A Cardinal of a global significance
In the years 1895-1932, Cardinal van Rossum was closely involved in major political and ecclesiastical developments before, during and after the First World War.
As a Cardinal holding several posts in the Vatican Curia, he exerted notable influence on the government of the Catholic Church, particularly as a consultor and a member of the Holy Office, as a collaborator and a member of the Commission for the Codification of Canon Law, as a member, and later as chairman, of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, as Grand Penitentiary and as Prefect of the Congregation ‘De Propaganda Fide’. One of his activities, under Pope Pius X, was preparing the condemnation (not implemented by Pius X) of Charles Maurras and his Action Française.
To a large extent he was responsible for a major turning point in the mission policy of the Catholic Church, the results of which still can be seen today in Asia and Africa. He aimed at redirecting the Church’s missionary activities which he considered as far too much linked to national and colonial interests. Instead, he opted for strengthening the identity of local churches in mission regions which should have indigenous bishops and clergy. This new course was formulated in two encyclicals, the 1919 Maximum Illud (also labeled as the Magna Charta of Catholic missions), and the 1926 Rerum Ecclesiae. It is clear that Cardinal van Rossum left his mark on these documents. Reorganizing and centralizing the missions into what he saw as a more efficient mode, with Rome clearly at the command centre, he drew severe criticism from the colonial powers concerned. They saw their influence in ecclesiastical affairs decreasing. France in particular protested, but the Dutch and Belgian governments likewise had problems with the new Vatican missionary policy.
Cardinal van Rossum wanted to expand the Catholic Church not only into the so-called ‘pagan’ mission areas, but also in those countries which had been ‘lost’ to the Reformation. He held rather conservative views on the relations between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians. Whereas the Protestant and Orthodox Churches made overtures to one another in international meetings - which turned out to be the preamble of the World Council of Churches - Van Rossum firmly kept to his point of view: the Protestants simply had to convert to Catholicism. In this period, the dialogue with the Protestant Churches was suspended for decades. It was another Dutch Cardinal, Johannes G.M. Willebrands, who in the years around the Second Vatican Council was eager to establish a dialogue with non-Catholic Christians in the ecumenical movement.
Cardinal W. van Rossum and the first Chinese bishops (1926)
After the First World War, Cardinal van Rossum as Prefect of Propaganda Fide was also involved in the controversy within the Vatican Curia regarding Zionism and the discussion about the ‘national home’ for the Jews in Palestine. It seems that Van Rossum held a different and more positive view on Zionism than most of his colleagues in the Roman Curia. He had contacts with new movements within the Catholic Church propagating a mission of conversion among the Jews, while at the same time resisting Catholic Anti-Semitism. The controversy culminated in the abolition of the international movement Amici Israel (1926-1928) by the Holy Office in 1928.
Being the highest Dutch official within the Roman Catholic Church, he played a distinguished role in his native country. As such he was, for instance, involved in the establishment of the Catholic University of Nijmegen in 1923. He also acted as the papal legate at the International Eucharistic Congress in Amsterdam in 1924 (in 1912, he had been a legate to the Vienna congress as well). In the Dutch Catholic press, his presence at the Congress was seen as a major event and a public demonstration of the regained self-conscience of the Dutch Catholics after centuries of suppression.
Finally, we should not underestimate the influence of Cardinal van Rossum within the large and prominent Congregation of the Redemptorists, nor overlook his close contacts with other orders and congregations of religious. He persuaded many of them to supply personnel to further the missionary work of the Church.After the First World War, Cardinal van Rossum as Prefect of Propaganda Fide was also involved in the controversy within the Vatican Curia regarding Zionism.
Design: Frank G. Bosman