Catholic fact check: Pope John XXIII and fresh air
Continuing the theme of Catholic fact-checking, today’s exploration is of Pope St. John XXIII and fresh air. As the story goes, when Pope John XXIII was asked why he called for a council, he walked over to his window, threw it up, and said something like, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” This is cited in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations1 but it is the only quotation of his that has the dubious label “attributed.”
St. John XXIII opened the council on October 11, 1962, died on June 3, 1963, so if he said this, it is most likely to have been said during this 8 month period.
This anecdote, unlike others I’ve researched, has the distinction of being referenced fairly consistently from 1962 til now. It is quoted in: a rash of newspaper articles in the 1960s2, a New York Times opinion piece in 1985 3, a thesis in 2012 (it gets an entire paragraph of possible sources in the footnotes)4, and most recently, a blog post on Catholic Culture in 2019 5.
I am not the first to question the authenticity of this quotation.
As mentioned above, Oxford University Press settles for calling the quotation “attributed.”
Paul Collins in 2018 wrote, “Unfortunately, John XXIII probably never said that he wanted ’to throw open the windows of the Church to let in fresh air,” which is sad because it is such a vivid image".6 Just as unfortunately, Collins never explains why.
The no-longer-updated blog Casa Santa Lidia argues that John XXIII never said the quotation. Dr. Alexandra von Teuffenbach (who also apparently has presented on Father Stanley Jaki, OSB, a hero of mine) asked Archbishop Loris Capovilla, John XXIII’s personal secretary, about the anecdote, and he - allegedly - said it likely never happened because Italians have a superstitious fear of drafts.7
Of those who claim he said it, I will focus on Norman Cousins, Henri Fesquet, and Father Vincent A. Yzermans.
Norman Cousins was a prominent American journalist, honored for his peace work by John XXIII. The first time he appears in my research is in something purporting to be a journal article by Collin Schnakenberg in the Tau Sigma Journal of Historical Studies.8 The article is riddled with typos, starting with the photo caption on page 1, of “Pope John XXII.” Its one bit of usefulness is that it cites the “fresh air” anecdote: Norman Cousins, “Pacem in Terris and the World’s Community,” Continuem 1, no. 2, (1964): 218. (It’s Continuum, not Continuem.)
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to this article, but Cousins wrote about the “fresh air” story elsewhere. Cousins wrote an editorial in the Saturday Review in January 19, 1963. In it, he says:
The third incident illuminates Pope John’s central purposes. A Canadian dignitary asked him to explain the main objectives of his Papacy in general and the Ecumenical Council in particular. Pope John stood up, walked over to the window, opened it, and said, “What do we intend to do? We intend to let in a little fresh air.”9
The allusion to the “Canadian dignitary” is unique, and confusing. Canada had an apostolic delegate in 1962-3 (Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio), but Canada did not have an ambassador to the Vatican until 1969. It could be any Canadian public figure, of course, but thie detail is never repeated in later iterations. The New York Times piece referenced above simply says John XXIII’s comment was to “a visitor,”3, others claim he said it to a reporter10, others say it was to an ambassador11, and the Catholic Register confounds them all by saying it was said to Cardinal Roger Etchegaray.12
Regardless, Cousins’ version of the story with the Canadian is repeated word for word several months later in The Anchor’s June 3, 1963 issue on the occasion of John XXIII’s death.13
Moving along, the story was also reported by Henri Fesquet, a French journalist who observed the Council. I found Fesquet cited in Tradition in Action’s book Animus Delendi14. Writing on October 19, 1962, Fesquet says:
When a recent visitor asked him what he expected from the Council, John XXIII pointed to a window and said, “A breath of fresh air in the Church.”15
Lastly, an article called “Pope John’s Council” appeared in my results in a finding aid from Notre Dame. The article was written by Father Vincent A. Yzermans in the American Benedictine Review. Yzermans says:
During the time that the Council was in preparation, Pope John was asked what his purpose was in calling the council. The amiable pontiff went to the window and opened it. “I want,” he said, “to let some fresh air into the Catholic Church.”16
Yzermans appears several more times in my results, as the author or translator of a mysterious short book called Pope John’s Council17, as the future editor of Our Sunday Visitor, as a priest credibly accused of abuse18, and most confusingly, in a newspaper article from 1962 that makes it sound like he said the line about fresh air19.
Did he say it?
On the one hand, all of the reports are alleged, and they disagree in details - especially regarding who actually heard him say it. It is outright disputed by several sources, including, according to one blog, John XXIII’s personal secretary.
On the other hand, we appear to have three independent reports from accredited journalists or correspondents from 1962-3 of John XXIII saying it.
So, it’s difficult to say. I’m going to call this one inconclusive.
Knowles, Elizabeth. 2001. The Oxford dictionary of quotations. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. ↩︎
Callwood, June. June 20, 1966. “We intend to let in a little fresh air.” Maclean’s. https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1966/8/20/we-intend-to-let-in-a-little-fresh-air ↩︎
“Opinion: The Pope’s Call.” February 1, 1985, Section A, Page 28. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/02/01/opinion/pope-s-call-twenty-six-years-ago-extraordinarily-charismatic-pope-named-john.html ↩︎ ↩︎
Parra, Carlos Hugo. 2012. “Thesis: Standing with Unfamiliar Company on Uncommon Ground: The Catholic Church and the Chicago Parliaments of Religions.” https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/34835/1/Parra_Carlos_H_201211_PhD_thesis.pdf ↩︎
Mirus, Dr. Jeff. May 8, 2019. “Blog: Once the crazy talk starts, it is hard to stop.” https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/once-crazy-talk-starts-it-is-hard-to-stop/ ↩︎
Collins, Paul. 2018. Absolute power: how the pope became the most influential man in the world. ↩︎
Casa Santa Lidia. December 30, 2010. “Vatican II: “Open the windows” – ? Not exactly…” http://casasantalidia.blogspot.com/2010/12/vatican-ii-open-windows-not-exactly.html ↩︎
Schnakenberg, Collin. 2016. “The Second Vatican Council.” Tau Sigma Journal of Historical Studies. https://silo.tips/download/schnakenberg-the-second-vatican-council# ↩︎
Cousins, Norman. January 19, 1963. “An Editorial: Pope John and His Open Window.” The Saturday Review, pp. 20-22. https://www.unz.com/print/SaturdayRev-1963jan19-00020/ ↩︎
Adams, James Luther, and George K. Beach. 1991. An examined faith: social context and religious commitment. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 130. ↩︎
Operation Tripod, Memphis, 1971, and Paul M. Culton. 1974. Operation Tripod : toward rehabilitation involvement by parents of the deaf: a workshop. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, Social and Rehabilitation Service, Rehabilitation Services Administration, p. 3. ↩︎
Rocca, Francis X. April 25, 2014. “Calling Vatican II was an act of faith.” Catholic Register/Catholic News Service. https://www.catholicregister.org/features/item/18030-calling-vatican-ii-was-an-act-of-faith ↩︎
“Pope John XXIII dies.” June 3, 1963, vol. 7, no. 23. The Anchor. https://issuu.com/the_anchor/docs/06.03.63 ↩︎
Guimarães, Atila Sinke, and Marian Therese Horvat. 2002. Animus delendi, II: desire to destroy. Los Angeles, CA: Tradition In Action. ↩︎
Fesquet, Henri, Bernard Murchland, and Michael Novak. 1967. The drama of Vatican II: the Ecumenical Council : June, 1962 - December, 1965. New York: Random House, p. 27. ↩︎
Yzermans, Vincent A. 1962. “Pope John’s Council.” American Benedictine Review, 13:4, p. 550-557. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015025941975&view=1up&seq=594 ↩︎
John. 1963. Pope John’s Council. [Place of publication not identified]: [publisher not identified]. ↩︎
“Assignment Record– Rev. Vincent Arthur “Fr. Art” Yzermans.” BishopAccountability. http://www.bishopaccountability.org/Yzermans_Vincent_Arthur.htm ↩︎
“U.S. Bishops wanted freedom of religion in pluralistic society defined at council, editor says.” February 11, 1963. Catholic News Service. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=cns19630211-01.1.129&srpos=8 ↩︎