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Behind Vatican Walls: The Legacy of John XXIII


CNS photo/Catholic Press Photo

This week marks 53 years since St. Pope John XXIII died at the Vatican at age of 81. For most people, the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of the saintly pope’s name is the Second Vatican Council. Yet his pontificate and his priestly ministry left its mark on the church and the world in many different ways.

When the elderly pope opened the Second Vatican Council, tension between the United States and the Soviet Union was steadily escalating. Just days after the pope’s famous speech from his window on the opening night of the Second Vatican Council, a U.S. spy plane spotted and confirmed the stockpile of nuclear arms in Cuba; a discovery that would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction.

This was a pope who had seen firsthand the disastrous effects of war. As a young priest, Father Angelo Roncalli served as a military chaplain in a hospital in Bergamo. He knew firsthand the devastation a conventional war could bring about; let alone a war where mutual destruction of both adversaries was assured. During the second world war Fr. Roncalli served as nuncio to various European and Balkan countries. He knew from experience there was always some way, some key to diffusing even the most delicate of political situations.

Tensions mounted as both sides reinforced their stock of weapons waiting for the other to “blink” first. Finally Pope John XXIII decided it was time to step in. On October 25, 1962 the pope took to the airwaves of Vatican Radio with a message titled For Peace and Fraternity Among Mankind. He did not name the world leaders he hoped to address, he did not invoke his papal authority. The pope simply gave voice to the fears of every man, woman and child who had been following the developments off the coast of Cuba. “May they, with hands on their chest, hear the anguished cry that rises up to the heavens from all corners of the earth, from innocent children and the elderly, individuals, communities: Peace, Peace!”

This message, this plea for peace delivered as spokesperson for all of humanity had the intended effect. Scholars agreed it gave the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and United States President John F. Kennedy a graceful way out of the standoff without the appearance of having chickened out. Within days, the Cuban Missile Crisis was over. Nuclear war was averted.

From that message to world leaders on behalf of all of humanity sprung the idea of an encyclical on world peace. Pacem in Terris was published just seven months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, addressed to all men and women of goodwill.

Watch this week’s episode of Vatican Connections below!

AliciaHeadShot Every week brings new, exciting, and sometimes juicy headlines from behind Vatican walls and every week Alicia delves deeper into one of those headlines. For a full run down of what’s been happening behind Vatican walls, watch Vatican Connections. Already watch the program? Come back every Friday for an in-depth look at an issue, headline or person. Season 4 of Vatican Connections airs every Friday at 8:00 pm ET.

Behind Vatican Walls: The Pact of the Catacombs


This year marks 50 years since the end of the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of several key documents that shaped the church. There is one document, not part of the official canon of Vatican II documents, that shaped the church just as much yet has been almost forgotten. It is called the Catacombs Pact and has experienced a resurgence on its 50th anniversary due, some say, to the ecclesiastical climate created by Pope Francis.

On November 16, 1965 a group of 42 council fathers paid a visit to the Catacombs of Domitila on the outskirts of Rome. At an altar deep below the surface of modern Rome, surrounded by tombs of ancient Christians, Bishop Charles-Marie Himmer of Tournai, Belgium celebrated mass for his fellow council fathers. Following the Mass the fathers composed a text: a set of principles they would agree to adhere to in their ministry. Then-Bishop Helder Camara took served as the group’s scribe.

Among other things, the council fathers agreed to live simply, renounce the pomp and luxury that came with episcopal positions, and entrust the administrative aspects of running a diocese to competent lay people. Essentially, they agreed to let nothing get in the way of being pastors.

Location, location, location

Making the trek out to the catacombs of Domitila in order to sign the document was just as important as the content of the pact.

The best known catacombs under the Eternal City are the catacombs of St. Callixtus which house the remains of nine early popes. The entrance to the catacombs of Domitilla, which house the tombs of 100,000 early Christians, are close by but less advertised. The underground complex is also home to the only underground basilica that can still be visited. The message was clear: “we’re getting back to basics.”

Modus Operandi

Given the name of the pact one expects to find earth shattering statements in the document. To the modern eye the content is rather…..well, unexciting. In 1965, the points contained in the document would have been seen as turning the church on its head. They agreed to:

  • Live the way “our people” normally live in regards to wardrobe, food, transportation and everything related.
  • Renounce “the appearance and reality” of wealth, especially in regards to wardrobe, i.e: fabrics used and insignia made of precious metals.
  • “We will not own under our own name” real estate, furniture or bank accounts and “if it is necessary to have such things, we will put them in the name of our diocese or social or charity organizations”.
  • When possible, entrust management of dioceses’ finances and assets to competent lay people “so we can be pastors and apostles more than managers”.
  • Renounce being referred to by names or titles that convey power and prestige, (monsignor, excellency, eminence)  preferring to be referred to by the evangelical title “Father”.
  • Avoid doing anything that appears to give preferential treatment to those who are wealthy or have power.
  • Invite the faithful to view their participation in the life of the church as a normal part of worship, apostolate and social action and avoid encouraging participation of people just increase income or encourage donations.
  • Give as much of our time, heart, means to apostolic and pastoral care of people and groups that are “economically weak”,  support the lay people, religious, deacons, priests whom the Lord calls to evangelize workers and the poor.
  • Transform works of “charity” into works of social initiative based on love and justice.
  • Work towards getting governments to enact laws, structures and social institutions necessary justice, equality, and harmonious development.
  • Invest, as much as possible, in poor dioceses.
  • “Share our lives with our brother priests, religious and laypeople in Christ so our ministry may become a true service”.

CNS photo/Paul Haring

Watch this week’s Vatican Connections below:


Every week brings new, exciting, and sometimes juicy headlines from behind Vatican walls and every week Alicia delves deeper into one of those headlines. For a full run down of what’s been happening behind Vatican walls, watch Vatican Connections. Already watch the program? Come back every Friday for an in-depth look at an issue, headline or person. Season 4 of Vatican Connections airs every Friday at 8:00 pm ET.

Vatican Connections: January 16, 2015


It is not unheard of for non-Catholics to visit Catholic churches and shrines. It is less common to have non-Catholics visit those sites, pray alongside the faithful and claim to have received graces through the experience. Sri Lanka’s Madhu Shrine is such a site, and it had a profound effect on Pope Francis.

The shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary draws Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus together in prayer. Faithful from all four religions say they receive graces from praying at the shrine and consider it an important place. During the 26 year war between government forces and Tamil rebel groups, both sides recognized the shrine as a demilitarized zone.

Pope Francis told journalists on Thursday that seeing faithful from the four religions praying together in Madhu inspired him to visit a Buddhist temple. The pope said, “Among the people, who are never wrong, there is something that unites them and if they are united in such a natural way as to go and pray together in a temple that is Christian but not only… How could I not go to the Buddhist temple?”

One of the Buddhist monks from the temple is a friend of Cardinal Malcom Ranjith of Colombo and was at the airport to greet Pope Francis. During the arrival formalities the monk invited Pope Francis to visit the temple. The pope was scheduled to meet with the Sri Lankan bishops, but they were still en route from Madhu. Pope Francis said he took advantage of the unexpected free time and arranged to visit the temple.

Christians are a minority in Sri Lanka. Buddhism is the most prevalent religion, with 69 per cent of Sri Lankans identifying as Buddhists. Muslims make up seven percent of the population, Hindus are another seven percent of the population and Christians come in at just over 6 percent of society.


Pope Francis answered several questions from journalists on board the flight from Colombo to Manila. The Vatican has not yet released a full transcript of that press conference.

According to Vatican Insider, the web based news service of Italy’s La Stampa newspaper, Pope Francis was asked about freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Pope Francis said, “One thing is true: each person has the right to practice their own religion freely, without causing offence to others. And that is what we all want.  Secondly, offending or waging war, killing in the name of one’s own religion, in the name of God, is not right.”

Freedom of speech must be exercised, but to the point of offending others, according to the pope. Using one of the Vatican staff members to make a point, the pope said “if Mr. Gasbarri, who is a friend, insults my mother, that’s asking for a punch. Provoking and insulting other people’s faiths is not right.”

The pope was also asked about his next encyclical which is expected to focus on the environment. Pope Francis said, “I don’t know if humans who mistreat nature are fully responsible for climate change but they are largely responsible for it. We have taken hold of nature, of mother Earth, to some extent.” The pope said he read many works by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople on the topic to prepare for writing the encyclical. The final text should be completed by the end of March. The pope said he has sent a draft to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Secretariate of State and the Theologian of the Papal Household “so that they can make sure I am not talking nonsense.” Pope Francis said he hopes the encyclical can be released in June or July in multiple languages.

Asked about the importance of canonizing St. Joseph Vaz in Sri Lanka, Pope Francis spoke about men and women he has canonized who were important evangelizers in different parts of the world. He said he also hopes to canonize Junipero Serra in the fall during his visit to the United States for the World Meeting of Families. The comment launched speculation over where the canonization might happen and what other U.S. cities the pope might visit.

Vatican Connections: January 9, 2015

Pope Francis delivered his Christmas present to the Church a little late, but still well within the liturgical Christmas season.

On January 4, while leading the Angelus, Pope Francis announced the names of the 15 men under 80 he wants to elevate to the rank of cardinal. Among them are Latin Americans, Africans, Asians, and a select few Europeans from unexpected places. They are:

Abp.Dominique Mamberti – Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Segnatura

Abp. Manuel José Macário do Nascimento Clemente – Patriarch of Lisbon

Abp. Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, C.M., Archbishop of Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

Abp. John Atcherley Dew, Archbishop of Wellington, New Zealand

Abp. Edoardo Menichelli, Arcbishop of Ancona-Osimo. Italy.

Abp. Pierre Nguyên V?n Nhon, Archbishop ofHà Nôi, Viêt Nam

Abp. Alberto Suárez Inda, Archbishop of Morelia, Mexico

Abp.. Charles Maung Bo, S.D.B., Arcbishop of Yangon, Myanmar

Abp. Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, Arcbishop of Bangkok, Thailandia

Abp. Francesco Montenegro, Archbishop of Agrigento, Italy

Abp. Daniel Fernando Sturla Berhouet, S.D.B., Archbishop of Montevideo, Uruguay

Abp. Ricardo Blázquez Pérez, Archbishop of Valladolid, Spain

Bp. José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán, O.A.R., Bishop of David, Panamá

Bp. Arlindo Gomes Furtado, Bishop of Santiago of Cape Verde

Bp. Soane Patita Paini Mafi, Vescovo di Tonga, Isole di Tonga

There is much rejoicing among devotees of El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero. The official newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference reported on Friday that a panel of theologians at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had voted unanimously to recognize the slain archbishop’s death as that of a martyr.

The Vatican did not confirm the report.

In order to be beatified the cardinals and bishops who make up the Congregation for Saints causes would need to ratify the theological commission’s vote. Finally, Pope Francis would have to give his approval.

Getting papal approval to recognize Romero’s sanctity should not be difficult. In August 2014 Pope Francis told reporters “for me, Romero is a man of God.” In 2013 he reportedly told El Salvador’s Ambassador to the Holy See “I hope that under this pontificate we can beatify (Archbishop Romero).”

Earlier in the week Pope Francis read an excerpt from one of Archbishop Romero’s 1977 homilies during his catechesis talk at the weekly General Audience.

Archbishop Romero was killed on March 24 1980, while celebrating Mass in a hospital in San Salvador. One day earlier he had given a homily in which he called on soldiers in the country to stop enforcing the government’s policies of oppression and human rights violations.



Vatican Connections: December 12, 2014

This week the Council of Cardinals met again in Rome, a consistory was announced, a papal interview was published, and Pope Francis delivered a powerful homily for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe .

The Guadalupe homily, delivered in Spanish during a mass Pope Francis celebrated at St. Peter’s, packs a powerful punch and sends an unmistakable message to anyone who thinks Latin America is free for the exploiting. Read the English translation of that homily on Vatican Radio’s website.

and while their meeting did not produce any ground breaking news, the media briefing about the meetings brought much to write about. Pope Francis himself shook things up by giving an exclusive interview to an Argentine newspaper in which he didn’t shy away from any topic and set the record straight on a couple of things.

Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s Spokesperson, admitted that the reform of the Curia’s constitution is a long way from being written, but deliberation and analysis continues. Then, almost as an aside, he informed journalists that Pope Francis will create new cardinals at a February consistory. Cue the lists of red-hat predictions.

If Pope Francis sticks to the current rules regarding the size of the College of Cardinals, he will have between 10 and 12 “red hats” to hand out in February. North American observers are already deliberating if he might name American cardinals. European observers believe it is unlikely he will do so.

In a recent interview the pope granted to the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, the pontiff said he does not believe that heads of Vatican departments need to be Cardinals. There are some exceptions of course. Specifically, he said the only dicasteries that need cardinals at the helm are the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Divine Worship, and Bishops. So the likelihood of Pope Francis elevating curial officials to the College of Cardinals is also unlikely.

The other news Fr. Lombardi delivered is that the Commission for the Protection of Minors will be expanded to included 18 members who represent different parts of the world. The first meeting of that fully established commission is scheduled for early February.


Pope Francis gave a no-holds barred interview to Elisabetta Pique of La Nacion, an Argentine daily newspaper.

Perhaps because he’s known Pique since 2001, he was not shy about saying what he thinks and even clarifying what others think he thinks.

The pope had very clear words to say about the recent synod, the way divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are treated by the church ( they’re treated as “de-facto excommunicated” people, unable to even be Godparents), people who claim they don’t understand his plans for the church, his appointment of Cardinal Raymond Burke as chaplain of the Order of the Knights of Malta, and on the importance of keeping his head on straight.

Elisabetta Pique elaborates on some of these comments, and talks to me about her book “Francis: Life and Revolution” on this week’s edition of Vatican Connections.


The week ended with the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The music setting used for this Mass was the Argentine Mass setting “Missa Criolla”. Stay tuned after the end of Vatican Connections for some clips from the Mass featuring this goose-bump inducing Mass setting.


Vatican Connections – June 13, 2014

Henrique Cymerman has made a career out of talking to people who technically, should be his enemies. That was exactly why Pope Francis enlisted his help to bring the Israeli and Palestinian presidents together to pray for peace.

Cymerman is the middle east correspondent for several news outlets based on the Iberian peninsula, including Spain’s La Vanguardia newspaper and Portugal’s SIC television.

Why would the pope turn to a journalist to help orchestrate his peace prayer gathering? Cymerman is Portuguese-born. His father was Polish Jew and his mother came from a Sephardic Spanish family. He moved to Israel as a young man, studying at the University of Tel Aviv. As a journalist he has interviewed the key players in the constantly evolving situation in the middle east. Cymerman was there when Anwar Saddat landed in Tel Aviv to announce he wanted peace, broke the news about the Madrid Peace Conference in the 1991, and was the last journalist to interview Yitzak Rabin, hours before the Prime Minister was killed.

Still, when Cymerman accompanied Rabbi Abraham Skorka to the Vatican about a year ago to visit the new pope, he had no reason to expect anything other than a good, long talk.

According to Cymerman he and Rabbi Skorka spent five hours at the Santa Marta visiting with the pope. Cymerman had his video camera with him, and recorded some of there conversation “but it was not an interview.”

The three men adjourned to the dining room to eat. Cymerman told Spain’s TeleCino that after the meal Pope Francis led them to one of the meeting rooms, closed the door, and with the cameras off, asked “How can I help? How can I help with the Middle East?” Both Cymerman and Skorka reportedly said “Come visit. Your presence will send a message”

From that moment on there were numerous phone calls, emails and messages. Because of Cymerman’s contacts in the middle east he was tasked with taking messages to some of the parties involved, delivering papers, and providing advice. Originally the gathering was supposed to take place during the pope’s trip but with the breakdown of peace talks between Israel and Palestine in April, it became more difficult to get both sides to meet in the region.

Cymerman was also granted an exclusive interview with Pope Francis, which was published in Spain’s La Vanguardia on Friday. The video version of the interview is scheduled to in Europe over the weekend.

The English translation of the interview is available on Vatican Insider.

Vatican Connections: March 21, 2014


The Vatican, the Anglican Communion, the Al Azhar Mosque and the Walk Free Foundation have joined forces to eliminate slavery and human trafficking by the end of the decade. The four parties launched the Global Freedom Network this week at the Vatican.

The network aims to get 162 governments commit to endorse it and the Global Fund to End Slavery, 50 multinationals to commit to investigating their supply chain for slavery, and G20 nations to adopt anti-slavery legislation.

The Walk Free Foundation, founded by Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest to end slavery, reports that 29.8 million people around the world are in situations of slavery.

Gina Dafalia, the policy and research manager for the Walk Free Foundation, told Salt + Light the foundation realized very early on there was limited data about the prevalence of slavery. The first major project the foundation undertook was putting together the Global Slavery Index, examining data from countries around the world to determine where slavery is most prevalent. The Global Slavery Index also ranks nations according to that prevalence.

Mauritus is the nation with the highest prevalence of slavery, while Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom are the nations with the lowest prevalence of slavery.

The Walk Free Foundation defines slavery as any situation where one person deprives another of his or her freedom, whether through debt bondage, forced marriage, sale and exploitation of children, forced labour, or trafficking.  

Dafalia said the Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with the Global Freedom Network, hopes to raise awareness about what constitutes slavery and where it is prevalent, spur businesses to eliminate it from their supply chains and get nations to adopt anti-slavery and anti-trafficking legislation.

Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences told Salt + Light the Holy See is participating in the Global Freedom Network as the result of a request by Pope Francis.

As part of the Holy See’s commitment to the Global Freedom Network the Academy for Social Sciences will be organizing meetings to study the best responses to the phenomena. The academy will also ask bishops conferences around the world to organize a similar meeting in order to raise awareness among their faithful about what constitutes slavery.

“Slavery is anything that takes away a person’s freedom, anyone who has to work in difficult conditions for nothing, the person who is forced to prostitute themselves, or has their passport taken away,” said Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo  

To learn more, visit the Global Freedom Network website

To read the Global Slavery Report and see where your country is ranked, visit the Walk Free Foundation website.




Vatican Connections: October 11, 2013


Pope Francis has been invited to visit and speak at the European Parliament. Martin Schultz, president of the EU Parliament made the invitation when he met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday.

If he were to accept, Pope Francis would be the second pope to address the European Parliament. Pope John Paul II visited the European Parliament in 1988 during a four day visit to France.

Pope Benedict XVI was invited to speak at the European Parliament, but never accepted the invitation.


Another Canadian religious woman is on her way to sainthood. Pope Francis recognized the heroic virtues of Servant of God Marie Elisabeth Turgeon. The Quebec-born religious founded the Sisters of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary of St. Germain in Rimouski Quebec.

The order dedicated itself to teaching and training other women to become teachers. She died in 1881 in Rimouski, Quebec. The Congregation of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary is still active today in Quebec, Labrador, the United States, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Archbishop Gilles Ouellet of Rimouski approved the opening of Turgeon’s sainthood cause at the diocesan level in 1989.

Turgeon will now be known as Venerable Marie Elisabeth Turgeon.. In order to be declared “Blessed” a miracle must be attributed to Turgeon’s intercession

Vatican Connections: The changing face of the curia

Its finally here! The Season 2 premiere of Vatican Connections. To get back into things we’re taking a look at what’s been happening over the summer at the Vatican. There were new commissions created, important appointments made, and some blockbuster announcements.

This week’s Roman Profile is an introduction to the figure of Cardinal Celso Costantini – the fisrt papal delegate to China in the 1930s.

Vatican Connections: Roman Profiles


Vatican Connections is on summer hiatus, returning on September 27. One feature of every Vatican Connections is the “Roman Profile” segment. Below is a Roman Profile post, featuring Cardinal Celso Costantini. Watch for the full, television version of this Roman Profile, featuring and interview with Costantini biographer Monsignor Bruno Pighin, during the new season of Vatican Connections starting this fall.

The Vatican’s official documents from the World War II period are still locked in the Vatican Secret Archives. Yet one detailed, wartime Vatican diary sits on bookshelves across Italy. It reveals, among other things, that Vatican officials were aware that Pope Pius XII had likely helped pay the ransom demanded of the Jewish community by the Germans.

The diary was kept by Cardinal Celso Costantini, an Italian cardinal who served as the first papal delegate to China, then served as secretary to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome during WWII, and eventually, wrote key documents on the importance of sacred art.

Throughout his varied career, it seems there is nothing this man did not do: from founding a congregation to winning a Gold Lion at the Biennale di Venezia, the prestigious Italian art expo, according to his biographer, Monsignor Bruno Pighin.

As papal representative to China, Cardinal Costantini spoke of the importance of “de-colonizing” the church in Asia. He founded a congregation of priests, the Congregation of Disciples of the Lord, which led to him witnessing the ordination of the first six Asian born, Asian formed priests.

Yet, it was precisely his push to “de-colonize” the church in Asia that, angered those trying to maintain a European presence in the area and led to him being posted to Rome as secretary for the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, says his biographer.

During his posting in Rome he kept a detailed diary of events in the city. He witnessed first hand the bombing of the eternal city, and the deportation of the Jewish community. Through it all he quietly maintained friendships with government officials.

It was these friendships, according to Msgr. Pighin, which helped establish a core group of Italian politicians that would not support German policies against Jews in Rome.

Considered by many to be a prophetic voice – Costantini began speaking of the need for a second Vatican Council back in the 1930s – he was viewed by many Cardinals as “papabile” in the 1958 conclave.

Cardinal Costantini didn’t make it to the conclave that elected Pope John XXIII. On October 9, 1958, Pope Pius XII died, and just eight days later Cardinal Costantini passed away. The conclave to elect the next successor of Peter did not begin until October 25.

For more information about he Congregation of the Disciples of the Lord, visit their website www.cdd.org.tw

For a full biography of Cardinal Celso Costantini, visit the Italian page : www.associazionecardinalecostantini.it/ 

 The English version of the cardinal’s wartime diary will be released by McMaster-Queens University Press this fall.

Image courtesy of:  Associazione Amici del Cardinal Costantini