After two years of Vatican II no one was quite sure how to gauge precisely what was happening. Xavier Rynne describes Pope Paul’s closing remarks of the Second Session in December 1963 as “an anxious attempt to draw up a faithful balance sheet” (Vatican II, 265) to address critics in the French press, for example, who described 1963 as a meeting “with more debits than credits.” (265) In retrospect what may have been misunderstood was the reality that the Council was an event, not a spreadsheet. Shakespeare had written centuries earlier that “knowledge maketh a bloody entrance,” and I suspect that after two grinding sessions there was a recognition throughout the Church—favorable or grudging-- that Vatican II was, in word and deed, a kind of school of the future; things were being discussed and approved that would impact upon every Catholic. I believe it was Pope Benedict himself, who as a Council peritus Joseph Ratzinger would write after the Council that “the men who left the Council were not the same men who entered it.” (In some cases, this was literally true: the Bishop of Buffalo died during the Council, the first actual casualty of Vatican II. He had gone to the Council, so I have heard, to argue for red corporals or altar cloths. The shock of the debates must have killed him.)
I attempted to reach back into my own memories of the Council. The Council opened in October, 1962. I left home as a high school freshman to enter the seminary in September, 1962. Unless my memory has failed me—and we have to leave room for that possibility—I can recall no mention or discussion of the Council in my Catholic elementary school as the event was drawing closer. I was very close to my parish priests, and they never talked about it. Likewise for my family (and my extended family included a priest and two religious sisters). There were several pre-existent factors in play, of course: in the first instance, no one knew what a Council was (let alone an “Ecumenical Council,” the official title); there was no living memory of such a thing.
Second, one of the prime tenets of Catholic life was the unchanging or immutable nature of the Church. In truth, there were changes in the decade prior to the Council. Pope Pius XII had moved the Holy Week Services to the evening, but he was viewed as correcting an error and/or making greater participation possible for working folks, as when he gave permission for evening Masses on Holy Days and changed the communion fast. But popes had the power to do that. Christ had given this power to Peter, and that would never change. I have had a little respectful fun with the Curia’s most conservative member, but in truth Catholics of my recollection all had their “inner Ottaviani,” whose coat of arms read “Always the Same.” And finally, the Catholicism of my youth was very local, very parochial. The parish was our world in terms of everyday life; in fact, I never saw my own bishop, to tell the truth; a visiting missionary bishop confirmed me.
In an infinite number of ways the unfolding Council was just beginning to penetrate the consciousness of both the immediate participants and the Catholic world at large, as diverse as the Church is. There were small indications even in my seminary, very conservative as were most, that somehow things were different. Somewhere around 1964 or 1965 our own Cardinal Ottaviani, the Rector of the Seminary, allowed for a collation or “after school snack” to be served at 3 PM. In 1964 the seminary’s history club was allowed to make a field trip to the New York World’s Fair. In 1965—wonder of wonders—the seminarians were allowed to return home for a week’s vacation during Easter week. All of this, mind you, happened under the old guard or the ancien regime of my Order. Years later, as a priest myself, I had drinks with my old rector and I asked him about the changes during my time. “There was a feeling among all of the rectors at the time,” he explained, that “maybe we should stop being such g.d. tight ---es about everything.” In vino veritas.
So despite the trench warfare of Sessions One and Two, the message was out that “things” would be different. Pope Paul made this manifestly clear when he announced at the end of Session Two that he would soon be visiting the Holy Land. Today this kind of excursion would be noteworthy but not earthshaking. In late 1963 the world was stunned. There was considerable history to draw from, and it is safe to say that the prevailing wisdom of the day held that papal travel was a bad thing. No pope had left Rome in centuries. In fact, the term “prisoner of the Vatican” was often applied to the pope. If you have ever seen the walls around Vatican City, the term will make better sense. If a pope left Rome, it was usually because barbarians like the Lombards or the Huns under Attila were within plain sight on the horizon. Or, a pope might leave for more sinister reasons. In the early 1300’s a new pope traveled to Avignon in France and with his successors stayed for about 70 years under the control of French interests. It is only since Paul VI that the concept of a traveling pope entered modern Catholic consciousness.
But it was the contents of the visit as much as the fact of the trip that “blew everyone’s minds,” to use the phrase coming its own in American culture in the mid-1960’s. I have not discussed this in the previous blog entries on the Council, but during the debate on Ecumenism in Session Two Arab Christian bishops had very strong feelings about the schema’s terminology regarding Catholic relations with Jews (or more specifically, the Jewish state of Israel.) The 1967 Arab-Israeli War was just a few years down the road. The Arab problem was one reason the Pope let the Ecumenism question succumb to exhaustion in December, for he knew privately that he still had a major card to play shortly. The pope’s appearance in the Middle East, albeit for strictly spiritual purposes, was in fact a major statement to Church fathers that the Catholic hand in the region would be substantial and fair.
But beyond that, by secret arrangement a meeting was set for Pope Paul with the Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople, father of the Orthodox Church. The Holy Land was the perfect site for such a meeting, the holy grounds of Jesus and the Apostles. Athenagoras himself welcomed the opportunity, though Rynne notes that some of his bishops were resolutely opposed. The meeting was extraordinarily well planned and orchestrated for its sign value. The pope and the patriarch exchanged visits at their respective legations. The two men embraced. Paul presented Athenagoras with an exquisite chalice; later the patriarch presented the pope with the cross worn by Orthodox bishops. Amazingly, Pope Paul quickly had the cross placed around his neck along with his own stole.
Rynne makes an excellent point in his account (266-73) that Pope Paul was making a clear statement to the Council father and the Church: it would be deeds as well as documents that would reform the Church. When the Council would again meet in the fall of 1964 and the discussion on Ecumenism presumably renewed, the ball field would be considerably altered by the memory of the Pope’s embrace of Athenagoras.