicting these cordial
gestures for the purpose of showing that the communist governments
received the favor of the Vatican in spite of the hostility of Catholics
behind the Iron Curtain. The Holy See intervened more than once to
point out just how much evil these photographs were causing. He was
good; it was his nature. Others took advantage of that.”
Returning to 1953: This was the year Roncalli became the patriarch of
Venice, and you were consecrated a bishop to be sent as the apostolic
delegate to Jerusalem.
“I asked him to ordain me a bishop. He had been my superior, and we
had always remained in contact. He very willingly agreed to preside over
the celebration in the Cathedral of Piacenza.”
What do you think Cardinal Roncalli expected from the 1958 conclave?
“He suspected that the vote would converge around him. That is
clearly evident from a few letters written at that time. It is true that
several rounds of voting were necessary, but the tendencies were fairly
clear, and the patriarch of Venice was among the favorites.”
What did you expect from the conclave?
“I expected that the choice might fall to Montini, who, though not
yet a cardinal, enjoyed very wide favor. When the news of the election
reached me — I was in Egypt then — I was surprised by the cardinals’
The conclave did not seem to have significant internal divisions
between progressives and conservatives, divisions that emerged very
“In fact it has been maintained — and I have no trouble believing it
— that Roncalli was voted in by the cardinals close to Ottaviani
[Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, pro-prefect of the Holy Office and a noted
conservative — Ed.].”
That would demonstrate that Cardinal Roncalli was considered a conservative.
“Exactly. That is how it was: He was considered a conservative because he was one.”
Then came the announcement of the Council.
“Yes, just a few months after his election, John XXIII announced the
convening of the assembly. Tardini was puzzled [Domenico Cardinal
Tardini, secretary of state — Ed. ], as he thought that the
Pope’s proposal to bring about the unity of Christians through a Council
was naïve. John XXIII gave the impression of believing that an assembly
broadened to include representatives of the separated churches would be
sufficient to bring ecumenical efforts to fruition. Tardini, who
understood the situation well, thought that even the invitation to
participate would not have been given serious consideration by many
‘separated brethren.’ So the Council shifted its goals to ‘refreshing’
the Church, though with great confusion in the agenda.”
Your Eminence, you personally participated in the work of the
Council. What would you like to remember regarding Vatican II and its
“Primarily one episode that had to do with me. In 1961, before the
Council began, I was received by the Pope. The Roman synod had taken
place the year before. With a copy of the Acts in hand, I presented
myself to John XXIII, who was enthusiastic about how the synod had
fulfilled its task. I, however, went to put this in question and to
suggest that he strive to avoid the Council coming to the same end.
Though faced with the consternation, or perhaps the irritation, of the
Pope, I held firm to explain that it was necessary to avoid the
Council’s goals remaining unattainable, as had happened with the synod.
The synod had prescribed quite rigid rules for the clergy without
worrying about checking how they were carried out.”
The Roman synod, of which John XXIII was so proud, was an affirmation of traditionalism.
“Absolutely! And Roncalli saw himself fully within it.”
And yet, the image presented of the “Good Pope” is that of a Pope who
viewed the changes favorably and who liked to go along with the most
“I believe I am among those who knew him best. And I can say that John XXIII was a hardcore conservative.”
“In the sense of remaining bound even to the most traditional forms of piety, of the liturgy, and of the praxis of the Church.”
A few examples?
“Just a few years previously, he had reprimanded me and other young
priests for having objected to the opportunity to preserve the apparel
of some religious orders, which were frequently as elaborate as they
were uncomfortable. He accused us of wanting to destroy the Church! He
loved altars full of candles, and he opposed any reduction of the
protocol required of cardinals. He recommended the Latin language in his
first encyclical, and he continued to wear the oldest hat styles. He
was immovable in his use of the cassock.”
What would he have thought of the “Johannine turn” that historiography attributes to him?
“He would never have considered it as such. It happened, but he was not aware of it. Far less did he desire it.”
But the “Johannine turn” happened.
“Yes, but carried out by others, and not desired by him.”
“Even his closest collaborators. Precisely because I knew him very
well, I can confirm that when Pope John convened the Council, he had no
intention whatsoever of effecting what happened afterward. He wanted a
Council for ‘perfecting’ the Church, and he repeated frequently, and
privately as well, that he wanted a beautiful, splendid, pure, and holy
Church, so that all might say, ‘This is the Bride of Christ!’ This was
his intention. Perhaps there was some simplicity in this.”
But what happened during the Council?
“The theological program was established by the organizers, who had
the task of overseeing the preparation. The beginning was already rather
turbulent. Pope John was convinced that the Council should last no
longer than Christmas of that same year [1962, the year the Council
began — Ed. ]. From October through the next two or at most three months, everything was to be concluded.”
In such a short time?
“Yes. I remember well one significant detail. The Pope changed
Cardinal Testa’s plans [Gustavo Testa, secretary of the Congregation for
the Oriental Churches and a close friend of Roncalli’s — Ed. ].
Testa, who had been given responsibility for the technical organization
of the conciliar assembly, supposing that the work would be extended for
several months, thought it best for the Holy See to purchase a sound
system. John XXIII, who was convinced otherwise, imposed the choice to
rent the equipment. He stated that ‘everything should be finished by the
Feast of the Immaculate Conception or by Christmas!’”
What changed things?
“In the first few sessions a movement arose against the Council
agenda, and the seventy-two points solemnly approved by the Pope and
communicated outside the Vatican were totally rejected. A commission was
then nominated to prepare the topics for the Council to consider. That
task took another three or four weeks. Only then did John XXIII come to
understand that the Council would last a long time. And he resigned
himself to that.”
A “turn” that was not in the Pope’s plans.
“Up until that point, he had thought of the Council along the lines
of the Roman synod, with fast approvals and very little discussion; the
plans of the preparatory commissions should have been sufficient.”
In any case, John XXIII, in a phrase during the opening speech of the
Council, distanced himself from the “prophets of doom,” and seemed to
open a space for the proposals so dear to those who wanted revolutionary
changes. Thus, many progressives thought the Pope was on their side.
“Precisely. I know that he wept over this interpretation. He
certainly had no intention of offending anyone; he was incapable of
launching an accusation. I hold him in high regard, and I am convinced
that that was not his expression; it was prepared for him, he saw it
written, and he read it. I know he suffered greatly when it was
interpreted as an allusion to someone near to him, and in particular to
Cardinal Ottaviani. He truly suffered over that. It made him look like a
reformer who had stopped carrying out the discipline of the Church. I
was a close friend of his; I knew him very well. I can say that, in his
holiness, he was the most conservative of men.”
In any case, the “turn” happened in the name of Pope John.
“The ideas promoted by some, such as [Leo Jozef] Cardinal Suenens
and [Augustin] Cardinal Bea, may have prevailed thanks to those words
against the ‘prophets of doom.’ As with the text of that speech —
written by who knows who? — many other times his collaborators had broad
influence on the Pope and autonomy in steering decisions by the
Even after the Council?
“Yes, for example in the choices regarding both Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris.”
His differences with Suenens, the archbishop of Brussels, were
evident when he was nuncio in Belgium. But beyond the key figures in
progressivist theology, when you speak of the Pope’s collaborators you
seem to have other names in mind.
“Yes. I am thinking of Msgr. Loris Capovilla and of Msgr. Bruno Heim.”
How was it possible for the “new theology” to gain the upper hand,
given the rather small circle of its supporters and a certain isolation
from theological production?
“Modernism had never ceased to exist. Anyway, Pope Roncalli was
highly tolerant. He was more inclined to take only the positive aspects
of things and overlook the aspects that were less good.”
There was an expectation of a springtime in the post-conciliar
period, but there came instead, in the words of Paul VI, “a day of
clouds, storm, darkness, searching, and uncertainty.” What does this
“darkness” have to do with the Council?
“The painful events that followed cannot be blamed on the Council; rather, they happened coincidentally with the new season.”
A “new season” that John XXIII thought should not open?
“Right. He intended the ‘refreshing’ as a ‘purification,’ not as a
‘change.’ Perhaps the deficient preparation for the Council allowed the
modernist stream to take control of the situation and to transform the
Johannine ‘refreshing’ into a ‘modernization’ of the Church. Thus we
have a Vatican II that, in the ‘letter,’ succeeded in the opposite of
the ‘spirit’ of the Council, which was at the mercy of the innovators.”
Do you think that some Vatican II texts might have been misunderstood
and that they could have been interpreted as a means to an end?
“Certainly. This has been said again and again in many
circumstances. Certainly on the part of some there was a tendency to
word things in a way that would allow various interpretations. I am not
able to say just where; I am not enough of a theologian.”
One problem that marked the entire century, communism, was never mentioned.
“That is a battle that I sustained along with three or four hundred
other bishops. We asked if communism was being discussed in the
Council: The question was always refused! It was said that some
cardinals had made commitments to the communist governments to insure
that the topic would not even be mentioned, in exchange for the bishops
behind the Iron Curtain being granted permission to participate in the
Vatican assembly. I have no documentation to prove that. However, it is a
fact that our petition never even succeeded in being discussed in the
Council. It was said that one of the secretaries had forgotten the
request in a drawer; I never believed that excuse.”
In the post-conciliar turmoil, you put much energy into strengthening
the dialogue with Msgr. Marcel Lefebvre and to avoid the schism that
finally happened in 1988.
“My acquaintance with Msgr. Lefebvre goes back a long way. It goes
back to the time of my service in the nunciature in Paris. Msgr.
Lefebvre, who was esteemed by Pius XII, was the apostolic delegate for
all of French-speaking Africa. When he returned to France, the troubles
began because he was not well regarded by the French bishops. Roncalli
obviously had the means to follow the matter closely.”
You were not afraid to define Lefebvre as a “holy man,” and in so
doing you stirred up a reaction in some of the Catholic press.
“My words were not a proposal for canonization, but rather the
recognition of the life of piety and zeal of a bishop of unblemished
virtue. On the other hand, the excommunication that Msgr. Lefebvre
incurred subtracts nothing from the clarity of his judgment regarding
the degeneration of the Church he denounced.”
Was your recognition of the uprightness of the schismatic bishop returned by him about you? Or am I wrong?
“Well, yes. Lefebvre’s esteem and friendship toward me allowed me to
do more than others during the last few years to try to bring the
bishop and his followers back into full Catholic communion. My task was
one of reconciliation.”
Did the polemics surprise you?
“If the cordial treatment extended to many others is welcomed
positively, I do not understand why extending it to Msgr. Lefebvre
should be a source of irritation. Rather, one should rejoice that
everything possible was done to avoid seeing this pastor of the Church
abandoned to separation from the Pope.”
Much has been written about the entire Lefebvrian affaire,
and the name of Cardinal Oddi appears frequently in the long-standing
matter. Many of his attempts to avoid the irreparable are well known.
However, an extreme and final attempt by John Paul II is unknown, in
which Cardinal Oddi was once again a central figure. Cardinal Oddi was
not explicit, and therefore we cannot be certain that what follows is
the correct reconstruction. When Msgr. Lefebvre became critically ill,
Oddi prepared to go to Ecône, the Swiss center of the Lefebvrian
community. At the least sign of repentance, Cardinal Oddi would have
immediately released the excommunication that burdened the dying bishop.
The mission that Oddi wanted to carry out did not happen because
Lefebvre remained immovable to the end. It is improbable that Oddi could
have made the decision to visit Lefebvre’s bedside in the hope of
granting absolution to the schismatic bishop were this not desired and
directly requested by John Paul II. The bishop who opposed the
“Johannine turn” died on March 25, 1991, just a few months before the
long conversation granted me by Cardinal Oddi.
When this interview was granted, the cause for the beatification of
Pope Roncalli was still many steps away from completion. His
canonization would have understandably given much joy to his close
collaborator and secretary. There is another part of that interview that
seems worth preserving, that somehow seems a premonition of the
celebration that finally elevated John XXIII and John Paul II to the
honor of the altars. When I asked Cardinal Oddi to discuss the slowness
of the canonization process of certain figures who were — let’s put it
this way — out of fashion (in contrast to other far faster causes), he
added, from the depth of his experience, “I proposed — and I am happy to
repeat it — the canonization of all of them together as the ‘Holy Popes
of the Twentieth Century.’ Truly they were all saints.”
Ten years after that long interview, Cardinal Oddi finished his
earthly sojourn in a small village in the province of Piacenza, not far
from where he was born ninety-one years earlier. He died on June 29,
2001, the day of the liturgical feast of the Apostle Peter, whose
successors he had served over the course of his entire life.
“What will become of me? Will I become a proficient theologian, a
great jurist, a rural pastor or a poor, simple priest? But why do I
trouble myself about all this? I must become none of these or more than
these, however God will have it. God is everything to me. He will make
sure that my striving for honor and my desire to look good before others
comes to nothing.” — Pope John XXIII on the eve of his ordination
The foregoing article by Charles James, "Pope John XXIII through the Testimony of Silvio Cardinal Oddi,"
was originally published in the New Oxford Review (October 2014), and
is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains
Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.