In the papal conclave that elected Angelo Roncalli in 1958, there were cardinals from just 21 countries. Europe was very much still the centre of power of Christianity. The man who emerged as pope, taking the name John XXIII, was to be a transitional pope, Vatican-watchers said. At almost 77 years of age, the cardinals perceived him to be a safe pair of hands to give them a breather after almost 20 intense years of the great war-time Pope Pius XII.
Papa Roncalli didn't exactly follow the script and quickly went about organising a major council of bishops to see how the Church could be more relevant to a rapidly modernising world. He also knew that the centre of gravity was shifting from Europe to the new world and many bishops from far-flung places made their way to Rome for the first time.
What became known as Vatican II met from 1962-65 and threw open the windows of the Church. It ushered in reforms like the Mass being celebrated in the local language. The altars were also turned around and the priest now no longer faced the same direction as the congregation, but towards the people, in a bid to make things appear more participatory.
There were also warm words for Protestants, the followers of other religious traditions and gone was the traditional hostility to the secular world.
Looking back, most of Vatican II's reforms were modest. Many liberal-minded Catholics had expected a shift away from mandatory celibacy for priests, the ordination of women and a lifting of the Church's traditional ban on artificial birth control.
Priests who were in seminary at the time tell me of a time of flux when it seemed like everything was up for grabs.
A less-than-impressed Maynooth professor coined the iconic line that "before the council there was night prayer and lights out, now there is light prayer and nights out".
It became known as the 'spirit of Vatican II' - not so much because there was any hint at such reforms in the formal decrees of the council, but because it captured a feeling that was in the air that the Church was following the rest of society and moving away from age-old certainties.
Liberals were to be inevitably disappointed and one of the final nails in the coffin was the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968 which insisted that there would be no change on birth control. Authoritative decrees also ruled out married clergy and women priests.
Reformers lamented their belief that 'the spirit of Vatican II' had been strangled and many laypeople, who had been assured by priests that seismic shifts were on the way, were baffled. But, in truth, the 'spirit of Vatican II' referred to little more than liberal desires for change rather than anything the Church hierarchy was actually considering.
The election of John Paul II in 1978 and his successor Benedict XVI in 2005 confirmed in the minds of many that the 'spirit of Vatican II' had been laid to rest.
Fast forward to 2013 and a Church mired in scandal and a seeming inability to present a coherent face to the world. Benedict achieved much, but eventually stepped down having failed to reform the Roman Curia. In their bewilderment, the cardinals, now from 48 countries, looked for something new and to Latin America - the beating heart of the 21st-century Church. They saw in the relaxed persona of Jorge Bergoglio a man who could grasp the nettle. His rejection of the trappings of office showed the humble face to the world that observers felt the Church desperately needed.
Jaded liberal Catholics liked the cut of his jib and a papacy in crisis was transformed by a prelate who was soon named 'Time' man of the year and hailed by the 'Harvard Business Review' as a model for leaders all over the globe. The editorial gushed "we can't stop talking about Pope Francis". Those who had been on the fringe saw in Francis a friend and believed he would bring them in from the cold. They weren't entirely wrong - he did tell them to pull up a seat by the fireside and rehabilitated some theologians who had been disciplined under previous papacies.
But he also quickly made it clear that while the mood music would change, there would be no shifts on key doctrines and teachings. That's why his decision this week to shelve a call for married priests and definitively rule out the ordination of women shouldn't really come as a surprise. Time and again, Francis has insisted that the Church must be more merciful and welcoming to people while still remaining definitively the Catholic Church with its core teachings.
Francis is happy to entertain the discussions and debates between conservatives and liberals in the Church which gives some the impression he is open to radical departures. However, Francis has demonstrated once again that the Pope really is a Catholic. What this week's exhortation does do is set out to change a mindset where priesthood is always associated with power towards a culture where priesthood is seen as service. He insists laypeople must be given more voice and authority within the Church, though he doesn't spell out what exactly that space is. What he does make clear is he doesn't see adding new layers of clerics to a clericalised Church as meaningful reform.
Francis can be difficult to read. He doesn't easily fit in to boxes. He's a traditional Catholic without being a conservative, open to discussions without being a liberal. What he has proved this week is that the job of the pope is to ensure that the Catholic Church remains the Catholic Church. That won't please liberals, but many Catholics love their Church because of the doctrines rather than in spite of them.