THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL was the major Catholic event of the twentieth century. After four hundred years of turning inwards, we turned right about and began to engage seriously with the world around us. Catholicism was being transformed. Those of us who had ring-side seats, we who were ‘there’, in Rome, where it was all happening, have been living out of the experience ever since. And we resist vigorously all perceived attempts to dull the Council’s vision or hinder its program.
I recently took out the copies of letters I wrote home from Rome during the Council, carbon copies of aerogrammes typed on a brand new portable Olivetti typewriter given to me as a going-away present by my family—the first typewriter I had had for my personal use. The letters are faded, sometimes to the point of illegibility—I should have taken a new carbon paper more often—but they make interesting reading now, to me at least.
A student in my early twenties, very conscious of my enormous luck in being sent to Rome for studies, and battling homesickness, I was determined to make the most of my opportunities. There were, of course, the glories of Rome: ‘a marvellous place…tremendously interesting!’ I enthused. But more importantly there was the thrill of finding myself at the centre of Catholicism at the very time when momentous things were happening. History was being made, and I felt that I was in the thick of it.
Excitement is the emotion that dominates in the letters. There was the gradual introduction of the reforms of the liturgy in the local parish. That was exciting: ‘I thought they were never going to come at it!’ On the day when the Mass went into the vernacular in our local parish of San Saba the parish priest asked some of us students to come and be part of the congregation to boost the volume of the responses. Which we did, with gusto—perhaps overkill.
I wrote much about things that impinged on my situation. The modernization of clerical dress in Rome: ‘We have had a revolution here in Rome—we have jumped over about ten centuries in the matter of clerical dress.’
I made informed prophecies concerning the changes that were coming in the training of seminarians. I was greatly pleased at the prospect of being ordained according to the new rite for ordinations. To be ordained to the diaconate by Archbishop Felici, the Secretary of the Council, was an unexpected bonus, even though he was considered to be a conservative. ‘Simpatico for a conservative’, I conceded graciously.
Some of the things that excited me then do not seem world-shattering now, but that is a measure of how far and how fast we have travelled.
We used every avenue for gaining inside information on what was happening in the Aula of the Council. We pumped the thirteen missionary bishops who shared our student house and were bussed to and fro to the Vatican every day. As emissaries of these bishops we were authorised to obtain news releases direct from the Council press office every afternoon. For more in-depth understanding of what was happening there were a number of periti, or experts, who gave public lectures. And finally there was the continuous buzz of information and mis-information circulating among the students at the university. It was all tremendously exciting!
Excitement was high in the last days of the second session of the Council when the draft Document on Religious Liberty reached the Council Fathers too late to be voted on in that session. I was able to give a full account, and a reasonably accurate account, of the events in my letter dated 21.11.1964:
The Council finished yesterday. It was quite exciting while it was on—especially the last week! It has all blown up over the Religious Liberty schema which was originally expected to be promulgated at the close of this session. The commission worked like slaves to get it ready for printing a good three weeks before the close. It was printed at that time and ready for distribution at that time, but then, mysteriously, was ‘lost’ in the Vatican someplace; the pile of printed schemas would be about the size of a tea-chest. This went on four times, they say—the schemas being printed, then ‘lost’, or else the original being ‘lost’ before it got to the printers. One of the bishops went down with the messenger carrying it to the printers, and saw it all the way to the printing machine. But blow me down if it didn’t get ‘lost’ again! Finally it was distributed to the Fathers about Tuesday before the Saturday that the session closed. Came Thursday morning at approximately 11.10 Cardinal Tisserant got up and said that, ‘Because a great number of bishops have asked for more time before voting on the schema in order that they might study it better there would be no votes taken this session on Religious Liberty’. Silence. Then [bishop] de Smedt got up to give the report. Almost in tears he said that the Commission had finished their job on such a date and there was no reason that it should have taken so long to get to the Fathers.
Pope Paul VI had no qualms about making us feel important. One Pentecost Sunday he presided at a celebration in St Peter’s for all the students of Rome. It was between sessions of the Council, and we all took our places in the Council Fathers’ seats. There before us were the buttons for the voting procedures—‘placet’, ‘non placet, ‘placet iuxta modum’. For us, it was like being invited to sit in the boss’ chair to get the feel of it.
I probably did not need the pope’s encouragement. My letters indicate a certain cockiness at times. Feeling that I was in the box seat, I wrote: ‘What is a tidal wave in the Church over here is about the size of a moderate ripple by the time it reaches Australian shores’. (I followed this with a self-congratulatory comment on my use of metaphor.) That being my perception of Church life in distant Australia, it is no wonder that on my return I tended to fret a lot at the slowness of progress in adopting the Council’s programs.
In many ways we were living on the surface of the events, and we had a long way to go before we could give a half-way coherent account of the deeper currents that were flowing in the Council. In my case I needed several years of teaching Ecclesiology in the seminary before I could feel confident that I had a reasonable grasp of what had occurred. Little by little I discovered the far-reaching importance of the reform of the liturgy and the restoration of the Word of God. I found fuller meaning in the new and rediscovered understandings of Church and its mission in the world. I discovered the significance of the shift from a triumphalist view of the Church that talked at, and down to, the world—to a view of the Church as Servant and seeking dialogue with men and women of our time.
We may not have understood the full significance of what we were observing, but we knew that our Church was changing profoundly in order to be more faithful to its calling. It was a rediscovery of the One, True Church by a purging of accretions—a true renaissance.
The early articles in this issue of Compass testify to an ongoing struggle within the post-Vatican II Church to safeguard and implement the Council’s program. There are currents of counter-reform among the People of God and reactions from the Roman authorities that are very difficult to understand or tolerate when one has lived through the events of the Council at close hand. I am sure I am not alone among those who shared my experiences of the Council days in finding it very difficult to feel any sympathy at all for those whom we suspect of seeking to undo the Council’s work in any way. We have too much invested in the Council.
- Barry Brundell MSC, Editor