An unusual alliance

May 25 2003 | by

ON 3 JUNE 1963, exactly forty years ago, Pope John XXIII died. Since then, many events have taken place that have changed humanity. The winds of the Second Vatican Council are still blowing in the Church, just as Blessed John XXIII wished. In the world, however, war, conflicts, dictatorships, persecutions, divisions, economic crises, plagues, famine, ideological dangers and religious intolerance still persist. Nonetheless, great progress has been made in the last forty years thanks in part to the efforts of Pope John XXIII who, with his enthusiasm, innovative ideas, bravery and prophetic charisma, shook up the organisational establishment of the Catholic world, injecting into it an authentic desire for renewal, Gospel witness and missionary ardour.

Certainly, the fall of atheist Communism constitutes one of the more significant socio-historical changes of the last forty years. After Russia’s workers and peasants rebelled against the powerful and oppressive interests of aristocrats and capitalists, Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, violently coopted the Revolution and imposed Communism. In 1917, before Communist ideology came to power in Russia, the Virgin Mary appeared at Fatima and indicated Russia as the source of grave errors. As the Fatima messages warned, these errors would oppress the Russian population and many other nations, spread worldwide and bring suffering and persecution, especially to believers.

History bears witness to the truth of Fatima warnings. Fierce dictators, motivated by their ideological commitments to Communism, oppressed and persecuted their peoples. Worldwide, countless millions have suffered the deprivation of liberty, the degradation of their religious faith, the systematic violation of their human rights and death because of Communism. At Fatima however, the Blessed Virgin declared: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me and she will be converted.” And these words have had significant confirmation in our day, for along with economic restructuring and political openness, religious freedom and civil rights have begun to return to Russia.

Few people, even among Catholics, know that the beginning of this change occurred under John XXIII. The first gap in the Iron Curtain, the seed of dialogue between the Vatican and the Kremlin which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the totalitarian regimes in the East Block countries, occurred in fact thanks to the Holy Father. The two protagonists of this initial dialogue of openness and understanding were Pope John XXIII and Nikita Khrushchev.


First contact


Although he is approaching eighty-eight years of age, Pope John XXIII’s Secretary, Loris Capovilla, lucidly recalls the beginning of this dialogue. The Most Reverend Capovilla, now titular Archbishop of Mesembria, lives in the Pope’s birthplace at Sotto il Monte in the Diocese of Bergamo. Archbishop Capovilla resides in the Villa di Ca’ Maitino, now primarily a museum of papal memorabilia, which Angelo Roncalli had originally purchased for his retirement.

Archbishop Capovilla, well aware of the historical importance of the Krushchev dialogue, has always been open to publicising its details. His preference for bringing this dialogue to the attention of the public eschews both imprecision and personal interpretation, opting instead to rely upon the primary documents themselves so as to avoid unwarranted inferences or presumptions. During our conversation, Archbishop Capovilla referred closely to these documents which he kindly provided for us and which we reprint here on these pages in italics so that you may see the authentic texts.

“It all began on 25 November 1961,” Loris Capovilla recounted to me. “Angelo Roncalli had been Pope for three years and was celebrating his 80th birthday. While the Holy Father was having lunch, he received a telephone call. It was Cardinal Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, Secretary of State, who asked if he could visit the Pope in his private apartment to deliver a very urgent message to him. I informed the Pope who told me to let him in. I met him and showed him to the dining room. The Secretary of State was carrying a message from the Soviet ambassador to Italy, Semen Kozyrev. The message said: “On behalf of Khrushchev, I have been entrusted with the task of communicating to His Holiness, Pope John XXIII, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, my congratulations and sincerest wishes for good health and success in the continuation of the noble aspiration of contributing to the strengthening and consolidation of peace on earth and the solution of international problems through candid pronouncements.”

Loris Capovilla, measured and reserved by nature, preferred not to add further details about this matter. Others, however, who like Capovilla were eyewitnesses themselves, have added: “All of us present remained silent. None of us expected such a thing. It was the first contact to be made between the Kremlin and the Vatican since 1917, that is, since the Bolshevik Revolution, when religion was declared the ‘opium of the people’. Above all, this contact came from the personal initiative of the head of the Kremlin.

‘I know that saying a toast does not become a Pope,’ said Pope John XXIII, ‘but this is a particular occasion and an exception can be made.’ And he asked that a bottle be brought in order to toast the event.”

 “The Pope naturally wished to reply to Khrushchev,” Archbishop Capovilla told me” and he did so through Archbishop Carlo Grano, the Apostolic Nuncio to Italy. The Pope personally prepared the text of the reply, writing the following by hand on a piece of paper headed with the Papal coat of arms: “His Holiness Pope John XXIII extends his thanks for the wishes and expresses for your behalf and for the entire Russian people also, his cordial wishes for the growth and consolidation of universal peace, through the mutual understanding of human fraternity: for this he fervently prays.”

Officially for nearly a year there was no further contact between Khrushchev and Pope John, but privately the two continued to communicate.


Cuban crisis


In October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis broke out, placing the world at the brink of nuclear war. On 15 October, several reconnaissance aircraft took photographs which revealed the presence of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba. On 22 October, President Kennedy informed the world that the Soviet Union was building secret missile bases in Cuba. In addition to demanding that Khrushchev remove all the missile bases and their deadly contents, Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba in order to prevent Russian ships from bringing additional missiles to the island. Premier Khrushchev authorised his Soviet field commanders in Cuba to launch their tactical nuclear weapons if invaded by U.S. forces. The confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over these missiles was the closest the two countries came to starting a war.

At that moment in time an extraordinary individual, an American citizen called Norman Cousins, travelled easily even in the Soviet Union. Officially, he was a journalist and director of a cultural association, although perhaps this activity of his was merely a cover. Cousins was a friend of both Khrushchev and Kennedy. In practice, he acted as a kind of private ambassador between the two, but did so at his own risk, without any formal portfolio.

Before the Cuban Missile Crisis, Norman Cousins, on one of his trips between the United States and the Soviet Union, stopped over in Rome. He began to meet archbishops and lower-level Vatican staff in a very reserved way. It may be that he spoke of John XXIII to Khrushchev, thus inspiring the telegram wishing the Pope a happy 80th birthday on 25 November 1961.

Knowing that the Soviet leader liked Pope John, Kennedy sent his friend Cousins to Rome. At 11 p.m. on 24 October 1963, Cousins presented himself at Archbishop Igino Cardinale’s house and spoke to him about the serious danger of a nuclear war. The Most Reverend Cardinale immediately informed the Pope. After a few minutes’ reflection, John XXIII said: “Prepare me a message which I will read on the radio tomorrow. In the meantime, while you are working, I am going to pray.”

When the message was ready, the Pope went over it, but didn’t find it suitable; it was too cold and diplomatic. He re-wrote it all, except the last three lines. In the end, the message contained the following: “We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity. That they do all that is in their power to save peace. They will thus spare the world from the horrors of a war whose terrifying consequences no one can predict. That they continue discussions, as this loyal and open behaviour has great value as a witness of everyone’s conscience and before history. Promoting, favouring, accepting conversations, at all levels and in any time, is a rule of wisdom and prudence which attracts the blessings of heaven and earth.”

The following day, the message was delivered to both the American and Soviet embassy for approval. At 7 a.m., Khrushchev’s sent his affirmative answer; at 11 a.m., Kennedy also agreed. In the afternoon, the message was transmitted on the Vatican radio station, Radio Vaticana. The next day, it finished on the front page of Pravda, the official mouthpiece of the Soviet Communist party, with the title: ‘We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity.’

The Cuban crisis was overcome. Khrushchev replied to Kennedy that he would commit himself to interrupting work on missile bases in Cuba, and have the weapons sent back to the Soviet Union and begin negotiating with the UN. Books and television documentaries about the crisis do not usually name John XXIII, but in reality, he was the real negotiator behind this affair.

This immediate intervention by Pope John struck Khrushchev immensely. In the following months, he made clear his liking for the Pope.


The go-between


At the beginning of December 1963, the Soviet leader received Cousins in Moscow. They spoke about Cuba, but also about the Pope. “I believe,” Khrushchev said to Cousins “it is true that the Pope and I have characteristics in common, both of us come from humble beginnings, have worked the land as young men, and we know what it means to extract the necessary means for living from the land.” He wished to send the Pope a seasonal greeting as Christmas was approaching.

In mid-December, Norman Cousins was again in Rome and asked to meet the Pope. On 19 December, he was received at a private audience and remained deep in conversation with the Pope for 45 minutes. He delivered Khrushchev’s greetings to the Holy Father which bore the date 15 December. The letter said: “To His Holiness Pope John XXIII. For the occasion of the Holy Days of Christmas, I would like for you to receive these greetings and congratulations from a man who wishes you good health and energy for your continued efforts in the name of peace and for the happiness and well being of humanity. N. Khrushchev.”

It was necessary he reply straight away. The Pope took a pen and wrote in person, on 21 December, a message by hand for Khrushchev: “Deep thanks for the courteous seasonal greetings. We exchange them sincerely using the same words which came to us from above: Peace on earth to all men of good will.

We include the  two Christmas documents of this year which invoke peace between different populations.

That the good Lord listens and responds to the ardour and sincerity of our efforts and our prayers. ‘Fiat pax in virtute tua, Domine, et abundantia in turribus tuis.’

A merry wish for prosperity for the Russian population and for all populations world wide.

Johannes XXIII.”

The people in charge of the Vatican Secretariat of State did not agree with the content of the text, and were even less in agreement with the idea that the Pope would send, as a preview for the Chairman of the Communist Party, both a copy of the papal Christmas radio message which would then be broadcast worldwide, and the speech the Pope wanted to make to the diplomatic corps on New Year’s Day. They said it was an error to use such warm tones and to show so much consideration to the Chairman of the Communist Party. But the Pope had the message sent anyway, just as he’d written it, adding the texts of two speeches. He wanted his correspondance to be presented in a box with the image of the Virgin and Child by Tiepolo, accompanied by the words: ‘Ave, mundi spes; ave, mitis, ave pia, ave Dei amore plena, virgo dulcis et serena.

“Pope John seemed to sense in Khrushchev’s kind behaviour, a ‘sign’, a semblance of coming closer.” Loris Capovilla told me. “He let me understand this many times. He said that he wished to study Russian, a language that perhaps could be useful for him. And so I gave him a Russian grammar book for Christmas.


Surprising events


But the surprises were not finished yet. The Kremlin Chief knew that in this period Pope John XXIII was very interested in the release of Archbishop Josif Slipyi of Ukraine who had been arrested and deported to Siberia in 1943. The old prelate was very ill and the Pope wanted to help him. Various diplomatic steps had been taken but without any results. But Khrushchev, of his own initiative, and out of his liking for John XXIII, decided to free Archbishop Slipyi.

On 25 January, the Soviet leader sent a message to the Russian Embassy in Rome announcing Archbishop Slipyi’s liberation and ordering that the Vatican be informed. On 10 February, Archbishop Slipyi went to Rome, accompanied by Archbishop Johannes Willebrands, where they were met at Orte station by the Papal Secretary, Loris Capovilla.

Over the next few days, Norman Cousins, who was in Moscow, met Krushchev who said to him: “I like John XXIII and I freed Archbishop Slipyi to please him. This has procured me many enemies, but I already have lots… I would like the Pope to know that I made this gesture, and I would like to know if it pleased him. That Pope is a saint. I know these things. I studied in a seminary until I was sixteen years old and, if necessary, I would still be able to serve at Mass.”

Norman Cousins went straight to Rome to refer Khrushchev’s words to the Pope. He solicited a direct and personal reply from the Pope. John XXIII replied: “It is too early. The time is not ripe yet. I would risk doing more damage than good. However, here are two gold medals of my pontificate. I am giving them to you. One you may keep, the other you may give to whom you like. I don’t know who you will give it to, but you know well who you should give it to.” When the American journalist brought the medal to Khrushchev, he revealed himself to be as happy as a child.

At the end of February 1963, Alexei Adjubei, Editor of Izvestia, arrived in Rome with his wife Rada, Khrushchev’s elder daughter, and they expressed the desire to be received by the Pope. In the Vatican, everyone was against this. John XXIII reflected. Khrushchev had freed Slipjy, could the Pope react so rudely, refusing an audience with his daughter and his son-in-law?

The audience was fixed for 7 March and it was a sensational event. The account of this visit to the Vatican was described in minute detail by newspapers worldwide. This completely unprecedented event provoked widespread commentary. It was as if God were publicly playing host to the Devil. Someone journalists implied that through Adjubei and Izvestia, Communism was about to contaminate even the heart of the Church.


The quest for peace


Upon ratification of the Soviet-American nuclear test ban treaty in 1963, President Kennedy publicly thanked Norman Cousins for his help with the treaty. Cousins was also the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Peace Award in 1963, the Family Man Award in 1968, and the United Nations Peace Medal in 1971. Cousins died in November 1990.

Pope John XXIII died on 3 June 1963, just three months after his meeting with Khrushchev’s daughter. The following year, the Soviet leader, who had been General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party (PCUS) since 1953, and President of the Council since 1958, was effectively removed from any position of responsibility. He was found guilty of wishing for ‘pacifist co-existence’ with the West, the reform of the Soviet Communist Party, and the Soviet economic system.

Khrushchev died in 1971, but the ‘seed’ of this brief and tentative dialogue which grew between him and the Pope continued to insinuate itself into the hearts of men and women of both East and West, until eventually it bore fruit in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Communist Regime. Pope John XXIII was proclaimed blessed on 3 September 2002.


Updated on October 06 2016