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 ...

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