I suppose the logical question to ask is why Pope John XXIII made up his mind in 1959 to convoke a meeting of the world’s bishop. While Rynne provides an excellent brief history of John’s decision (pp. 3-45) and the condition of the Church upon his election to the papacy in 1958, possibly the best single quote regarding the need for a Council came during the Third Session (1964) from Bishop La Ravoire Morrow of India, who during the discussion of the schema or document The Church in the Modern World tied the issue with one neat bow: “How can men and women of our time understand that God is good if we continue to teach them that those who do not abstain [from meat] on Fridays go to hell?” (356) Morrow was right: a few nights later Johnny Carson worked the gist of Morrow’s observation into a monologue joke on the Tonight Show, which also gives us a hint of how the U.S. and the world would follow these events.
The formal opening took place on October 11, 1962, with Mass in St. Peter’s, where all subsequent discussions would take place. After the Mass each Cardinal came forth to pay personal homage and pledge obedience to the pope; the bishops did so from their places. If you google up images or pictures of the physical arrangements you will probably consider them quite cramped; they were. Bar Jonah and Bar Rabas, the coffee shops and smokers havens, were under the tiers of bishops’ seating. For some humorous limericks about Council comforts and behavior, see this entry from the blog Laudem Gloriae, which notes the aromas of these getaways infiltrating the Council proceedings.
The world waited with great interest (perhaps none more than the Curia) to hear Pope John’s opening address, which hypothetically was intended to put forth the broad outlines of what he wished the Council fathers to achieve. The pope’s key points were these: (1) in style, the Council was not intended to create new doctrines, as Vatican I had done, nor to generate new laws or legislation. The goal would be to make existing Church teaching intelligible to the world through the advances in biblical, theological, philosophical, and historical knowledge. [One can read this as a respectful nod toward the Enlightenment and the Modern Age of Scholarship.] (2) the Council was to speak with a tone of “medicine of mercy” rather than the exercise of severity. [Rynne notes this was a rebuke to the Curia, notably Cardinal Ottaviani’s Holy Office.] (3) the Council was to embark on a mission of unity, or more specifically, union of the Roman West with the Greek Orthodox, and broadly to all people of good will.
There were no reporters allowed in the sessions of the Council, and secrecy was expected. The Vatican Press Office did provide a bland and general day’s summary in the morning before the session began. (!) There was one threatened excommunication by the Holy Office when Cardinal Ottaviani’s name was leaked accidentally, but Cardinal Pericle Felici, the daily stage manager of the sessions, was reduced to expressing grave unhappiness as leaking increased. The most famous leaker, of course, was Xavier Rynne himself in his steam of articles to New Yorker magazines. By the end of the Council, bishops were writing columns and updates for their diocesan Catholic papers.
I have read Rynne’s descriptions of the first three sessions so far (1962-64) and I can only say that the daily meetings must have been excruciating over the long haul. Each issue of discussion, about fifteen by my count, had been determined and approved beforehand by the preparatory commissions, each chaired and at least partially staffed by the Curia. How much Pope John actually knew of the schema or position papers presented for discussion is a little hard to say. He did not attend most of the sessions, in part because of his regular formal duties, and he conducted many personal interviews concurrent with the floor proceedings, particularly with the “observers” of other churches invited to attend. On a few occasions large groups of bishops sent an embassy directly to the pope complaining about floor management and manipulations. The pope was very much aware that his purposes were not those of the Curia, and on several occasions there were private dress downs, so to speak.
The first formal discussion was delayed for several days until the bishops could organize themselves. Because so much of the Council would be committee and caucus work after hours, two keen-eyed bishops came prepared to challenge the Curial organizational chart. Cardinal Lienart of Lille and Cardinal Frings of Cologne (two of the Council’s most illustrious participants, as we will see) proposed organizational arrangement by language and/or national bishops conferences, of which 43 already existed. This would eliminate the “Tower of Babel” problem and give bishops a much better chance to debate and form consortiums of support for key issues. The enthusiasm for these proposals was such that no numerical vote was taken. Thus, ‘after hours,” bishops would congregate at their nation’s or language’s major Roman seminary; the Americans gathered at Villanova House where Father Andrew Greeley, then a young journalist, noted the consumption of “prodigious amounts of the creature.”
In his Andrew Greeley: Confessions of a Parish Priest we get a very good firsthand account of the social and professional interactions of the American bishops at the Council, “creature and all.” He describes the Council experience as a euphoric time, an emotional roller-coaster. He makes the point that the typical American bishops did not always understand the implications of their votes, few being scholars or readers, and that after each session many rushed home to assure their dioceses that “nothing had changed” despite their own votes for radical reorganization of the Church. I think Rynne gives a better picture of American bishops; several would distinguish themselves in defending the principles of democracy and freedom of conscience against a highly skeptical Curia.
Greeley was not entirely wrong about the acumen of some bishops. According to a story long told in my home diocese of birth, the bishop of my diocese, like all bishops, was asked to submit his concerns for discussion at Vatican II. According to a number of priests, he proposed that the corporal or altar covering at Mass be changed from white to red, so that any crumbs from a consecrated host be seen more easily. He went to the Council, lasted a week, and died. Was it the shock of the dimensions of conciliar ambitions that did him in? Or the second hand smoke from the Bar Rabas? The minutes don’t say, or they were suppressed by the Curia.