On September 21, 1963, a week before Session Two of Vatican II, the newly elected Pope Paul VI made a surprising public statement. (This was 52 years ago today and the Feast of the evangelist St. Matthew). Paul VI identified himself as “the pope who today has made the legacy of John XXIII his own, and has also made it a program for the entire Church.” He then went on to say that the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy for want of a better description, was in need of reform. Then he added this: “We will say more: If the Ecumenical Council wishes to see some representatives of the episcopacy, particularly bishops heading dioceses, associated…with [the pope] in the study and responsibility of ecclesiastical government, it will not be the Roman Curia that will oppose it.”
In the light of the dynamics of the first session in 1962, this was a truly remarkable statement, given that the Curia had fought Pope John and the majority of bishops on nearly every point of discussion in the historic first session. Pope Paul was stating first and foremost that he was in total agreement with his predecessor regarding the urgent need for the Council. Most outside observers assumed this was so even before he spoke; he had, after all, just won election in the papal consistory by a representative worldwide body of Cardinals. The greater questions dealt with fear that the Curia would sidestep his wishes as it had his predecessor. Paul was a smarter man than John and anticipated the need to address this elephant in the living room. But as Xavier Rynne observed, Paul was setting out a new agenda: if not the Curia, then who would join the pope in the governance of the universal Church? The answer is found in Paul’s above cited directive: it would be the bishops, successors of the apostles and sharing episcopal consecration with the pope. The theological term for this is collegiality, the body of bishops ruling as a college in communion with the pope, primus inter pares in a very real sense. Session Two would be remembered as the autumn of the bishops.
On September 30, 1963, Session Two opened with a “dialogue Mass,” one of the first templates for the changes in the Mass rite sanctioned in the previous year’s session. The first schema or discussion document on the agenda was De Ecclesia or “on the Church.” Cardinal Frings of Cologne summarized his concerns about several points in what was otherwise a rather good first draft. He argued that the schema was not intended to define who was in and who was out of the Church (an issue that many still contend to this day); he expressed concern about the “cherry picking” of Scriptural texts to support arguments, and that there was much more material on infallibility than on the teaching office of the bishops. Of particular interest in this schema was the use of the term “people of God” to describe the Church faithful, a far cry from “pay, pray, and obey.” Implied in the title was the identity of the laity as essential to the Church by virtue of baptism, spirituality, wisdom and good works. In all, the bishops were pleased with the general tenor of the document and voted favorably to bring it back for chapter by chapter analysis, 2231-43.
As the debate on de Ecclesia entered the paragraph by paragraph phase, a French bishop relaxing in Bar Jonah was heard to say, “To be a good Council Father, you need the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon, and it also helps if you have a cast iron bottom, alors!” Debates took place in widely varying degrees of Latin competence for stretches between two or three hours. (Years later, Karol Wotyla would bring a philosophy journal to pass the time at the consistory to elect a successor to Pope John Paul I, probably mindful of his Vatican II experiences. Wotyla, of course, was elected as John Paul II; no word if he finished his reading.)
One of the more pertinent issues to arise was the nature of the word “church,” and whether this could be appropriately attributed to Protestant assemblies. This intervention came from the first U.S. bishop to speak at Session Two, the colorful and humorous Ernie Primeau of Manchester, New Hampshire. Primeau had been wrongly introduced as the bishop of Manchester, England. Primeau, on taking the microphone, set the assembly laughing when he observed wryly that his counterpart across the ocean was “a separated brethren” (of the Church of England). Primeau then delivered a thoughtful and critical reflection on the importance of the term “church” vis-à-vis the ecumenical movement in countries like the United States. A consensus was slowly emerging that any definition of “church” must somehow embrace all baptized persons, and equally important, some statement of recognition of the validity of other church bodies worshipping the same Jesus Christ.
Cardinal Lercaro cut through one Gordian knot by defining the Catholic Church as full and complete, a phrasing that did not belittle the Christian reality of other churches who possessed critical aspects of an understanding of Revelation and mission. He went on to define the Church as a dynamis or “dynamic power,” ever growing and responding to the challenges of this day, a radical turn from Ottaviani’s belief of “always the same.” On October 4, the Feast of St. Francis, a number of speakers called for a greater inclusion of the Church’s mission to the poor in its declaration of its identity, a distant forerunner of Pope Francis’ preaching a half-century later. The bishop of the Canary Islands raised the issue of “fallen away Catholics;” I found this a fascinating intervention in that bishops in 1963 were already worried about the trend of departures that has grown exponentially since then. The second American intervention, from Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis, emphasized the importance of identifying the Church’s salvific work of preaching the Scripture. This was another step away from the Church as an unchanging, static, legal entity.
Enough significant contributions had been made for the first portion of the de Ecclesia schema to go into final drafting. The much more contentious discussion on collegiality—the relationship of bishops and pope—would be taken up next. At this juncture Archbishop Felici, a curial officer serving as parliamentarian and manager of the proceedings, announced that no pamphlets or booklets were to be distributed to the Council Fathers without permission of the Council presidents (i.e., Felici) This was interpreted by Vatican watchers as an attempt to have certain books and publications taken off the bookshelves of bookstores in Rome. The offending writers, it seemed, included one Xavier Rynne.