When Pope John and Ike Laughed It Up in the Vatican

When Laughter Shook the Vatican Walls: Pope John XXIII and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, December 6, 1959

The official communication began with words on paper, in a special message from one man to the other. That paper was a telegram, and that telegram was as gracious as it was brief and direct. It read: “Your Holiness: It is with great pleasure that I have learned of your election as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. I join with other Americans in extending my congratulations on your elevation to this high office. My best wishes for the success of your endeavors, are, I am certain, shared by men of good will everywhere.” It was dated Oct. 28, 1958, and it was signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States.

Pope John XXIII remembered that telegram with its kind expression of good wishes as he prepared to meet the American president and his party, on Dec. 6, 1959. It so happened that this particular audience would occur just two days before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, an important feast not only in the universal church calendar, but also for the American Catholic Church as well, as the Blessed Mother is officially given the title of “Patroness of the Americas.” It seemed a good omen, this meeting between pope and president, particularly at this time in world affairs.

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Not too long after his election to the See of Peter, the former patriarch of Venice would quickly become known as “Good Pope John,” a moniker that pretty well summed up the man, his message and his pontificate. He had seen much in his nearly 80 years of life, from his days as a simple farm boy in the Bergamo region of northern Italy to his priestly vocation and his climb up the ecclesiastical ladder, culminating with his sitting on the throne of St. Peter, as the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Like his distinguished guest, he, too, had seen and lived through two disastrous wars; wars that left his beloved Italy, the continent of Europe and for that matter the whole world yearning for peace.

But John, who, as both a priest and a student of history well knew, peace had many definitions and meant many different things to all kinds of people. For this pope, while humans may work for a human peace—a peace that is always fragile in nature to begin with—what was needed was a peace of a more permanent and durable nature, a peace born from a reliance on the promises of God and not on the desires of man.

The words that he received from the American president seemed to augur the direction of Pope John’s pontificate: the twin goals of opening not only the “windows of the church” (by convoking a general ecumenical council) whereby an outreach would be made to the modern world, but also—and perhaps just as important—to open the doors of the church as well, so as to establish and maintain relationships that would not only foster peace, but goodwill, in an attempt to create an atmosphere whereby something positive and lasting could be accomplished in a century that had seen so much hatred, as evidenced in the two world wars. Such an attempt was necessary, as conflicts and disagreements that were always present in world affairs threatened to escalate into something greater and even more worrisome, particularly in the nuclear age.

So, it was with these thoughts in mind that Pope John was looking forward to his encounter with the man whom the world knew as “Ike”—the man who had been the victorious commander of the Allies in World War II and who now had capped his career in public life by being twice elected to the office that—as the old-fashioned phrase put it—was “in the gift of the American people.” He was in the last years of his term, and he would embark on his own “goodwill tour” in those days, by meeting the leaders he had known and those new leaders who were coming onto the world stage. Pope John would not be pope for very long: his pontificate would only last for about five years; but those years would be momentous ones, not only for him, but also for the church he led and served and loved.

Worldly Encounters

Though he might have come from a simple country background with no known nobility in his lineage to speak of, save his deep-seated connection to the soil from which he sprang, he was no naïf, as some “sophisticated” observers would have liked to believe. He was self-aware, in that he knew his abilities as well as his shortcomings. He also knew that he would be always be contrasted with others—especially his predecessor, the princely and aristocratic Pius XII. But he trusted in Divine Providence.

It did not hurt that his ever-present sense of humor kept things in perspective. For example, when he first saw himself in a full-length mirror, dressed in the papal-white, large soutane that did not quite fit his five-foot-two, 200-plus-pound frame, which had to be let out in certain places, only to be held together with great effort by bobby pins, he exclaimed with an apprising and critical look: “This man will be a disaster on television!” (He later said that he felt in his first appearance before the entire world as if he were a “newborn babe in swaddling clothes.”)

No, he knew the ways of the world, because he had lived in it. His ecclesiastical career had “elevated” him in many ways and because of his travels and encounters with different peoples, he became acquainted with and learned from many religions and cultures not his own. One special experience occurred in his younger days, when, in his early priesthood, he had to serve the obligatory stint in the Italian army, during World War I. It was a role that sorely tested his religious calling and vocation. It was not that his priestly vows were in danger of being discarded; on the contrary, they meant the world to him. Rather, it was this new environment that tested him: he had to assess how to react and behave in a situation for which he was unfamiliar, an army barracks full of worldly soldiers who didn’t necessarily exalt the things of God as young Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was taught to do—and devoutly believed in. By this time, he had achieved his lifetime goal of becoming a priest and this military service was just a detour from that.

It was during his military service that—for the only time in his life—Angelo Roncalli decided to grow a mustache in order to appear as worldly as the other fellows; but that was as far as his experimentation with sophistication went. As he was to find out, the mustache he grew would be no mask of protection against the world he was about to encounter; he would not adjust easily to the kind of language that he would end up hearing from the mouths of these world-weary men. As he would admit later, he had learned a vocabulary that he had never heard of, and he being someone who had farmed land with hardened farmers, who had their own special way with imprecations.

When that stint was over, he was greatly relieved to discard the army uniform and exchange it for his religious garb, the simple black cassock of the country priest. He would not forget the episode though—when prompted, he could still give the smart snap of a salute, like he once did. And when Pope John would finally get to meet with President Eisenhower, there would be no doubt that he could regale the former general of the “exploits” of the former army chaplain.

Men of Words

Pope John XXIII always wanted to put his guests at ease, whoever they were, from the highest ranking prelate or statesman to the ordinary worker in the Vatican gardens or the pedestrian who passed by him on the street. It was all the same to him: everyone was a child of God. For as he often said, we humans are all the same, we all have eyes and ears and noses (even though his may have been larger than everyone else’s).  He often told the story of how, early in his pontificate, he was walking in the Vatican gardens when he heard a passerby—woman—loudly exclaim: “My God, he’s so fat!” Thereupon, the subject of that remark remarked himself: “Madame, the holy conclave isn’t exactly a beauty contest!” He was of humble stock, and he never forgot it; he brought that sensitivity to every encounter he had. But for now, he had an important visit to prepare for.

Pope John XXIII was a man of words. At times, he could be voluble; but such was his nature—he was an effervescent man who loved God and his fellow human beings in equal measure and he always loved to communicate with them both, with written words (especially as was seen in his highly acclaimed and posthumously published spiritual diary, Journal of a Soul) and the words spoken from the depths of his heart. As a churchman, he had learned the words of Latin, the official language of the church. As a papal diplomat, he learned the languages of whatever country he happened to be in, whether it was French, a smattering of German, the language of the Balkans, even Turkish. (And when, a little later on, in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he would tell his “go-between” in his communications with Kennedy and Khruschev, the author and journalist Norman Cousins, how important it was for young people to learn the “noble” Russian language in the critical years of the nuclear age and how unfortunate it was for him [Pope John] that he could not learn it; for he “was too old.”) But there was a problem; President Eisenhower was an American and he only spoke English, a language that “Good Pope John” could only be charitably be described as having a brief and passing acquaintance with.

As for President Eisenhower, well, it was safe to say that he himself had had his ways with English (the people as well as the language)! He was infamous in his presidential press conferences for his studied use of what came to be famously known as the “Eisenhower syntax,” a kind of English that only Ike knew—and would employ—to suit his purposes. It was the kind of English whereby he would deliberately garble his words into such a state that his true meaning and intent would be hidden by an army of unintelligible mush, thus deflecting the question. As he once told his press secretary, James Haggerty, when they were conferring on some contentious issue that was sure to be brought up by the assembled members of the White House press corps, “Don’t worry, Jim, I’ll just confuse ‘em!”

It was not for nothing that the general who marshaled his troops into battle was able to do the same with his words—he put both into battle. But, in reality, he really did have a way with words—he had once been a chief of staff to General Douglas MacArthur (himself no slouch in the departments of words or war). It was little known, but the flowery words the general spoke early on in his career was written by a junior staff officer with the nickname of Ike—and given the irony that often abounds in history, both men would serve in World War II, with the junior staff officer becoming the boss of the older man, and eventually surpassing him in glory and renown. (And in his last address as president—the  Farewell Address—Eisenhower would give a most eloquent defense for the necessities of life as against the “military-industrial complex” that threatened to engulf the world.)

But as for Pope John, he wanted to learn some words of English to put President Eisenhower “at ease”; he was eager to do so, because he wanted to be “at ease” himself.  It wasn’t the first time he tried to learn English; he had tried back in his days when he was stationed as a papal representative during World War II in Istanbul. So, then as now, the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, he spent months trying to learn English from an Irishman with a brogue.

When he was stationed in Istanbul, the then Monsignor Roncalli had as a member of his staff an outgoing and gregarious Irishman by the name of Father Thomas Ryan. Now, Father Ryan was normally a friendly and voluble type (just like his chief), but when prodded, he was prone to giving imprecations against non-Catholics and “bureaucratic infidels” (which he considered certain Turks he had dealt with at the time to be). It amused and bemused the future pope, who, with a smile, admonished his Irish colleague: “You Irish are impossible. The moment you come into the world, even before you are baptized, you begin damning everybody who doesn’t belong to the Church, especially Protestants!”

Despite Father Ryan’s “most grievous fault,” both the gregarious Irishman and the expansive Italian became the best of friends and collaborators and their friendship would endure, even when the apostolic delegate became pope—and Father Ryan would become a member of the papal staff (in the English section of the Secretariat of State) and help him once again with his English, in time for Ike. Don Tomaso would spend 10 minutes teaching his papal student the rudiments of English grammar; and they would both end up conversing for another half-hour about the “old days.” (Eventually, Father Ryan would be elevated to a bishopric in his native Ireland, as one of Pope John’s last acts.) 

Breaking Protocol

The day for the historic encounter was upon them, pope and president. John was ready with what he would say in English, and Ike was ready with his interpreter, General Vernon A. Walters, a military aide to the president. President Eisenhower also brought along his son, John S. D. Eisenhower, and his wife, Barbara (who was attired as protocol demanded, in black veil and dress.) And so, on Dec. 6, they met, amidst assembled prelates and other dignitaries. They greeted each other most cordially, with their countenances wreathed in wide smiles.

Pope John began his address of greeting to the president of the United States. After a time, the reporters who were present looked up from their notes, puzzled. What they saw was an amazing sight: both pope and president had their heads thrown back in raucous laughter. It seemed that the pontiff, in speaking his few words of greeting for his prestigious visitor, had stumbled in that part of his address which he had studied and rehearsed for so long. Pope John burst out in comfortable Italian: “Era di Belli!” which in English came to: “That was a beauty!” or “That was a beaut!”

President Eisenhower, listening attentively, caught the drift of the pope’s Italian, threw his head back and laughed heartily, appreciating the Italian version of American slang. Pope John, seeing Ike’s reaction, did the same. So the entire company in the papal apartments erupted in happy laughter, a rarity for those solemn Vatican halls. But it was welcome nevertheless, and the cameras clicked to record this historic moment. A photograph immediately went all over the world of pope and president engaging in a moment of levity. No doubt those entrusted with papal and presidential protocol were left less than amused at what had happened.

As Monsignor Ryan would later reminisce about Pope John’s English speaking efforts: “I believe Pope John felt a bit less of a father to the English-speaking people he met because he could not say anything to them in their own tongue. So he tried to learn, not to make speeches, but just to say a few words of greeting. But of course he was past seventy-seven and when we got together he was much happier telling stories about the olden days.” As Pope John would later say himself, when he met other English speakers: “I do not speak English well, but my heart speaks to you.”

As America reviewed the audience at the time, “President Eisenhower’s call at the Vatican on Dec. 6 set an example of courtesy and mutual esteem for which the entire American nation and not Catholics alone should congratulate themselves…” It was a noteworthy departure from the last audience between pope and president of some 40 years previously; but in this particular encounter between a general-turned-president and a one-time-army-chaplain-turned pontiff, the mutual goodwill that was plainly evident gave a glimpse into a humanity that registered in genuine laughter and showed that it was possible to transcend any barrier, even that of language.

This is the second in a series of vignettes on the popes and the presidents. These stories are presented to offer some historical background for those interested in American and Catholic history, ahead of the first visit of Pope Francis to the United States. 

Pope and President, Benedict XV and Woodrow Wilson: 'Are There Any Catholics Here?'

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