A Retrospect

Looking back a generation or so to the time when I wrote “A Reporter Looks at the Vatican” (1962) and “A Reporter Looks at American Catholicism” (1967), I find some judgments modified. On balance I do not share the gloom which besets some in the American Catholic community.

The Rome I portrayed in 1962 and the American Church described a half decade later are changed and, in my view, for the better.

In the Vatican book I shared impressions of more than a dozen years living and working as a news reporter in the Eternal City. My coverage began in 1939 when, as a cub on the staff of the New York and Paris Herald Tribunes, I helped our Rome bureau chief, Don Minifie, cover the funeral of Pius XI and the election of Pius XII.

I muffed a scoop on the papal election. Father Vincent McCormick, formerly a teacher in the Jesuits’ prep school in my home borough of Brooklyn, was by that time the Rettore Magnifico, the Magnificent Rector (President) of the Gregorian Institute, the Jesuits’ great Roman seminary. To befriend a fellow Brooklynite, Father McCormick agreed to answer a question. Jesuits had their ears to the Roman ground so I posed the largest query of all:

“Who will succeed Pius XI as pope?”

“There are only two choices” the white-haired Rettore replied. “A diplomat or a parish priest. If a diplomat it will be Cardinal Pacelli. If a parish priest, Dalla Costa of Florence”.

There were seventy cardinals in the conclave. Father McCormick had skipped over the one-third who were non- Italian including the three from the United States (Boston’s O’Connell, Philadelphia’s Dougherty and Chicago’s Mundelein) without a moment’s consideration. Among the Italians he had winnowed several dozen.

I set out to learn what I could about the only two candidates. In Rome I called at the small but pleasant middle class home of the Pacelli family. The cardinal himself was busy with the myriad of interregnum affairs inside the Vatican and unavailable. Then I took the train from Rome’s stazione termini north to Florence. That city’s archbishop, I found, was a skeletal old man. He received me in his splendid, aging Renaissance palace, an inheritance from centuries past. With its distant ceilings it was a place of grandeur but what caught my full attention was the penetrating cold. Dictator Mussolini, it Duce, was trying to make resource-poor Italy self-sufficient, as he put it, inside a circle of hostile anti-Fascist nations. Fuel as a result was scarce, especially for the poor, and the cardinal was sharing the lot of the humblest by going without heat. Reluctantly I removed my hat but I conducted the interview huddled deep inside my overcoat.

I was fresh out of the religion classes at Fordham and thought I understood things ecclesiastical, a mistake which my Herald Tribune editors shared. A diplomat or a parish priest! So long as the cardinals’ choice came down to that it was clear to me that the conclave would pass over any “man of the world” and would settle for sure on that frozen Florentine saint! Last minute caution caused me to hedge but, between the lines, the Herald Tribune readers got the advance news: Peter’s next successor would be Cardinal Dalla Costa!

What the cardinals realized and I did not was that the Church lives in the world, the head and heart in Heaven, but feet on the same soil trodden by us all. Controversy has swirled since but, in retrospect, I take no issue with the conclave’s choice of “the diplomat” to guide the Church through the horrors of Europe’s fratricidal upheaval, World War II.

How much has changed since the time of that visit to the Pacelli home and the talks with Father McCormick and Cardinal Dalla Costa! With Italians a minority now in the Sacred College a foreign pope is no longer unthinkable; a Pole in fact occupies Peter’s throne. As one ponders the evolution through these four decades an even greater deepening of the pool of potential Church leadership can be conceived for the future. When Pius XII died in 1958 many of us covering the election of his successor thought the cardinals might reach out beyond their own membership for the first time in many centuries. We thought that Milan’s archbishop, Giovanni Montini, might be selected. I telephoned the Montini rectory to check on whether the prelate planned to join us soon in Rome. The monsignor on the other end rang off.

The cardinals did not choose a non-cardinal in that conclave. Their happy selection that time was the jovial cardinal archbishop of Venice, John XXIII. We reporters had been right, however, that Archbishop Montini was papabile — “popable”. He mounted the throne some years later as Paul VI. Might we see the day when the College reaches directly into the archiepiscopal ranks or even into the laity, ever widening the area of choice? Not soon perhaps but I do not exclude or deplore it.

The Rome I watched as a reporter and described in the 1958 book evolved all but imperceptibly as I studied it. Pius XII during his postwar pontificate years was concerned with the science-versus-religion conflict or apparent conflict. There could be only one “truth”; he labored to close gaps. Did the Bible, read literally, suggest that the world began 5,000 years ago? No, said the pontiff, the answer seemed closer to 10 billion years. Did the Bible need reinterpretation in the light of archaeology, geology, linguistics and the other sciences? With some limitations, Pius opened the windows to such reanalysis.

Through the 1940’s and 1950’s Rome worked away at a list of other modern problems. Should the Mass, that mysterious human effort to reach God, continue in Latin, by then itself a mystery to most? Or was the Mass humanly understandable worship best couched in comprehensible language? Conservatives had an answer: the traveling Catholic is at home in every clime — the Latin Mass was the same everywhere, a symbol of unity. One businessman of an older generation told me how he found it so comforting on six successive Sundays to attend identical Masses in different capital cities across Asia, Africa and Europe. Naturally he wanted the Latin Mass. As a reporter, I tried not to take sides but my sympathies were with change. Centuries bring wisdom but they should not imprison. Latin, not earlier Greek or Aramaic, was the street language in the first days. In America it was the time for the Mass in English.

Where Pius XII planted cautious seeds of change, John XXIII raised up whole forests of alterations. As we reporters tried to penetrate the counsels of the Vatican, I came up with a clear impression. The Church in traditionally Catholic countries like Italy seemed to be aging; many of the young were drifting away. The Anglo-Saxon world, in many ways the dominant global force, seemed distant from Rome’s antique rituals. Newly freed nations of the dissolving empires also seemed far removed. Something had to be done and old John, whom we had perceived as “an interim pope”, had an answer: the second ecumenical council since the tumult of the 16th century! Many an action brings an equal reaction and blunt-spoken Cardinal Tardini, the Acting Secretary of State, seemed to be the storm center of John’s opposition. As president of the foreign press club I invited him to a press conference and he spoke with enviable candor. It was his view, as I understood it, that the troubles John perceived might prove small indeed when 3,000 bishops of 100 nations were called together to redebate what is in effect the Church’s constitution. He wanted no council; John insisted, and post Vatican II has been the result.

The woes Cardinal Tardini foresaw have indeed ensued but, in my view, John XXIII was right in grasping the 20th century nettle. In “A Reporter Looks at American Catholicism” I saw the early thinning of the ranks of the clergy; it has gone well beyond what I foresaw. In one chapter I talked about “the mute man in the pew”. He has found a voice. In another section I lamented how feeble were the stirrings of social conscience. Among many in the clergy and laity they are far livelier now. Many a reporter loves a good negative and my American Catholic book was chock a block with them. A final optimistic chapter was in effect a non sequitur, but I am satisfied now that it was justified. A clergy and a better, educated laity, comfortable now in an Anglo-Saxon world, are an indispensable Church asset. Many an old custom, to the anguish of the elderly, has been put aside, but the wisdom from the age of ancient Israel, Athens and Rome needs to be expressed in new ways across the succeeding centuries. The story I watched unfolding ever since those Rome days of 1939 has had, up to this point, in my view, a “happy ending”, but there is, of course, no end and the changes, protecting essentials, must go on.


  • Barrett McGurn

    Barrett McGurn lived eighteen years in Rome first as a New York Herald Tribune correspondent, then as the press attaché of the United States Embassy. He was media spokesman for the Supreme Court of the United States from 1973 to 1982 and after that a free lance writer and lecturer. He passed away in 2010.

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