John XXIII chooses a name

In a calendar note dated 4 July 1959, after visiting the Vatican gardens, John XXIII wrote the following note:

“When I got back to the house, I found that the ecumenical Council now in preparation ought to be called ‘the Second Vatican Council,’ because the last one, celebrated by Pope Pius IX in 1870, bore the name of Vatican Council I – Vatican le premier.”


Giuseppe Alberigo, The announcement of the Council, History of Vatican II, Volume I, p. 50.


Vatican Gardens (Marek.69 / Wikipedia / CCA BY SA 3.0

Study commissions foreshadowed

The second meeting of the Antepreparatory Commission took place on 30 June 30, 1959, in the presence of Pope John XXIII.

Cardinal Tardini began by thanking the pope “for having chosen to entrust the important task of carrying out the acts preparatory to the Council to representatives of the sacred congregations of the Roman Curia, who, in virtue of their offices, are in a position to know in a special way the present needs, to give an adequate evaluation of the obstacles to be overcome, and to formulate appropriate suggestions.”

He reported that since the first meeting instead of sending out a questionnaire to the world’s bishops, it had been decided to send a Circular Letter that simply provided very general indications on how the bishops should reply on their concerns and wishes for the Council. Pope John had already approved this letter which was in the process of being mailed out, Tardini reported.

He added that he had asked the heads of the curial dicasteries to establish “study-commissions, with the participation of consultors, officials, and scholars of various languages and nations, to formulate concrete proposals to present to the Fathers of the future ecumenical council.”

Offices for the Secretariate had been found, he concluded, and “some willing priests” had been found to staff it. Pope John concluded the meeting with a short address to encourage the Commission in its work.


Joseph Komonchak, The antepreparatory period (JA Komonchak)

Identifying the major problems facing the Church

With the approval of Pope John XXIII, Cardinal Tardini sent a letter dated 18 June 1959 to all Cardinals, archbishops, bishops (both residential and titular), and superiors general of clerical religious orders, asking them to submit their views on the Council by 1 September 1959.

The letter read:

“I am pleased to communicate to Your Excellency that the Supreme Pontiff, John XXIII, happily reigning, on May 17, 1959, the Feast of Pentecost, established an Antepreparatory Commission, which I have the honor of chairing, for the forthcoming Ecumenical Council.
The august Pontiff first wishes to know the opinions and views and to gather the advice and recommendations of the bishops and prelates who by right are called to take part in an Ecumenical Council (c. 223). His Holiness attaches the greatest importance to the views, advice and recommendations of the future Fathers of the Council, which will be most useful in preparing topics for the Council.

“Therefore, I strongly ask Your Excellency, in complete freedom and honesty, to send to this Pontifical Commission whatever views, advice and recommendations your pastoral care and zeal for souls may suggest to Your Excellency with regard to the material and topics which might be discussed at the next Council. Such topics may concern points of doctrine, the discipline of the clergy and the Christian people, the various activities which engage the Church today, the major problems which it must confront today, and whatever else Your Excellency may consider it opportune to present and develop.

“In this effort, Your Excellency may make discreet use of the advice of prudent and expert churchmen.

“This Pontifical Commission, for its part, will welcome with deep consideration and submission whatever You consider useful for the good of the Church and of souls.

“The responses, to be written in Latin, should be sent to the Pontifical Commission as soon as possible and not later than September 1st of this year.”

It was thus already becoming clearer that the concerns of the Council would go well beyond the need to clarify points of doctrine. And an open-ended process thus emerged as the best way forward.


Joseph Komonchak, The antepreparatory period (JA Komonchak)

Technical planning begins

On 17 May 1959, John formally appointed an Antepreparatory Commission to provide initial direction and begin the massive task of technical planning for the Council.

The Commission was charged with the following tasks:

(1) to contact the bishops of the world for their advice and suggestions,

(2) to gather proposals from the dicasteries of the Roman Curia,

(3) to learn the views of the theological and canonical faculties of Catholic universities,

(4) to sketch the general lines of the topics to be discussed at the Council, and

(5) to suggest various bodies (Commissions, Secretariats, etc.) to prepare the Council’s agenda.

The President of the Commission was Secretary of State Cardinal Domenico Tardini, while the Secretary was Msgr. (soon to be archbishop) Pericle Felici, an auditor in the Sacred Rota.

The other ten members who worked in the various Curial Congregations were:

Giuseppe Ferretto, Consistorial
Pietro Sigismondi, Propagation of the Faith
Antonio Samoré, Extraordinary Affairs
Acacio Coussa, Eastern Church
Cesare Zerba, Sacraments
Pietro Palazzini, Council
Arcadio Larraona, Religious
Dino Staffa, Seminaries and Universities
Enrico Dante, Rites
Paul Philippe, Holy Office.

Of these, Cardijn had already been in regular contact for several years with and received assistance from Archbishops Samoré and Pietro Sigismondi and he would soon get to know Cardinal Tardini too.


Cardinal Tardini with John XXIII (Holy Family of Nazareth Foundation)

Autograph Letter by Pope John XXIII

Just two weeks after Cardijn and Romeo Maione’s audience with John XXIII, the new pope followed the example of his predecessors Pius XI and Pius XII by addressing an autograph letter to Cardijn dated 24 February 1959.

“To Our dear Son Joseph Cardijn, General Chaplain of the Young Christian Workers,” the letter read.

“Over the course of the already distant years since its foundation in Belgium, the Young Christian Workers movement has received the most explicit encouragements from Our venerated Predecessors Pius XI and Pius XII on numerous and solemn circumstances. With all our heart, We confirm these; and in our own turn We are pleased to offer you all Our paternal affection, to you who by your priestly zeal was the initiator of this vast Movement of Catholic Action, and, through you, to all the dear Jocists of the male and female branches that have now spread to every continent.

eWe well understand and value the apostolic work that they are achieving among young workers. They will take care to faithfully follow the precious directives received from the Holy See, particularly those that Pius XII of holy memory addressed to them during the great world assembly in 1957. Thus, they will remain apostles docile to the Hierarchy, well instructed in their faith and penetratedby Christian charity, and attentive to the living and working conditions of all their brothers in all locations, ardently in the service of God’s cause!

eWe pray to the Lord, through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin, to make fruitful all these generous efforts and We willingly grant to you, to the presidents, leaders, chaplains and to all the Members of the Young Christian Workers Our most paternal Apostolic Blessing,” it concluded.


Jean XXIII, Lettre autographe (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

English translation

John XXIII, Autograph letter (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

First meeting with John XXIII

Although he did not react publicly to Pope John’s announcement there’s little doubt that it must have intrigued and even excited Cardijn’s imagination.

It was therefore with a growing sense of anticipation and even trepidation that he journeyed to Rome with International YCW leaders, Romeo Maione (president) and Maria Meersman (vice-president) in February 1959.

Once again, Maione recorded the colourful story.

“Cardijn always prepared well. This time he was even more meticulous in his preparation.

“The next day, we arrived at the Vatican in time for a 12:30 pm audience with John XXIII,” Maione recalled. But the pope kept them waiting until 1.15pm.

Finally, the pope himself emerged to welcome the YCW delegation, saying: “You are sure an important man, a man must be elected Pope before he is allowed to meet you.”

Here, Cardijn adds a crucial detail of this first meeting, citing the pope’s welcome to him:

“I have known you for such a long time! I have been following you and your work,” Pope John told Cardijn, adding a significant promise. “I will support the YCW as Pius XI and Pius XII, indeed even more than they did!”

The ice broken, Cardijn did not hesitate to outline his own proposals and requests, including “a new papal letter for young workers, a new social encyclical,” and “training of priests for the lay apostolate.”

Official business over, the two men continued to chat freely, Maione noted.

“John started to talk about his hopes for the council. His central hope was the unity of the churches. He talked about the scandal of division then he added: ‘We must shake hands and make up, and we Catholics must be the first to offer our hand in peace. After all, we keep proclaiming that we have the whole truth and this truth is charity, so we should be the first to offer our hand in peace.’

Cardijn himself was greatly impressed.

“He spoke so freely of a new Pentecost! I will never forget our first meeting,” he remembered.

The new pope calls an Ecumenical Council

A Vatican diplomat by training and experience, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was a surprise choice to succeed Pope Pius XII on 29 October 1958.

But an even bigger surprise would come less than three months later on 25 January 1959, when Pope John XXIII stunned the world and the Church by calling an Ecumenical Council for the whole Church as well as a synod for the Diocese of Rome.

The new pope presented the Council as a response to both positive and negative trends in the world.

“The grace of Christ continues to multiply fruits and portents of spiritual elevation, health and holiness throughout the world,” the pope explained.

But there was also “abuse and compromise of human freedom, (by people) who, not knowing the open skies, and refusing to believe in Christ the Son of God, Redeemer of the world and founder of the Holy Church, turn everything in search of the so-called goods of the earth, under the inspiration of him whom the Gospel calls prince of darkness, prince of this world.

In addition there was “the temptation and the attraction towards the advantages of a material order that the progress of modern technology – indifferent in itself – magnifies and exalts,” Pope John noted.

“All this – let’s say, this progress – while it distracts from the search for higher goods, weakens the energies of the spirit, leads to the relaxation of the structure of discipline and of the ancient good order, with grave prejudice of what constituted the strength of resistance of the Church and of the his sons to errors, which in reality always in the course of the history of Christianity, led to fatal and fatal divisions, to spiritual and moral decay, to the ruin of nations,” he warned.

Hence the need for a Council, which like others in “eras of renewal” in the history of the Church had helped increase “clarity of thought” and “compactness of religious unity” as well as promoting “the liveliest flame of Christian fervour.”

We have no record of Cardijn’s reaction to this stunning announcement. Just two weeks later, however, he would travel to Rome hoping for his first audience with the new pope he did not know.


Pope St John XXIII, Announcement of an Ecumenical Council (Vatican 2 Voice)

International YCW president meets the new pope

Cardijn had not yet returned from Asia and the Pacific, when International YCW president, Romeo Maione, had his first encounter with the incoming pope.

He later recalled that meeting as follows:

“I remember well my first meeting with Pope John a week after he was elected. A new Pope as part of traditional protocol meets with various government delegations which attended the enthronement ceremonies.

“Pope John insisted that he also meet with a delegation of lay leaders in the church as part of this protocol. As the international president of the Young Christian Workers, I was asked to be part of this small delegation.

“At that time, I was suffering from a serious attack of sciatica, literally, I was leaning like the Tower of Pisa. As was the custom of the day, one was called to genuflect when introduced to the pope. (This tradition was later abolished).

“Because of my back, I told the papal secretary that I could not kneel. When the pope entered, he gave his usual commentary on a gospel passage and then met and had a personal word with each person.

H”e came to me and moved back looking at my 250 lbs and said: “I suppose that you are the man that can not kneel down, you better not who would be able to pick you up.”

“Suddenly, the laughter brought the great virtue of humour into the Vatican,” Maione wrote.

But in addition to his humour, Pope John was already foreshadowing the importance that he would place on lay leadership and the lay apostolate.

John XXIII: Never heard of him…


Cardijn was deeply concerned following the death on 9 October 1958 of Pius XII, who had reigned as pope since 2 March 1939.

Indeed, the YCW founder had known him even before that as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Holy See Secretary of State, who had written an important letter of encouragement to the YCW on the occasion of its first International Congress in Brussels in August 1935.

Now Cardijn was nervous about whether the new pope would continue to support the YCW.

“I was in New Zealand when we learnt on the radio through the Archbishop of Christchurch of the death of Pius XII,” Cardijn later wrote.

“After a session of fervent prayer in the chapel, we asked ourselves: ‘How will we find a worthy successor to such a great and holy Pope?’

“I continued on my voyage to Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia and it was at the airport of Formosa (now Taiwan) that people told us: ‘We have a new Pope: John XXIII!’

– John XXIII, who is he?

– It’s Cardinal Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice

– Roncalli… never heard of him!”

Pope Pius XI had memorably endorsed the YCW during Cardijn’s first audience with him in March 1925. And in 1935, he declared the YCW an “authentic” or “perfect” form of Catholic Action.

Pius XII had continued and extended that pontifical support. In 1956, the Holy See had approved the new statutes of the JOC Internationale (International YCW).

A year later on 25 August 1957, the pope had welcomed and hosted the 32,000 young workers from around the world who had joined the JOC pilgrimage to Rome.

Moreover, Pius XII had steadfastly continued to support the YCW despite the fact that he had severely limited the French worker priest experience while several theologians close to Cardijn and the JOC such as the Dominicans, Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu, had also been sanctioned.

What would the new pope do about the YCW? Cardijn, how 76, was understandably concerned about the future of his life’s work.

Pope John XXIII was elected on 28 October 1958. Therefore as soon as he returned to Brussels from Asia and the Pacific, Cardijn wasted no time in planning to visit Rome to meet the new pope.


Original French

Joseph Cardijn, Sous la règne de Jean XXIII: Une nouvelle Pentecôte (Bulletin de la JOC Internationale) (Bibliothèque Digitale Joseph Cardijn)

English translation

Joseph Cardijn, During the reign of John XXIII: A new Pentecost (Bulletin of the International YCW, July – August 1963 No. 90) (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)