As the Year of Faith opens, we need to join Cardinal Heenan in exposing the myths that surround Vatican II and its Pope

Hopefully, Heenan’s article on good Pope John will shed some light both on the ‘Pope of the Council’ (whose feast is kept on this day in Rome) and on Vatican II itself, which was solemnly opened 50 years ago today. It is only by understanding the true purpose of the Second Vatican Council that the Church can genuinely discern the meaning of its documents — texts that the present Holy Father has asked Catholics to study during the Year of Faith, which will be opened by him today.

In July 1964, Cardinal Heenan wrote a tribute to his friend, Pope John XXIII, who had died the previous year. He was concerned that a wrong impression of Pope John had emerged, along with a false understanding of the true meaning and purpose of the Vatican Council. Heenan sought to distinguish between  Pope John ‘the man’ and Pope John ‘the myth’. By doing so, the Cardinal also wished to highlight the real motivation behind the Council, which was firmly grounded in John XXIII’s traditional Catholicism, as opposed to the false hermeneutic of rupture, which was already becoming a popular misinterpretation even half way through Vatican II.

Heenan began his reflection by stating that although John had been “dead only a year … those of us who thought we knew him well are hard put to recognise his gentle, lovable personality behind a cloud of mythology.” The Cardinal wished to free the late Pope from false notions about him, adding that it is always “[b]etter [to] tell the truth than create legends.” The eighth Archbishop of Westminster then went on to state quite clearly the differences between the mythological (liberal / progressive) John and the real one:

The chief difference between Pope John that man and Pope John the myth is that the real John was no genius. The mythical John is being built up into a man with phenomenal perception. He is featured as a resourceful ruthless visionary conscious of his destiny to become the Liberator of the Church held in bondage for centuries by his small-minded predecessors. He was determined to make the Church free for scholars of every degree of immaturity. No longer would restrictions of any kind be put on freedom of thought. Away with censorship! Down with the Roman Curia! Set free the People of God!

The Pope I knew was not in the least like this mythical John. My Pope John was more like a benevolent parish priest. I doubt if he had read many of the books of contemporary theologians. He made scholars smile when he told them the name of his favourite bedside book – Father Faber’s All for Jesus.

The Cardinal then went on to write, specifically referring to Vatican II:

But the widest divergence between the two Johns is in relation to the Vatican Council. For the mythical John the Council was a brilliantly thought-out campaign to open all windows in the Church for the emergence of an entirely new Catholic life. Tiresome domestic disputes among Catholic theologians would be for ever silenced. The Church must clearly be seen as essentially the same as all other Christian denominations. Theological differences were unimportant and modern theologians could hide them in the impenetrable Mystery of the Church. Under the influence of the mythical John a Protestant observer remarked: ‘By the time the Romans have the English liturgy and a married clergy and the Church of England has gone back to Latin, it will be hard to tell the difference’.

Heenan claimed that, contrary to the mythological Pope, the real John XXIII was unsure of what “he wanted for the Church”, adding that the Pontiff had been “rather bewildered by the Council.” It seems that Cardinal Heenan, who personally knew the Pope,  and who was thanked by John’s private secretary for writing his July ’64  reflection on him, was convinced that ‘good Pope John’ was more than happy with the pre-Conciliar Church — he did not want to make any radical changes to it, but merely wished to build upon what had already been achieved since Vatican I. The Second Vatican Council was convened to reaffirm the Faith, not dismantle it!

As I have mentioned in a previous post, Heenan related in his July ’64 Cathedral Chronicle message that Pope John had told him that the “idea of holding a Council had come to him quite suddenly.” Whilst speaking with each other before the first session, John had told Heenan that “if the Council started in October all would be over by Christmas.” The Cardinal commented:

This was like a pathetic echo from the England of 1914 and 1939. Simple people always think a war will be over by Christmas. This is not, of course, to suggest that the Vatican Council is like a war. I mean to say merely that Pope John, like those people who plan wars, did not foresee the effects of his decisions. I doubt if he would have summoned the Council to meet so soon had he realised what preparation was necessary. The Council will bring renewed strength to the Church but five years of hard work are really required between sessions.

As we now know, much of the hard work that had gone into preparing for the Council — by men such as Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre — was hastily binned as liberal periti manoeuvred to create a wholly new agenda once Vatican II had started. Was Heenan, then, suggesting that the Second Vatican Council appeared to be moving too hastily, and that the Pope thought the same? With the benefit of hindsight, it definitely seems like the Council was indeed hijacked by revolutionaries, uninterested in sober reflection and the consequences of rash decisions. “Angels fear to tread…”, or so they say.

Again, referring to the Council and its (first) Pope, Cardinal Heenan wrote:

It would be tragic if the myth were to kill the man. He was so lovable, so unpretentious, so simple. He wanted to make everybody happy and the radiation of his goodness achieved that very end. It was impossible not to be happy in his company. He was dismayed when he found that the Council once started could not be soon finished. He knew that the prolonged absence of bishops from their flocks was not good. No family thrives if the father is constantly away from home. Pope John wanted the Church to settle down as soon as possible.

According to Cardinal Heenan, Pope John was not the revolutionary that many devotees of what would later be called ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ wished him to be. He was not “a great thinker or planner”, and even during the months leading up to the Second Vatican Council, Pope John was as concerned about the fact that “so little was done in the Catholic Church to honour the Precious Blood” as he was about Vatican II. Heenan added this anecdote to prove his point:

‘Isn’t it strange,’ he once said to me, ‘that we hear so little about the Precious Blood? Protestants have prayers and hymns but we seem to take the Precious Blood for granted.’ So I was not surprised when the Pope introduced into the Divine Praises the invocation: ‘Blessed be His Most Precious Blood’.

After recalling once more that “Pope John was the old-fashioned ‘garden of the soul’ type Catholic” who “read his Faber and no doubt regularly recited the litany of the Sacred Heart”, Heenan reminded his readers that John had not been “an original thinker”, adding:

It was Pope Pius XII, not Pope John, who allowed married pastors to become priests, revised the rules for the Eucharistic fast and introduced evening Mass. Pope John was no innovator. He was responsible for no great reforms.

Cardinal Heenan ended his July ’64 message by noting Pope John’s “great achievement” in life, which was “to teach the world of the twentieth century how small is hatred and how great is love.” This kind of achievement is what led to the good Pope’s beatification — he was not raised to the altars as a reward for Vatican II.

It is sad to say that ‘Pope John the Myth’ survives to this day, especially amongst those Catholics who view the Second Vatican Council as a rupture or revolution, a moving away from traditional Catholicism. It is also disheartening to note that much harm has been done to the Church by those who have relied too much on the relativistic ‘spirit of Vatican II’ as opposed to the generally orthodox and faith-affirming texts of the Council.

Let’s hope, then, that during the Year of Faith both the mythological John and the false legends of ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ will finally be replaced once and for all by that truth which sets all men free!

The full text of Cardinal Heenan’s message, first published in July 1964, is reprinted in this month’s Oremus, the current magazine of Westminster Cathedral.

A Reluctant Sinner

— Sinner, yet a Servant —

Not that I have become perfect yet: I have not yet won, but I am still running, trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured me. I can assure you my brothers, I am far from thinking that I have already won. All I can say is that I forget the past and I strain ahead for what is still to come; I am racing for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14)