Vatican Council II: An Insider’s Diary

My Time at the Council Part 3 The First Session Ends, Pope John Dies

Behind the scenes accounts of being a “periti” or theological advisor to the Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia, then a private viewing of Pope John’s body laid out in his bedroom for family, friends and dignitaries, and a brief encounter with John F. Kennedy and much more.

by Anthony, Massimini , Ph.D

“Periti” or theological advisors to the bishops

Rev. Bill Leahy a council scribe. 

Anonymous Cleryman

   I mentioned earlier that many of the council fathers did not understand the spoken Latin.  Some had even greater difficulty writing in Latin.  So when some of the American bishops wanted to speak, they first gave Bill Leahy and me an English copy of their speech.  One or two gave us a scratchy outline!  In the evenings, we put aside our post-graduate studies and wrote the Latin speeches for them.  On one occasion, I told the bishop in question that I had filled in his outline with my own ideas, and cautioned him to go over the speech very carefully to make sure the ideas were also his.  Later, Bill and I would hear one of “our” speeches resound through St. Peter’s Basilica.    

    Bill was a council scribe.  When the council was called, the people preparing for it pulled out the “rules books” for holding a council.  The previous council, of course, was Vatican I, which ended abruptly in 1870.  The one before that was Trent, in the 1500’s.  The rules called for scribes to write down the speeches that were given each day.  A man was brought down from Germany who invented a shorthand system for Latin.  In the evenings, I would dictate to Bill in Latin, using all the different accents I could muster up, and reading faster and faster, until Bill became an expert in taking the dictation.  Then, a day or so before the council opened, he was informed, “We won’t need you to write in shorthand.  This is the 20th century.  We have tape recorders.”   

   One evening, Jesuit Bernard Lonergan, one of our professors and one of the outstanding theologians of the 20th century, came to the American College graduate house for an informal conversation session.  As we discussed his theological views and the council, he quipped, “It’s a good thing the church is not a fire department, because it usually arrives on the world scene late and out of breadth.”

Bernard Lonergan

   In consideration of the American bishops’ difficulty with Latin, Bill had an idea.  Each day he picked out the speeches he deemed to be specially important, made a quick English summary of them, typed them into a mimeograph stencil, ran them off, and then got on his Vespa motor scooter and delivered copies to the seminaries and hotels where the American bishops were staying.  He did this for all the remaining three sessions of the council, while also finishing his work to attain a Licentiate in Scripture and then going on to get a Doctorate in theology!  His collection became known as the Vatican II Digest.  Also, throughout the council, he collected every preliminary document or “Schema” that was presented to the council fathers, then all the changes that were made, and then every final document.  All his papers are now in the Father William K. Leahy collection at  Catholic University in Washington, DC   

The First Session Ends

   The first session of the council closed with an air of optimism on the part of the progressives.  The Liturgy had been updated and Pope John XXIII had personally stopped discussion on Revelation, and on the Church, because the original schemas, written by the Curia, were nothing more than repetitions of old and now out-dated views.  The theologians would lead the council into the 20th century in these two important areas in the coming sessions.  But John’s stomach cancer was progressing and he knew he would not be present for the second session. 

   I settled in to finishing my post-graduate studies.  In early June,1963, I was ready to defend my doctoral dissertation in Spiritual Theology.  My topic was the apparent contradiction between Christian humility and psychological self-esteem.  

Pope John XXIII dies

The body of Pope John XXIII

   But a more important event came first.  We heard on the radio that the pope was gravely ill.  Around 6 PM on June 3rd, my classmate from Camden, NJ, Bill Barnett, and I went to St. Peter’s square.  A crowd was there, keeping vigil.  We stayed for a while and then walked down the street a little ways to a trattoria to eat dinner.  Just as we were finishing, we heard a loud, excited sound from the piazza.  We hurried back and looked up at the pope’s apartment window.  A very bright light was shining from inside.  That’s what had made the crowd react.  Then the announcement came over a loudspeaker that John XXIII had just died.  The crowd went silent for a moment, and then people started crying.  Later, we learned that people were mourning throughout the world.  Pope John XXIII had entered history.

   About two days later, I heard on the radio that John’s body was laid out in his private bedroom and that friends and diplomats were welcome to pay their respects.  Another graduate priest said, “Hey Tony, you know the way to the pope’s bedroom, don’t you.”  I said that I did, since I had accompanied my archbishop on a visit to John’s private study.  The pope’s apartment was immediately beyond the study.  “Let’s go,” Jerry said.  I refused, but he was persistent.  We put on our choir robes so we would look like we had a reason to be there, and took a tram to the Vatican.

   Nervously, we approached the grand staircase that leads from the piazza into the papal palace.  Two Swiss guards were on duty.  As we neared them, they jumped to attention and saluted.  Relieved, we went up the stairs into the palace and I directed Jerry to an elevator that would take us up to the floor of the pope’s apartment.  Two monsignori got on with us and I  was sure they would eject us.  But they simply nodded.  We got off the elevator and began our walk through a line of the most fabulously decorated rooms in the world.  Each room was an art museum of paintings, frescoes and sculptures.  Dignitaries and all sorts of papal guards milled around the rooms but no one paid attention to us.  Walking as if we belonged there, we made our way.  Except that somewhere along the way I lost Jerry.  

  Pressing forward on my own, I arrived at the pope’s private study and went in.  The door to his apartment was at the far corner, and a priest stood before it.  I said to myself, “I’ve gotten this far.  If I have to tackle this guy, I’m going to get by him.”  But he just nodded and let me pass.

  When I stepped into the pope’s private apartment, I thought I have mistakenly walked into some servants’ quarters.  The study I had just left was a royal room, with dark red silk flocking on the wall, and red and gold chairs.  Now I was walking along a narrow hallway on a plain wooden floor.  I got to the first room on the left and looked in.  The first thing I saw was an old bureau on which was laid out a panoply of statues and votive candles.  For a moment I thought I was looking into the bedroom of my Italian grandmother back in Philadelphia.  I looked in a little further.  I saw a plain bed, with three large candles rising from the floor on each side.  On the bed lay Pope John.  

  I walked in.  All alone, I stood by his bedside gazing at him.  His body was dressed in a white cassock, with a red shoulder cape.  He was wearing red velvet shoes.  On his head was a medieval red velvet skull cap, lined with ermine.  The papal ring was noticeably missing from his hand. It had been removed and smashed with a silver hammer.  John’s face was plain and serene as ever.  Death had not changed those aspects of him.  Nor had his changed his humility.  A rumor had spread through Rome that because of the great pain of his cancer, he could not even lay on his bed, but had died lying on the floor.  

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli -St. John XXIII

  As I gazed, I wondered at the greatness of this world-renown man now laying so humbly before me in death.  Sadness washed over me, and then gratitude.  There was a kneeling bench at the front of the bed.  I went over and knelt.  I thanked him for the council, for his smiling graciousness, for his humility.  I remembered how he had greeted the Protestant representatives he had invited to the council, using his middle given name, “I am Joseph, your brother.”  And how he had spoke so caringly to a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square the evening the council had opened,  “I know that many of you are on your way home from work.  When you get home, kiss your children and tell them it’s from Papa John.”

  I remembered how he had greeted me–not holding out his hand for me to kiss his ring but holding out his arms as if to embrace me, smiling and then laughing as he said, “Oh, you’re Italian!  Where do your parents come from?”  

  I prayed for him.  And for the council.  And then I thanked him for teaching me a great lesson by the way he lived his own life.  I thanked him for teaching me to not be “clerical” or ever stand on ceremony, but to just be myself.             

Meeting President John F. Kennedy

   In June, 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited Ireland, the land of his ancestors, and then went to Berlin where he made his famous statement, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”  He also came to Rome, to the North American College, the residence for American seminarians, on the Janiculum Hill, to receive a gift that Pope John XXIII had wanted to give him.  As it happened, he was in Rome on the day that Pope Paul VI was installed, and since the U. S. did not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, Kennedy could not be invited.  So we witnessed the fact that the President of the U. S. had to leave town for the day.

  Just about every American dignitary who came to the Vatican also came to the American College.  During my time in Rome, our visitors included Episcopalian John Foster Dulles, (whose Jesuit son, Avery, studied at the Gregorian University at the same time I did), Clare Booth Luce, Vice President and Mrs. Richard Nixon, (it was St. Patrick’s day and Mrs. Nixon’s birthday so we sang, “Happy Birthday” to her.  When we finished, she turned to her husband and with undue modesty said, “Tell them I’m not a saint.”)  Robert and Ethel Kennedy, and Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy.  One afternoon, in 1959, I was amazed as two United States Army helicopters flew low over the College and then landed on our ball field.  The doors opened and American soldiers ran out and took up positions.  We all ran out to see what was happening.  Then President Dwight Eisenhower stepped out of one of the helicopters.  

   On the day President Kennedy was to come to the College, a few of us, obviously uninvited, took a tram from the graduate house to the Janiculum Hill, where we had lived for four years, and snuck into the official reception room.  Cardinal Richard Cushing, of Boston, a personal friend of the President’s, was there to present him with the gift.  

   The room was filled with American dignitaries in business suits, and church prelates who were ablaze with Episcopal purple and cardinal red.  Then a group of quite obviously American men in suits and ties walked gingerly into the room and took up positions, just as the soldiers had done during Eisenhower’s visit.  Secret Service!  Behind them came the President, smiling brightly.  The excitement became palpable and it seemed as if the lights in the room brightened.  

   Kennedy saw Cushing and walked toward him.  As he got close to the Cardinal,  Cushing, who was taller than the President, shouted, “Hello John!” and then leaned back and took a slow round-house swing at Kennedy.  Kennedy saw it coming and ducked in mock horror.  For a moment, the two horsed around like two college friends at an alumni reunion.  Then they both got serious and Cushing presented the papal gift to the President.

Cardinal Richard Cushing and John F. Kennedy

   As Kennedy got ready to leave, my friends and I–there were four of us–left the room and stood in a hallway that opened to the left of the door.  Kennedy came out and started to walk straight away from the door.  He caught a glimpse of us and turned toward us, holding out his hand. 

   As he approached us I remembered his heroic feat during World War II, when his PT boat was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer, and how he swam to shore pulling a wounded crewman by holding a strap with his teeth.  I marveled anew at how he and his crew kept themselves alive eating coconuts and dodging Japanese patrols until a native carried a message for help, carved into a coconut, to the American forces.  

   When he came to me I shook his hand and said, “Tony Massimini, Philadelphia,” and he said hello.  With my hero-worship view of him, I expected his handshake to be firm and strong.  But to my surprise, his handshake was soft.  He was actually somewhat frail.  I didn’t know about the Addison’s disease that was sapping his strength and giving him a false suntan, or of the back pain that was wracking him every day.  The hero suddenly appeared to be very human, and vulnerable.  

   Next to me, the young priest said, “Paul O’Hearn, Boston.”  At that, Kennedy lit up.  “What does your father do?” he asked.  “He’s a truck driver.”  Kennedy smiled even more brightly.  “Tell him I said hello.”  He greeting the fourth priest and then turn and walked away.   

   Five months later, Cardinal Cushing presided at Kennedy’s funeral and burial.

The funeral of President John F. Kennedy

Preparing to Return to Philadelphia

   A week or so after Kennedy’s visit, I defended my dissertation and was awarded my Doctor’s degree.  It was time to go home.  Bill Leahy and I booked passage on the S. S. Independence.  (He would return again for the remaining council sessions.)  Just before we left, our classmates warned us.  “You two are thinking of going home to Philadelphia and talking about the “New Pentecost.”  You know what’s going to happen to you?  The same thing that happened to St. Paul when he came to Rome.  You’re going to get your heads chopped off.”  

Hans Kung

   We laughed.  But we shouldn’t have.  This wasn’t the first time we were warned.  During the council’s first session, Bill Leahy had invited theologian/peritus Hans Kung to the graduate house for an informal talk session.  I clearly remember the contrast between his rugged features and twinkling eyes.  Even more so, I remember my naive surprise to hear him criticize the Curia.  He noted that the Curia was upset because they were losing control of the council.  Wishing they had more time to ensure their control, they were now complaining that the council was being held too soon.  Kung smiled and said, “My response is that the council is being held 400 years too late.”  

  He went on to say that we should not force the Protestants to give up their beliefs and principles for the sake of reunion with Rome.  It’s too much to ask people to give up principles they firmly believe in.  The way to reunion was not a return to Rome but a return to Christ.  “I say to the Protestants, ‘You come closer to Christ your way, and we’ll come closer to Christ our way.  Some day we’ll meet in Christ.” 

  The next day, Bill Leahy suggested that I write an article on what Kung had said.  I did so and then brought it to the place where Archbishop Krol was staying, to get his prior approval before sending it for possible publication somewhere.  He wasn’t there so I left the article.  The next morning, Krol was in the pulpit making the announcements that opened each council session.  When he finished, he called me over and said, “We’re going to lunch.”

  A little after noon, Krol and I walked out of St. Peter’s, turned left through the Bernini colonnade and found a little trattoria.  As we started to eat, he said, “I read your article.  First of all, there is nothing new happening at the council.”  I thought of Cardinal Ottaviani’s coat of arms, which contains the words, “Semper Idem,” Always the Same.  “And,” Krol continued, “there are no arguments going on.  Everything is going along well.  There are no disagreements at the council.  

Cardinal John Krol, Archbishop of Philadelphia

  Naively, I protested, “But there are disagreements.  The church is going to change and the people back home should be prepared for the changes.”

  Krol would have none of it.  “The church is one.  After the council the church will still be the same as it was before.  And I don’t want you having anything to do with this Hans Kung or any others who are stirring up dissention.  When you get back to Philadelphia, I don’t want you telling people that there are disagreements.  I want you to present the church just as the authorities say it is.”

  Back at the graduate house I told Leahy what had happened.  He said, “Well, know we know for sure where we stand.  We’re alone.”  

  Years later, I told this story to the National Catholic Reporter and it was included in an extensive report on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  I ended my story by saying that the only good thing that happened that day was that Krol paid for my lunch.

   So here we were, being warned again.  Nevertheless, we were going home with high hopes.

Both Fr. Leahy and Fr. Massimini were assigned to the seminary as professors.


St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia, Pa

Dr. Anthony Massimini, Ph.D.

Ordained for Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Rome, 1959

Attended first session of Vatican II, 1962 

Dispensed by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and returned to the laity

Married in a Catholic ceremony, 1972

Editor and Translator: Council Speeches, Third Session of  Vatican II, with William K. Leahy

Author:  The New Dance of Christ–Discovering Our Spiritual Self in a New,  Evolving World, Xlibris Publishers, 2000  

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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