THREE MONTHS after his election on Sept. 29, 1958, John XXIII shocked his entourage and most of the world's Catholics by calling for an Ecumenical Council. At 78, John was considered a transitional pope. Or was he?
A story, probably apocryphal, has his secretary of state, Cardinal Domenico Tardini, telling him, "Santo Padre, tu sei pazz" -- Holy Father, you are crazy. Councils usually result in troubles, if not chaos, Tardini warned.
Fifteen of his cardinal advisers stonewalled John's attempt to gain their acquiescence. Nevertheless, he persisted.
Four years later, on Oct. 11, 1962, the council opened amid a splurge of pageantry and a revolutionary sermon that still reverberates.
In sonorous Latin phrases, John said the church had not preached the gospel to every human being, as Christ had commanded. Nor had it achieved the unity Jesus had called for.
In the present order of things, he asserted, divine providence was leading to a new order of human relations. Hence, the church had to accommodate its teachings to the "signs of the times." Thus the council would not discuss one or another of the truths of the faith that were well-known and accepted through the ages. Rather, it would appeal to the consciousness -- and conscience -- of modern men and women.
Then came the surprising revelation. In the daily exercise of his pastoral office, the pope confided, he was frequently approached by prophets of doom who knew no history. Lacking discretion, they saw nothing but prevarication and ruin in modern times. He thoroughly disagreed with their predictions of disaster.
Next came a series of observations that disconcerted his critics. No longer should the church employ severity in protecting its doctrines. Instead, it should prefer the medicine of mercy, showing itself a loving parent, benign, patient, full of compassion and goodness to the children separated from it.
In convening the council, he defied tradition by inviting representatives of the Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches to attend the council. And rounding out his joyful commission to the assembled prelates, he said the council should rise in the church "like a new dawn."
In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, John discarded the axiom that "error has no rights," which had been used to curb dissent. "Only persons have rights," John insisted, and even if a person is in error, his or her freedom of conscience has to be respected."
Thirty years later, predictions of a time of trouble for the church are fulfilled. The current Vatican has returned to the use of severity in the censuring theologians, and it has returned to the appointment of arch-conservative bishops.
Equally disturbing is the current papal approach to ecumenism. There is evidence that the Vatican wants to return to dominance over the other Christian churches. Many are concerned that John Paul II, while using his predecessor's patronym, is not being true to his vision.
Francis X. Murphy is a retired Redemptorist priest living in Annapolis. Under the name Xavier Rynne, he covered the Vatican Council for the New Yorker.