Preparations for the Fourth and final session of Vatican II continued through much of 1965. On the eve of the Council a number of final drafts were provided to the bishops around the world. These included final schemas on Religious Liberty, the Missions, Priestly Life, and the Apostolate of the Laity, along with the text on Divine Revelation. A number of others were held back till the Council actually began, including the Office of Bishops, Religious Life, Seminaries, and Non-Christian religions. Hotly contested issues applied to several documents, notably Religious Liberty and Non-Christian religions. There would be a lot to digest and approve in Session IV.
In the months leading up to Session IV, Pope Paul VI spoke repeatedly of his desire for unity in the final session. In addition, he implemented a number of actions to assuage or encourage both the progressive and the conservative leaders of the Church. For example, on June 10, 1965, on a visit to Pisa, the pope exhorted the faithful “to imitate the faith of Galileo, Dante and Michelangelo.” His remarks were interpreted—correctly, it seems—as a gentle rehabilitation of Galileo, whose difficulties with his astronomy and the Inquisition are quite well-known. (Pope John Paul II formally and forcefully acknowledged regret over the Church’s handling of the Galileo affair on October 31, 1992, though plans for a promised statue of the scientist on Vatican grounds have been placed on hold since 2008.)
On the other hand, on the eve of the Council Paul issued the encyclical Mysterium Fidei on the Eucharist. The timing of the document attracted as much attention as its content. Mysterium Fidei was interpreted as a warning to Dutch theologians in particular, and many western theologians in general, that the “new theology” of the Vatican II era must be pursued with caution and would not be permitted to endanger traditional teachings of the Church on major issues of faith. It is noteworthy, though, that the encyclical gives us clues of the kinds of liturgical experimentation already under way. Paul, for example, attacks writers who disparage the practice of priests offering private masses—a clue, certainly, that the practice of concelebrated Mass, where two or more priests offer Mass together, was already in widespread use despite no formal approval or ritual.
The final Session IV opened on September 14, 1965. Pope Paul presided over the opening Mass with a graceful simplicity—a noticeable number of late medieval practices had evidently been put aside—and his sermon/opening address was noteworthy for its emphasis upon fraternal charity. None of the theological disputes were raised. The pope revealed two surprises in his words: his intention to address the United Nations in New York in 1966 to make an appeal for peace, and his intent to establish the practice of conducting Synods of the Bishops, a long-awaited announcement by the majority. After a somewhat anxious nine months, Pope Paul did much to restore at least a measure of hope and good will for the final stress.
The first working session addressed the concept of the synod of bishops as a regular function in the workings of the Church. The pope himself attended this meeting. Regional synods were a regular feature of church life for centuries, though their frequency and importance declined with the strengthening of papal authority. A twentieth-century Catholic would only know the term from the lives of the saints. What Pope Paul had proposed here was a standing body of bishops and others from around the world. In the final configuration, it was agreed upon that national conferences of bishops would elect its representatives (1 for every 25 dioceses), to which the pope would appoint as many as 15% more as he saw fit. Religious orders would also have representation.
The synod would generally have advisory or consultative functions, but the provisions did allow for deliberative capacity. In other words, the Synodal meetings would most often allow the pope to hear a wide range of considered positions from his representative bishops and experts from around the world. On some occasions the pope could actually authorize a vote on a particular issue, a decision which he, of course, reserved the right to approve or dissent. What was less clear was the matter of agenda, which in practice has been set forth by the pope.
A point to note, however, is that the establishment of a triennial synod was not established as a doctrine nor as a new binding facet of the constitution of the Church. One of the fathers in Session IV was the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wotyla. Elected thirteen years later as John Paul II, he would oversee the 1983 Code of Canon Law and tighten up the provisions on synods in Canons 342-348, which do make fascinating reading. There was at least one effort in my memory where a regional body of bishops attempted to propose an agenda from the grass roots; Indonesian bishops attempted to initiate a synod discussion on priestly celibacy, but this offer was not accepted by the Vatican. A future pope could hypothetically cease the practice of regular synods altogether, but Pope Francis has certainly shown no inclination to do so.
The Curia was nervous about the use of the word “Synod,” which in church history was a powerful exercise of episcopal (bishops’) authority. Nonetheless, in remarks to the press, the Curial line was a willingness to work with the 160 bishops constituting the future first synod. (Cardinal Marella’s claim that he would be only “too happy” to work with the Synodal bishops was a transparent stretch, though.)
But all things considered, the fourth session had begun remarkably well. It was a good thing, too, for the first regular agenda item on the table was the issue that had tied the Council in knots during its first go around, the matter of Religious Liberty.