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It is often forgotten that just as the Vatican II Council Fathers were getting down to business, United States reconnaissance pilots were shooting pictures of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. Just how the Cuban Missile Crisis impacted the emotions of the Council is hard to say, but certainly the tensions reminded the fathers of the seriousness of their own efforts. The agenda of the Council was determined by the Curia through its dominance of the planning subcommittees and its management of the proceedings. There were a number of Curial officials and participating bishops who believed that the Council might be concluded in one fall session.
In any event the first working day of the Council was October 13, 1961, called to order under the president, the Curia’s Cardinal Tisserant. Several procedural points to make include these: (1) the official language of the Council was Latin, including the floor speeches; (2) there was no simultaneous translation available, as in the United Nations (Cardinal Cushing offered to pay for one, but his proposal was not accepted by the officers; (3) while there were many exceptions to this rule, in general the bishops handled one topic at a time; if there was full agreement on the text of the schema or proposal, the bishops then voted immediately. If there were many reservations about the text, as was often the case, the presidential board could pull the document back for a rewriting and resubmit it with another full debate on the floor. In the case of the Schema on Religious Liberty in late 1964, Pope Paul himself ordered that the schema be retracted until the following year. (4) As a rule the Curia proposed the order of presentation of subjects. (5) The bishops used paper ballots to mark “placet” (it is pleasing); “non placet” (a negative vote) or “placet juxta modem” (a qualified yes with request for more clarification or discussion.) Xavier Rynne observes with some humor that the stage manager, Archbishop Pericle Felici, would go to great pains with detailed instructions on how to mark a ballot “non-placet.”
The first issue of debate, one of the four major schema of the Council, was destined to become “The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” Why this very controversial topic was tackled first is a bit of a mystery to me: I suspect that Curia and bishops alike were afraid to go home at Christmas without having resolved the issue one way or the other. Another possibility is that in much of Europe, and even in the United States to some degree, liturgical reform was well underway. I can recall “dialogue Masses” in my home parish well before 1962. Another point, often forgotten, was that Pius XII (1939-1958) was himself a pioneer of liturgical reform whose writings and especially his permissions led Catholics to think in terms of reforming the Mass. Pius restored the Holy Week/Triduum services to the night hour, and gave permission for evening Masses on Holy Days. (The weekly Saturday vigil Mass would come after Vatican II.)
As in most things, major arguments come down to several critical points. Recall that John XXIII had expressly called for a Church more accessible to the world as a whole. In this debate on the Liturgy, many bishops argued that the style and rubrics of the Mass was best left to national and regional conferences of bishops, given that they were the ones “on the scene,” with the work of these bodies passed to the pope for final approval. The Curial document on the table called for the bishops to provide general principles which would be specified after the Council by the Curia.
Not surprisingly, the argument turned to jurisdiction. As Rynne observes, this question was bound to come up sooner or later anyway—and indeed it actually intensified all the way through Session Four in 1965. With regard to this debate, the focus turned to Mass in the vernacular, which the schema had commented upon favorably. Here the argument turned on a venerable history versus greater participation by the Laity. This debate ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous: Cardinal Spellman of New York called for retention of Latin Mass for the sake of unity, but vernacular for all the other sacraments, an interesting effort at compromise. On the other hand, Archbishop Dante of the Curia tore the schema to shreds, including a non sequitur regarding veneration of relics. Bishop Garcia Martinez rose and asked Dante, “How much longer was the Church to be embarrassed by such ‘relics’ as Our Blessed Lady’s milk and veil?”
One of the most captivating speeches came from Cardinal Felton of Paris, whom Rynne credits as taking a practical approach to the present-day style of the Tridentine Mass then in use. He asked what would happen if a non-Catholic should wander into Mass—what would his impression be? Felton’s description of a priest facing away from a passive congregation celebrating a rite in a foreign tongue—a magic rite, in the Cardinal’s words. He reminded the assembly that the Mass was the Word of God in action, divided into a catechetical and a redemptive action. The Mass, he observed, should have this effect upon members and strangers alike.
Over the next ten days the matter of Latin became “a sort of shibboleth,” as Rynne puts it. The retention of Latin became a symbol of those who wished to maintain the Church within the confines of a western-juridical ordered tradition. On the whole, American bishops made few interventions; many were, quite frankly, bored, unfamiliar with theological writing and pastoral practices in other parts of the world. However, through the fall of 1962 more bishops began to look to Cardinals Ritter (St. Louis) and Meyer (Chicago) for advice and leadership in the proceedings and gradually warmed (“gradually” being the operative word) to more of the liturgical reforms put forth.
Among other major topics under the liturgical umbrella were concelebrating the Mass by multiple priests and communion under both species. As more bishops seemed to be tending to the majority of reforms, Cardinal Ottaviani on October 30 took the floor and asked the bishops, “Are you planning a revolution?” His ten minutes allotted, the president finally cut his microphone. Finally the debate was brought to an end by a direct intervention of Pope John on November 6. Because of the great complexity of the debate, the majority of the schema went back to committee and was not presented again until the following year.
And by this time, with just one schema having consumed nearly two months, there was no doubt there would be a second session of Vatican II in 1963.