In Your Midst
Vatican II: Forty Years Later
March 2006

   If we want to see the success of the Council, then we must pray for the Spirit
to come more fully into our lives and into the Church

On December 8, 2005, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, we had the opportunity to gather with retired Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen. Archbishop Hunthausen was ordained a bishop just a few weeks before the Council began in October, 1962, and is one of the few Council Fathers still living who participated in all four sessions. The following are extracts from Archbishop Hunthausen’s talk.

Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen

    I was appointed a Bishop at age forty. I was the last United States bishop ordained before the Council, and I was the youngest of the American bishops. I’m now 85; I’ve been a bishop more than half my life. I belong to an endangered species—like the spotted owl, there’s only a few of us left, but not even legislation is going to keep us around.

    My intent is to share with you not so much the documents and their content, but some of the experiences that I had leading up to the Council, and some of the experiences—most of them humorous—that were mine as the Council unfolded.

    The Council really began in 1959 when Pope John, I’m sure after much prayer, got the idea for the possibility of the Council. I was not a bishop then—I was the president of Carroll College. But I knew about the upcoming Council from visits with my predecessor in the Helena diocese—Bishop Gillmore. We all were excited about the prospects of the Council—not only Catholics, but the whole world. What did it mean? There had been no Council in our lifetime, and we wondered what the import of the Council might be. We were anticipating great things.

    One day, my bishop called me on the phone, and said, “I understand you have an Italian math teacher on your faculty. I’d like to brush up on my Italian. I wonder if you could arrange for the two of us to go over to their house for dinner.”

    “Well, I can’t speak for the doctor’s wife, but I have a hunch that would be manageable.”

    So I called him, and of course he was delighted. (I found out later his wife was overwhelmed at the prospect of a bishop coming over for dinner!) Dr. and Mrs. Ancesi had a little boy about six years old. And he was pestering them to death at the dinner table, he wouldn’t let the conversation move the way I knew Bishop Gillmore wanted it to go. And I decided, “I don’t understand Italian, I’m not getting anything out of this either,” so I said to the little boy, “Let’s you and I go in there and play some games.” We sat on the floor, he got out his games and toys, and that’s how I spent the evening. That was in the winter of ’62. In April of ’62 Bishop Gillmore died suddenly.

    So can’t you see it? I should have been in that conversation, brushing up on my Italian. He should have been on the floor playing with the little boy!

    Well, he died in April and in July I was appointed his successor—very surprised, very overwhelmed, very frightened, really. I went to Rome with Bishop Topel, the Bishop of Spokane, who had been a priest of the diocese of Helena; he and I were close friends. Long before I was appointed, he had arranged for lodging in Rome at a convent which was up over the hill, maybe 20 minutes away from St. Peter’s. He had arranged for Bishop Treinen and Bishop Hilary Hacker to live at this same convent. There we were, four of us, 20 minutes away from St. Peter’s. And my first question was, how are we going to get over to the sessions, day after day after day? Well, he hadn’t thought about that. Most of the bishops were in the large hotels, some were in monasteries that accommodated large numbers, and busses would come and pick them up and take them to the square. Well, we had no bus coming to pick us up.

    A day or two before the council started I was over at the graduate house of the North American College on the Via dell’Umiltà, and by accident I discovered that one of the priests was on his way home and had a car he wanted to sell—a Volkswagen bug. It sounded as if the Lord was taking care of us! I bought it for $1,300, with the agreement of the other three, provided I would do all the driving. I wasn’t too sure about driving in Rome and quickly discovered that it wasn’t the best place to drive. Probably in those days it was a little better than Seattle today, though!

    Well, there we were, with this Volkswagen bug. So when the Council began we learned the way to St. Peter’s. On one particular morning, maybe the first or second time we went over, we were crossing a busy intersection. We could see the colonnades, we were that close. There was a policeman out directing traffic, and he gestured me through. I edged myself forward and—I touched bumpers with the car in front of me. Well, I’m telling you! The fellow jumped out of his car waving his arms. I wish I could gesticulate the way the Italians do! He came back and looked in at us and stopped short. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The four of us in that little bug—Bishop Hilary Hacker, 6’2”, Bishop Topel about 6’1”, Bishop Treinen about my height, and all dressed in our choir garb, biretta on top—the works. He was just dumbfounded, went back to his car, and drove off. He didn’t know what to do with us!

    The opening session of the Council was spectacular. I recall John XXIII, something of the solemnity of the moment, and how moved I was by his appearance, by his opening talk. Then we got into working sessions. You remember the Hall, with things like bleachers facing one another, accommodating 2,000 bishops. But I had just been appointed so I didn’t get into the bleachers. I was in the balcony overlooking the cardinals. I had the best seat in the house, because that first session almost all of the activity was on the part of the Curia. The curial cardinals wanted to protect their turf, they wanted desperately for the Council to approve what they’d done in the preliminary documents and they thought the Council would be over in a matter of weeks, if not days. But the bishops wouldn’t accept most of the documents even for discussion.

    Cardinal Ottaviani—remember that name?—was the head of the Holy Office, and he desperately wanted his work to be recognized. The regulations for interventions became a little more rigid after time, but at the first session, all a Cardinal really had to do to be recognized was raise his hand. Ottaviani was at that microphone over and over and over again. The poor man hobbled the way I do now. He was all but blind, he had to feel his way up to the microphone. His Latin was impeccable, he rattled it off, and I still remember times when the secretary had to tell him his time was up. Ottaviani would turn around good naturedly, smiling, joking with people. I came not to agree with him, but to admire him. Here was a man with a mission, and he was dogged, he really was. Not much of what he proposed ever got into the final documentation, but he was a fighter. He and others represented more conservative elements of the Council, but the Fathers were bent on renewal. This is of course what Pope John had said: this is aggiornamento, we’re going to open some windows, we’re going to let the Spirit in, we’re going to let the wind blow through the Church.

    Let me tell you a funny story. When I got back to the Second Session, I was introduced to George Speltz, a newly-ordained bishop. George was a wonderful guy, timid and soft-spoken. He had his mind made up that he was going to record the opening speech of Paul VI. He says, “I’m all set to do this, I’ve got a brand new tape recorder; in fact, I’ve never even really used it. But how do I get it into the Council Hall?”

    “You won’t have any trouble,” we told him, “just take your briefcase and the Swiss Guard won’t bother you at all.” Sure enough, that’s what happened.

    The time came for Paul VI to make his speech, and George, he was so anxious, he reached his hand down into his briefcase. We all know, when you want to record, you have to push two buttons. Well, he hit the play button. And there was a demonstration tape in there, the John Philip Sousa march! Well, I’m telling you! The bishops, it seemed to me for miles, all turned around. Bishop Treinen and I turned the other way as though we didn’t know this fellow. George maintained that he couldn’t look at a tape recorder for three years after that.

    I can honestly say the Council was liberating for me. I found much of what was being discussed resonated with me. I found it challenging and exciting. And that was a grace and blessing, because I know a lot of bishops had a lot of trouble with the idea of implementing the Council. It was extremely difficult for them to accept some of the changes.

    Forty years is a very limited time in the history of the church. I have the strongest conviction of the value and worth of the Second Vatican Council. God is always doing something new—always. The Church is striving, and struggling, and searching, and looking, and hoping. What we need as Church, as people, is a whole army of people who are praying to the Spirit to guide and direct.

    If we want to see the success of the Council, then we must pray for the Spirit to come more fully into our lives and into the Church. The greatest sin against the Spirit is to feel the Spirit doesn’t care what happens to the Church, the Spirit doesn’t care what happens to me… That’s the greatest sin against the Spirit because God cares and loves desperately. And we need to say yes to that in the way we live our lives.

Back to the March 2006 Issue of In Your Midst