One of the first important acts of Angelo Poncalli, after being elected Pope on October 28, 1958, was the calling of a general council. Almost everyone surmised, when he did so, that he was thinking about the Eastern Orthodox and Western Protestant churches and their separation from Rome. What did the calling of the council signify? Did its proclamation hint at a change, perhaps a softer policy in Rome toward the other churches? Pope John had been referred to in the press as a modern pope, a man of profound humility along with a genuine realism, a human pontiff whose piety was open-hearted and touched with humor. If his predecessor had been an aristocratic pope, John was a pope of the people. What was now to be expected when such a pope calls a general council?

An official answer to this question is not wanting. The pope has published his first encyclical, Ad Cathedram Petri. It has to do with unity and peace through love. If we wondered whether this encyclical would reveal anything significantly different from previous encyclicals dealing with the unity of the Church, we now know that it does not. Most of what Pope John says in his first papal letter could be found, in other forms, in many other encyclicals of previous popes. In regard to the general council, the pope himself says that it is not concerned first of all with other communities, but with the Roman church itself. But he adds that the very fact of the council would provide a stimulus and challenge to other churches to strive anew for unity.

The reunion of the churches is one of the new pope’s favorite themes. He likes to emphasize the high-priestly prayer of our Lord, and often repeats the phrase, “one flock and one shepherd.” The pope affirms his faith in the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer that “they all may be one that the world may believe that Thou hast sent me.” Indeed, his faith in its fulfillment, he says, led him to call the council. Here, all the world would send its bishops to gather in consideration of divine matters. The council, he asserts, would be a holy display of truth, unity, and love. Through such a display, it is said, all other groups would feel themselves urged to seek the realization of the unity for which our Lord prayed.

Behind this faith lies the pope’s confidence that sympathy for the faith and the institution of the Roman church is growing in the world at large. Love for the truth, he claims, will continue to sweep away prejudice against the Catholic church. The visibly imposing unity of the general council ought to be a sign to the “erring brothers” that it is time for them to return to the unity of the one Church. The Pope speaks in pastoral tones. Note well, he says, that we are calling you brothers, for we long for you as brothers. Come back, he calls, and we will welcome you home with fatherly love. Thus, the pope calls us all back, not to a stranger’s dwelling, but to our own home, to the home of our one Father.

Augustine once said of schismatics: “Whether they will it or not, they are our brothers.” Pope John recalls these words in his letter. As pope, he says, he does not speak out of any merit of his own, but from the position to which God in his incomprehensible will has raised him. But he speaks as Joseph to his erring kinsman: “I am Joseph, your brother.”

A careful reading of this encyclical reveals no essential difference from Rome’s previous attempts at unity. A bit of reflection beforehand would have told us that it would not be otherwise. Rome’s position over against Protestantism does not rest with the personal disposition of a given pope. It is defined by the structure of the church itself. It is impossible for any pope to speak about unity without the background of the pretentions of Rome as the Catholic, the one and only Church. Herein lies the only really interesting part of the present pope’s encyclical. The personal zeal and warmth of the man is backed by the familiar summons to the rest of us to return. The visible display of unity at a general council is a call for conversion and repentance; it is not an invitation to discussion. The way back to the “father’s house” is the path of repentance. For this reason the coming council ought not to be seen as signifying a change in Rome. When a genuine change comes it will mean that the issues are laid on the table for both parties to see; the pretentions of Rome itself will have to be put in the scales.

One thing is clear: this possibility does not lie within the intention of the present pope. Pope John is not a romantic. The lines are as clearly drawn as ever. The continuity of this encyclical with all previous ones on the same subject is evidence for this. Protestants should read the encyclical itself, if only because the public press has unwarrantedly speculated about a change in the attitude of Rome. More important, we need to be reminded that the one Shepherd of the one flock is the same who pointed to his Word as the guide of the Church.

Pope John is not the first to acknowledge us to be “brothers.” Previous encyclicals expressly said that we were not being called unbelievers, but brothers who have strayed from the fold. As lost brothers, we were being called home. Rome has been and still is willing to put out her hand and welcome us home as brothers. But she insists that it is we, the lost ones, who are returning to the unity of home which was never lost. In her desire for unity, Rome feels no need for a search on her own part. She has and is the unity; the rest of us, if we desire unity, must come humbly and penitently to her. Then we shall be received as brothers.

Article continues below

The encyclical ought to be a challenge to us for searching our own hearts. Have we understood the meaning of the Lord’s prayer for unity on our part? Have we understood that the power of the Word as the Sceptor of the one Shepherd is also a power for unity under that Shepherd?

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.