In Your Midst

Conflict and Collegiality

Sept. 2009

Part III in a Series about the Second Vatican Council

Read Part I | Read Part II

Pope John XXIII had lived the life of a saint; and he died as he had lived. By the spring of 1963, he knew that the doctors could do nothing more for him. But the Pope continued to work, paying visits, receiving guests, and writing his last and greatest encyclical, Pacem in Terris, in spite of incredible pain (“I feel like St. Lawrence on the grid-iron,” he told his secretary). One morning he said simply, “I’m ready to go. I’ve said all my breviary and the whole rosary. I’ve prayed for the children, for the sick, for sinners.” The Council was never far from his thoughts. At the end of May, he asked all Catholics to pray that “his death would win blessings for the ecumenical council and for the cause of world peace” (Progress). And on June 3, Pentecost Monday, he uttered his last words, words of St. Peter to the risen Christ: “Lord, you know that I love you.” He breathed his last just as Cardinal Traglia, who was offering Mass in St. Peter’s Square, chanted, “Ite, missa est”—Go, you are sent.

Rarely had a Pope so thoroughly won the hearts not only of his own people, but of the entire world. He was a hard act to follow, to say the least, and when Giovanni Montini, Cardinal of Milan, was elected, feelings were mixed. There was relief, because all knew that Montini was a progressive who would carry on the work of the Council; but this thin, rather severe-looking intellectual was clearly no John XXIII. “Ah, yes,” lamented Father Shearin in a syndicated column, entitled In Fairness to Pope Paul, “we will never have another Pope John. He was ‘one in a million’ and we will never see his like again. But then God never repeats himself…. God gives the world the saints and the popes that the times demand. So we can expect Pope Paul to be different precisely because he will have to meet the new challenge of a new time. He will meet it in his own way and, I am confident, with a degree of success beyond our fairest expectations.” And Father Shearin was right.
During the Vacancy of the Holy See, all the work of the various Council commissions was suspended. But any who hoped that the Council might not be reconvened that year, or ever, were gravely disappointed. Paul VI made it clear from his very first days as Pope that the Council would reconvene as planned, in September of 1963. And then, to the delight of most, and the consternation of a few, just a week before the Council opened Paul VI announced that he would reform the Roman Curia. (During the first session, as Cardinal Montini, Paul VI had witnessed first hand the struggle between the Fathers and the Curia for authority in the Council.) It was clear that the Second Session of the Council—and the new Pope whose vision would guide it—would hold some surprises.

The surprises began with the opening of the session. “There was little of the ‘pomp and circumstance’ that marked the opening of Act I,” Archbishop Connolly wrote home to his faithful Progress readers; “there was no stately procession through the crowded piazza for the Fathers.” Instead, they simply assembled in the Basilica. Pope Paul VI was carried to the doors on the sedia gestatoria, but then dismounted and walked the length of the nave. The anticipation was intense, for this was the first time most of the Bishops had seen their new Holy Father. “He is a pleasant, kindly looking man slight of stature that was somewhat accentuated by the voluminous cope that he was wearing,” wrote Archbishop Connolly, who sensed that this was a man with “a vast store of energy in reserve.”

A more complete contrast to John XXIII could hardly have been planned. But when Paul VI began his address, the Fathers realized that the new Pope was, after all, a man after John’s own heart (little did they know that John had prayed that Cardinal Montini would succeed him!). “O dear and venerated Pope John,” Paul VI exclaimed, “may gratitude and praise be rendered to you for having resolved—doubtless under divine inspiration—to convoke this council in order to open to the Church new horizons, and to tap the fresh spring water of the doctrine and grace of Christ our Lord and let it flow over the earth.”

Then the Pope astonished all, and shocked some, by turning towards the observer-delegates, who represented almost all the world’s Christian denominations, and uttering words of hope and apology: “Our voice trembles and our heart beats faster both because of the inexpressible consolation and reasonable hope that their presence stirs up within us, as well as because of the deep sadness we feel at their prolonged separation. If we are in any way to blame for that separation,” he went on, “we humbly beg God’s forgiveness and ask pardon, too, of our brethren who feel themselves to have been injured by us.” Where the First Vatican Council had dedicated itself to the definition of papal infallibility, the Second witnessed a Pope apologizing for the sins of the Church, its members and its leaders.
The surprises continued as the days unfolded. The Fathers found that the Council proceedings had been streamlined and improved. The veil of secrecy had been lifted over the debates in the Council Hall, so that (though journalists still were not permitted in the aula) the press was allowed full access to the record of the exchanges.

This time the work began with the revised document on the Church, the first version of which had been roundly rejected the previous year. The new document was in every way superior to the original, but there was still much to debate. Many of the Fathers suggested that the chapter on “The People of God” should take precedence over the chapter on “The Hierarchy”—a change which spoke volumes. And the issue of whether to include a chapter on the Blessed Virgin Mary in the document on the Church, or to prepare a separate schema on Mary, proved highly contentious, and the Fathers were showered with leaflets, pro and con.

But it was the issue of collegiality that provoked the most debate during the Second Session. Did the college of bishops constitute a governing body, with the Pope as its head? The answer might seem obvious—but it wasn’t so simple. The questions flew thick and fast.  Did Jesus establish a college of apostles? Did Christ intend for the apostles to share in the governance of the Church, as well as in its ministry? Would saying ‘yes’ to collegiality mean weakening the authority of the Pope, and therefore threatening the unity of the Church? The discussion went on so long that at last the Cardinal Moderators of the Council took the rather unorthodox step of taking a vote on five specific points of contention. The results indicated that the Fathers were largely—though by no means unanimously—in favor of collegiality. Emotions were running high and Paul VI had to make a peacemaking appearance, at which Cardinal Suenens delivered a moving tribute to John XXIII. Some felt the Bishops were losing sight of the goal; the Pope’s appearance was meant to remind them of it.
But the reactionary minority was vocal and powerful, and their leader, Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office (what is now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) was not one to relinquish a contest lightly. And when the schema on the ministry of bishops came before the Council, he used it as an opportunity to start the whole debate on collegiality over again, as if the special vote had not taken place. This led to fireworks. Archbishop Connolly described the exchange in a letter home to readers of the Progress:

“It all started more or less on Friday when Joseph Cardinal Frings, the Archbishop of Cologne, took the floor and flayed the Congregation of the Holy Office, declaring its procedures unjust, unfair, and completely out of harmony with modern times. He called for a complete revision of its status and its rights and privileges, saying that it was grossly unfair for the Holy Office to accuse, condemn, and judge any individual without having the opportunity of defending himself at a hearing. He declared further that the number of bishops in the curia should be reduced and many of the posts taken over by laymen. He minced no words in his denunciation.

“He was immediately challenged by Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office. To use the parlance of the prize ring, the Cardinal had been taking it on the chin so often during the past few weeks that he had reached the limit of his patience. He picked himself up off the canvas; he lashed out at all his critics, swinging freely right and left. In a voice shaking with emotion and pent-up anger, he declared that criticisms of the Holy Office were criticisms of the Pope himself, that the German Cardinal’s words were spoken out of ignorance, if not worse…. It was the hottest exchange yet but of course, such things are to be expected for this council is not a sodality meeting.”

Both Frings and Ottaviani, Archbishop Connolly noted, “are almost totally blind and each spoke his piece in pure Ciceronian Latin without the benefit of any manuscript.”

Connolly himself ventured to wonder whether it wouldn’t simply complicate things if the local ordinary had to report not only to the Pope and to the Holy Office but to the National Conference of Bishops as well. When he expressed these doubts at a gathering of the American bishops, “I found myself in the camp of the moss-backed reactionaries. Horrors!!!” “Am I a conservative?” he wrote later. “No, no, I am a moderate revisionist!”

Though the debate on collegiality occupied much of the Fathers’ time during the Second Session, they did address some other key issues. In the course of the discussion of the schema on Christian unity, the Fathers voted to remove two chapters on relations with the Jewish people. This caused something of a furor in the press, which reported only that the Fathers wanted to remove the chapters, without mentioning that they intended to create an entire new document on Jewish-Christian relations.
On December 4, 1963, the Second Session concluded. After Mass, the final version of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was read (in abbreviated form) and a last vote was taken. While the votes were being tabulated, the entire assembly prayed. The Council Fathers chanted the Creed together, and Pope Paul VI intoned Veni Creator Spiritus. Then the results were announced, and the Fathers reacted with a spontaneous ovation: 2,147 had approved the document; only 4 voted against it. Pope Paul VI then rose and pronounced the formula making the Constitution an official document of the Church. But, as Xavier Rynne points out, he changed the prescribed text somewhat. “Approbamus una cum patribus,” he said, “We approve this Constitution together with the Fathers.” Collegiality was still a point of contention in the Council, but in that moment Pope Paul VI made it clear on which side of the issue he stood.

Though only two documents had been promulgated (the Decree on Communications also passed), the Fathers left the Second Session with a sense of accomplishment. The liturgical reforms would become a reality: the work of the Council would begin to bear fruit in the world. But much remained to be done when the Council reconvened in September, 1964.

Want to read more about the Council?

  • John W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, available in the Cathedral Bookstore.  This new book is probably the most readable one-volume account of the Council.
  • Rita Ferrone, Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium focuses on the meaning and implications of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and recounts the implementation of the liturgical reforms.

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

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