In Your Midst

The Council Begins

April 2009

Remembering the Second Vatican Council

January 25, 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII.  This is the second in an ongoing series in our parish newsletter on the Council.  Read the first in the series here.

         Pope John XXIII announced the Council in January of 1959.  He hoped that the Council would begin within two years, but the slow-moving Vatican bureaucracy was dragging its feet.  It was nearly a year before the Preparatory Commission sought the input of the bishops of the world, and it was another year before the responses were tabulated.  It was not until Christmas Day, 1961, that the agenda of the Council began to take shape.  And it was clear that it would be wide-ranging, touching on almost every aspect of the Church’s life:  “Pope John indicated that the council will consider problems relating to Holy Scripture, to tradition, the sacraments, prayer, ecclesiastical discipline, charitable and relief activities, the lay apostolate and the missions. He said that the council must also consider problems of the temporal order as well.” (The Catholic Northwest Progress)

         Once the major topics of discussion had been settled, various committees were entrusted with the task of creating schemata, or draft documents, which would summarize the issues and provide a basis for discussion. In the summer of 1962, just a few months before the Council would open, only 7 of the 70 proposed schemata were ready to send to the world’s bishops for review. The Pope was understandably frustrated. When a visitor asked him, “How many people work at the Vatican, your Holiness?” John swiftly replied, “about half.” (Thomas Cahill, Pope John XXIII)

         Meanwhile, Pope John XXIII also prepared for the Council in a much more significant way: by prayer. Again and again he urged the world to pray for the success of the Council. Early in 1962, he asked the priests of the world to dedicate their daily recitation of the breviary (the Liturgy of the Hours) to the success of the Council. And he asked Catholics everywhere to join in a solemn novena of prayer and penance, beginning October 2, “to invoke the blessings of divine grace on the Fathers of the council.” He gave the priests of the world special faculties to offer Masses during the night so that all over the world, at the moment of the Council’s opening in Rome, the faithful would be raising a “great crescendo of prayer” for its success (Progress).
On October 4, one week before the Council opened, John himself made a pilgrimage of prayer (the first time a Pope had gone outside of Rome in living memory), visiting Loreto and Assisi. At these shrines, he entrusted the Council into the eminently capable hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the great St. Francis of Assisi.  Pope John already knew that he would not see the end of the great work he had begun. On September 23, 1962, less than three weeks before the Council opened, he had been diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. He had less than a year to live.

This facsimile from the Catholic Northwest Progress shows the immense procession of bishops
entering St. Peter’s Basilica at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. 
Archbishop Connolly is circled in the photo inset below.

         The Council opened on October 11, 1962, with a grand procession and ceremonial that lasted more than five hours. Those who were present could only speak in superlatives. “That I should live to see a day such as this!” exclaimed Seattle’s Archbishop Connolly, in the account he wired home that evening. “How good is the good God.” A week later he was still talking about it: “Mere words, even the gigantic, colossal, stupendous of Hollywood usage are so inadequate to describe the scene and the experience itself.” Even normally staid journalists were shaken into awe by the proceedings: “The magnificent splendor of the procession and the Mass, the great line of Council Fathers wending their way into the Basilica is a precious memory that will live with me to the end of my days on earth,” wrote Bob Jackson for the Progress.

         The bishops gathered in the Hall of Inscriptions at 7:30am, where local priests had the task of getting the thousands of prelates into place. All along the great hall cubbies had been constructed so that each bishop had a place to leave his hat and coat. The procession did not begin until 8:30am, so the bishops had time for some “informal chatting,” as Archbishop Connolly reported, “in English where possible, and in Latin where necessary.”

         It took a full hour for the immense procession to enter the Basilica. The bishops walked six abreast through St. Peter’s Square, right through the crowd of 500,000 who had gathered to be part of this historic moment. The incredible diversity of the Church was suddenly apparent to all eyes: the bishops represented every race and almost every nation on earth. “Every now and then, this white mass was dotted with the black cassock, full beard, and cylindrical headdress of an oriental bishop, and here and there with the bulbous gold crown and crossed pectoral reliquaries of a bishop of the Byzantine rite” (Rynne). After the bishops came the “scarlet ranks” of the Cardinals, and finally Pope John XXIII himself, carried on the sedia gestatoria by sixteen Papal guards.

         Once inside the Basilica, the Holy Father stepped down from his throne and intoned Veni, Creator Spiritus, and all sang the ancient hymn together, praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Mass was said; the Gospel was proclaimed not only in Latin but in Greek as well, as a sign of the unity of East and West; and the Litany of Saints was chanted. Then Pope John XXIII delivered his address for the occasion.

         “Mother Church rejoices,” the Pope began, “because, by a singular gift of divine providence, the desired day has finally dawned…. the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council is being solemnly opened here beside St. Peter’s tomb.” The Holy Father looked to the glories of the past, the authority and dignity of the Church through the ages—familiar and comfortable territory for his listeners. But then he spoke of the present day. And in spite of all that was happening in the world, he spoke with hope and confidence:

         "In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, sometimes (much to our regret) we have to listen to people who… can see nothing but calamities and ruin in these modern times. Comparing our era with previous centuries, they say that we are becoming worse. By their actions they show that they have learned nothing from history, which is the teacher of life…. We feel that we must disagree with these prophets of gloom who are always forecasting disaster, as if the end of the world were imminent. In the present day, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations. By man’s own efforts, and beyond the greatest expectation, we are being directed towards the fulfillment of God’s higher and inscrutable designs.”
After his address, the Holy Father reascended the sedia and was carried out of the Basilica. The Pope would not re-join the Council Fathers until December 7, just before the Council closed.
The next day, with Pope John’s challenge still ringing in their ears, the Fathers went to work. While the deliberations of each day were supposed to be secret—no journalists or laypeople being allowed inside the Basilica—somehow each day’s happenings were reported in great detail in the world press. The journalists joked, “why the great conciliar secrecy? Because secrets spread faster!” (Rynne)

         As important as the discussions of the Council Fathers were, they could not always be described as interesting. Everything was in Latin. With more than two thousand Council Fathers present at any given session, it was of course impossible for there to be spontaneous discussion of the issues. Instead, those who wished to speak had to submit their address in writing ahead of time, and any straying from the text was frowned upon. The Fathers were not to speak more than ten minutes, nor were they to repeat what had already been said. But as Archbishop Connolly observed, such rules were “more honored in the breach than the observance. The presiding cardinal for the day hesitates to cut a speaker short for, as a democratic assembly, every bishop has the right to talk and that right is regarded as sacred. So, we suffer in silence.” Though Latin was supposed to be the universal language of the Church, the Fathers soon discovered that they could not easily understand the language as it was pronounced by their brothers from other nations. The American bishops came under particular fire in this regard!

May we quote your no comment?
From the Progress, 1962

         During the first week of meetings, many technical matters were clarified, and commissions formed. On October 22, the proceedings began in earnest with the debate on the schema on the liturgy.

         Why did the discussion begin with the liturgy? In his 1998 memoir, Pope Benedict XVI (who served as a peritus or expert at the Council) explains: “The fact that this text became the first subject for the Council’s discussions really had nothing to do with the majority of the Fathers having an intense interest in the liturgical question. Quite simply, no great disagreements were expected in this area, and the undertaking was viewed as a kind of practical exercise to learn and test the method of conciliar work.” Catholics today tend to think of the Council as primarily a liturgical revolution—”Oh, that was when they started saying Mass in English.” But in fact, the liturgical renewal had begun many years before, under two of the century’s most “conservative” Popes—Pius X and Pius XII. By 1962, the momentum for renewal was already strong.

         The liturgy was, therefore, a ‘safe’ subject for discussion. But that did not mean that everyone agreed. There was much debate about Latin—would unity be sacrificed if the liturgy was celebrated in the vernacular?—about the possibility of communion under both kinds (hygiene was the principal concern), and about concelebration (were ten separate masses better than one mass at which ten priests concelebrated?). The presentations made by the various Council Fathers ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous to the merely tedious; and they dragged on to the point that John XXIII (who, though he was not present in the Council Hall, was watching the proceedings on closed-circuit television) had to intervene. He created a new rule allowing the presiding cardinal to call for a vote to end a given discussion. There was general applause when the interminable discussion on Chapter 2 of the liturgy schema finally ended!
         The Council Fathers also confronted more controversial issues during this first session. The schema they had been given on the subject of divine revelation was highly traditionalist. Cardinal Liénart of Lille, France, voted to reject the draft outright—”we should be thinking more along the lines of our separated brothers,” he declared, “who have such a love and veneration for the Word of God.” The majority of the Fathers agreed, and to the chagrin of those who had prepared the original draft, a new commission was formed to prepare a fresh document which would be more expressive of the Council’s views.
Much the same thing happened to the highly-anticipated document on the Church, which all knew would be among the most important works to come out of the Council. Bishop de Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, spoke for many of the Council Fathers when he rejected the draft outright, exclaiming, “no mother ever spoke thus!” (Rynne). The draft equated the Church with the hierarchy of the Roman Church. The Church, said Bishop de Smedt, could not be equated with the hierarchy—the Church was the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ. And so this draft was also sent back for revision.

         A document on relations with the Orthodox was similarly rejected; in fact only the liturgy document and the short document dealing with the communications media—TV, film, and radio—were passed, though each with substantial revisions.
In the midst of these debates, life outside the Council went on. Pope John XXIII, in the midst of serious health problems, spoke out on behalf of peace as the Cuban missile crisis escalated in an already precarious world situation. The Bishops from the Pacific Northwest had time to feel homesick on a grey rainy morning in Rome, “a typical Portland day,” as Archbishop Connolly described it, and they were even more nostalgic on Thanksgiving Day, when they shared Rome’s version of an American Thanksgiving dinner at their hotel.

Northwest bishops at the Second Vatican Council:
Bernard Topel, Spokane; Archbishop Connolly; Raymond Hunthausen,
Helena; and Sylvester Treinen, Boise.

         When the First Session of the Council concluded on December 8, 1962, after sixty days of work, no document had been promulgated, no official change had come about. The proceedings had been slow in starting, and the debates had sometimes been agonizingly tedious. But the smiles and the consistent enthusiasm of Pope John XXIII restored the confidence of those who felt discouraged. It was all for the good, the Holy Father said in his closing address. “The first session was like a slow and solemn introduction to the great work of the Council,” said the Pope, and the time had not been wasted. “Brothers gathered from afar took time to get to know each other; they needed to look each other in the eyes in order to understand each other’s heart.” For Pope John XXIII, the Council was still a tremendous promise of things to come, a “new Pentecost.” “In this hour of heartfelt joy,” he said at the conclusion of his remarks, “it is as if the heavens are opened above our heads and the splendor of the heavenly court shines out upon us, filling us with superhuman certainty and a supernatural spirit of faith, hope, and profound peace.” The Pope urged the Fathers to continue praying and working on the various schemata during the months ahead, and to look to the Second Session, scheduled to begin in September, 1963. And so the Council Fathers went home again, “out of the trenches and home for Christmas,” as Archbishop Connolly observed.

         The Cathedral’s own pastor at the time, Bishop Gill, aptly summarized the feeling at the end of the first session of the Council. “Vatican II,” he wrote, is “a historical moment, but more—history itself moving.”

  • Want to read more about the Council?  Try John W. O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II, available in the Cathedral Bookstore.
  • In the next article in the series:  The death of good Pope John; the election of Pope Paul VI; and the second session of the Second Vatican Council.

Corinna Laughlin is Director of Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

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