For the next several Mondays and Saturdays we will take a look at the actual workings of Vatican II (1962-1965). This was a convocation of all 2500 of the world’s bishops with the Pope and the Curia or Vatican administrative community. The previous Council occurred in 1870, when the doctrine of Papal Infallibility was voted upon and declared an article of Church belief. My primary source is Xavier Rynne’s condensed one volume account, updated in 1999.
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.
For the next several Mondays and Saturdays I will take you on a walk through the actual floor proceedings of Vatican II. October 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the final session of Vatican II. Xavier Rynne’s history is my primary source though I am interjecting others as well.
Even the most avowed atheist is familiar with the significance of the white smoke/black smoke that emanates from the exhaust of the Sistine Chapel at the moment of election of a new pope. However, in the days leading up to the opening of the Council Vatican II in 1962, Pope John XXIII was more concerned about tobacco smoke. A half century ago many if not most of the clergy were Marlboro Men, and the 2500 bishops soon to gather in session were no exception. The pope considered the problem, according to the ubiquitous Xavier Rynne, and established what we would call today an ecclesiastical Starbuck’s—two, actually—in a sacristy and an interior vestibule. The two facilities came to be known as Bar Jonah and Bar Rabbas, (yes, those are plays on words) where bishops, curia and periti could obtain coffee, snacks, bathroom facilities, and of course cigarettes. As John resignedly remarked, “If we don’t let them smoke somewhere, they’ll be hiding their cigarettes under their miters.”
John had more serious problems troubling him. He was well aware that the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, was seriously opposed to the idea of a council. When the pope announced his conciliar plan to eighteen cardinals at a private Mass on January 25, 1959, they sat mute. When he asked for their thoughts, they sat in stony silence. Opposition of the Roman bureaucracy to a sitting pope is rather common in modern history. Pius XII’s directives on reform of the Liturgy were not well received. When Pius X set the age of First Communion at seven in 1910, there was nearly in-house revolt. The Cardinals who listened to John XXIII’s plans for a council were sage enough to realize that one of the reforms of such a council would indeed be a reform of the Curia itself. That this would be a challenge is indicated by the fact that the College of Cardinals who elected Pope Francis in 2013, fifty-some years later, signaled a call for a reform of the Curia, which Francis is laboriously undertaking as of this writing.
The Curia, then and today, is not an evil empire. As a rule its members see their vocation as protecting the “Tradition” of the Church, or its official understanding of God’s will as prescribed by Sacred Scripture. Xavier Rynne’s description of the 1960 Curia underscored two of its major problems. First, its style of governance and absence of mechanisms of appeal—acting in the name of the pope when this was not always the case—was building up a strong resentment among many bishops, religious orders, and theological institutions. Secondly, the Curia depended upon formulations of theological principles from centuries earlier that were sorely out of date. This was particularly true in Sacred Scripture, where some speakers on the Council floor argued for a literal fundamental interpretation of the Bible, much to the dismay of more educated Churchmen like Cardinal Albert Meyer, Archbishop of Chicago, a former scholar and seminary rector.
In truth, one of Pope John’s greatest hopes of the Council was the restoration of the teaching and governing authority of the world’s body of bishops, individually and as a body in communion with their supreme leader, the Bishop of Rome. Put another way, John understood that the centralization of governing apparatus in the Vatican stood at odds with the Scriptural and historical role of bishops. It is a fact that when a papal election takes place, the white smoke indicates that the Church fathers have elected a Bishop of Rome. There is no fourth tier of Holy Orders beyond deacon, priest and bishop. The pope’s authority is derived from his installation as successor of Peter, first bishop of the Mother See Rome, Mother of the Church, if you will. John understood this well (hence the Synod of the Diocese of Rome prior to the Council) and with the challenge of a global, universal Church he wished his bishops to enjoy freedom of judgment in the exercise of their ministries in Asia, Africa, the Americas. Implied in this vision is the principle of subsidiarity: that problems be solved at the lowest level of authority necessary.
Such a vision of the episcopacy and its implications were new but not necessarily unwelcomed by bishops in the United States, for example, such ideas were already actively promoted elsewhere, but to the Curia the idea of a stronger episcopacy ran numerous risks, ranging from local heresy to full-blown efforts of the bishops to usurp the supreme authority of the Successor or Peter. It is impossible, of course, to ignore the entrenched inertia of a long-standing bureaucracy, many of whose members were now working through their third or fourth papacy. One might ask, of course, if the pope wished for a renewed governance model, why didn’t he just mandate it?
The main reason, I believe, is that such an arbitrary move—certainly within his competence—would be contrary to the very model he was promoting. The pope sincerely wished to see all bishops participate to the fullest, to gain the wisdom of their insights, to assist them in working in national or regional groups. Perhaps he understood at some level that the world’s bishops needed to reclaim their rightful authority in the crucible of battle. Thus, fighting his own instincts, he was reticent in the planning stages to a point. In retrospect, he probably made two tactical errors. First, he underestimated the extreme depth of resistance of his in-house staff to any semblance of change. Secondly, he maintained the existing bureaucracy in positions of writing the talking points, and later, in floor management of the Council itself. As we will see, this arrangement would lead to acrimonious exchanges in nearly every issue discussed.
Strange as it may seem, no one knew exactly how long the Council would last. For obvious reasons the Curia hoped for a quick, one session, three month meeting. Ironically, Pope John also envisioned a brief council, colored by fears of his own age (82 in 1962) and worsening health. I see nothing so far from Rynne indicating that anyone was thinking four sessions over four years. However, when the very first schema or talking point, on the Liturgy, lasted till mid-November, it became evident that many cigarettes would be smoked at the Bar Jonah.
I am sorry for the very late entry today. After I finished my four mile walk this AM I took up my saw and worked ferociously to break up the remnants of a very large tree limb that fell in our yard, so that it could be moved from the back yard to the curb for yard refuse day. Projects like this don’t come up very often…or we could also say that I don’t go searching them out, either. I was using an old hand saw that last saw action on Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864. By the time I finished in the heat, I had probably broken a lot of rules about dehydration and electrolytes, but I will say that Coke Zero in sufficient quantities does seem to make standing a possibility again.
This afternoon I knocked off a list of errands which included getting fitted for new eye glasses. I was blaming the rigors of typing the blog everyday for wearing out my eyesight, but the optometrist at Costco looked up my records and I had not had a new pair of glasses since 2010. I emphasized that I really wanted glasses to help me read better, so in seven to ten days I will find out if this prescription will do that. The pricing of glasses always makes me laugh: I picked out a $59 pair, but after you throw in the cost of progressives, hardening, solar ray protection, and a few other enhancements, the actual cost is five or six times the base price. Which reminds me, another task on my list today was buying ink cartridges for my wife’s printer. You can buy a decent printer for under $100, but a pack of extra-large cartridges costs close to that, and how many times in the life of the printer will you have to do that?
My final stop was at the neighborhood grocery store, and I stopped at the free blood pressure machine. Hmmm. The last time I saw a pressure that low was the night the Jimmy Smits character died on NYPD Blue. The mechanical girl’s voice in the machine was ecstatic at how good the numbers were—and balloons floated across the TV monitor. I thought maybe they had confused me for a rhino sleeping in the sun. Who am I to argue with a public store monitor? I know that after a few more Coke Zeros when I got home I felt strong enough to hike up to the loft and get something on the terminal here.
I have a theory about blog sites: the successful ones I have seen are always alive. In some ways blogs are like radios. When I was a kid I always knew that the Buffalo Bisons baseball team would be on the radio every day or night from April to September, and even if the team was losing 18-2 in the sixth inning, the announcers would tell funny stories from the old days or read baseball news on the ticker, and I never felt alone. Strange thing is, in this age of thousands of cable TV stations, I don’t feel anywhere near the connectedness I did (and sometimes still do) with radio.
I have come to accept that every day is not going to be steak on this site, at any rate. One of the hardest days to write the blog, by the way, is Monday, because frankly it is hard to write about liturgy. This week I am subscribing to Worship Magazine in the hope it will provide us with some cutting edge food for thought, and I also added Jurist to the blog’s resources, Catholic University’s biannual publication on Catholic Church Law. Jurist will be particular fascinating in its analysis of the Synod on the Family.
That said, I am going to cut short our entry for today and after supper return to Xavier Rynne’s classic on Vatican II, which I believe will create an interesting series of entries in the weeks to come. Right now I feel like another Coke Zero.
I received a question last week about infant baptism and the difficulties involved when parents are not practicing the faith. In my pastoral experience inquiries of this nature would come from the grandparents, most often practicing Catholics, who are deeply concerned about the destiny of an infant grandchild when the natural parents are not practicing the faith. Another scenario is the presentation of a child for sacraments of initiation when the family has no intent to follow through, but this is a slightly different problem that deserves my full day’s attention and I will talk about this next Monday.
The problem here today is the “third party involvement,” that is, the grandparents (generally speaking) and the possibilities and limits of their good faith in seeking baptism for a grandchild. Let me begin with a civil law observation: unless third parties are legally recognized as guardians of a child, in loco parentis as they say, no church minister can perform a sacrament without the consent of the legal parents. A secret baptism without parental knowledge) is fraught with civil dangers, among other things, for both the agents seeking the baptism and the cleric or other person performing the act. A court may subpoena sacramental records. An early episode of Law and Order involved a psychiatrist’s report to a Church Tribunal regarding the mental state of an applicant. And yes, I have heard those stories, too, about babies baptized at a home in the sink under the advice of a church minister, but please familiarize yourselves with present day family law (civil), which varies from state to state.
From the pastoral vantage point, what is a pastor or other minister to do when the situation presents itself? The first thing I would do is get something of a family history. If you are approached by a relative, remember that in all possibility this matter was discussed (with varying degrees of intensity) within the family before it came to you; it is worth your while to find out, if you can, why the parents have chosen not to do this. Once in a while a general question about the grandparents’ concern will elicit information about the baby’s household, such as heroin or other substance use, neglect, illness of a caregiver, extreme poverty, or genuine physical harm. You may have a situation where you have a duty to report to protective services the conditions of the home of the child. In other circumstances, the child’s parents may have significant needs that you can address through your parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society—a very concrete way to restore broken relations between the Church and an adult couple or single parent where tension has existed for whatever reason. I need to add here that Canon Law Codes 864-871 on this subject need reworking, especially 868.
One major obstacle that probably causes reluctance in parents seeking infant baptism is their own status. Can Catholic parents in irregular marriage situations or, say, single mothers, seek infant baptism for their child? There is no expressed prohibition; what I see in some church bulletins is an offer to assist with an annulment and the “convalidation” or sacramentalizing of the marriage included in the parish’s baptismal guidelines—and I tip my hat to those parishes. Such couples are demonstrating a concrete willingness to participate in the full life of the church. I have seen ceremonies where the baptism of a child and the blessing/sacramentalizing of the parents’ marriage are performed at the same time as one unified event, a satisfactory procedure all things being equal.
Most situations are not quite so involved; it is more along the lines of personal tensions between a parent or parents of adult children and the children themselves. The religious question is often a sidebar to unresolved family issues; the adult child may resent the parents’ trying to “tell me what to do.” I might recommend some counseling or advice to grandparents on how to find a healthy balance. Within such third party assistance, it might even be possible to negotiate some kind of an arrangement whereby the grandparents would assume the faith formation of the grandchild, promising to take the child to Sunday Eucharist and religious formation, as well as assuming the parental catechetical role. Whether all individual pastors would approve of such an arrangement is hard to say, but it does seem to me to meet the standards of Canon Law Codes 872-874. If a priest or parish refuses a reasonable request, a Catholic is free to consult another local parish community.
The tension surrounding infant baptism is the fear of many that if an infant should die before baptism, he or she would be consigned to Limbo or denied the joy of heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in one of its finest moments, addresses this fear in para. 1261. Interestingly, the same paragraph states with considerable force that undue impediments should not be placed in the road for infants and children receiving baptism. Over the past half-century following Vatican II there has been a prolonged controversy about sacramental discipline. On the one side is the liturgical belief that sacraments must mesh with the present day disposition of the person receiving the sacrament. Thus, many parishes have strict policies about admission to certain sacraments—e.g., parents of infants must be practicing the faith before their child will be baptized—the idea being that there needs to be an inherent honesty in sacramental discipline. Without a realized faith, the pouring of baptismal water is a form of Christian magic.
On the other hand is the school of thought that no opportunity for evangelization should be overlooked, particularly in times of sacramental celebration. This attitude looks upon sacraments as the first step in a long process of Christian living, and does not demand perfection at the starting line. This is a bit of a caricature, of course. The truth lies in the middle: we celebrate sacraments without hypocrisy as much as possible, but our chronic sinfulness, weakness and ignorance is what makes sacraments necessary in the first place. Don’t be scandalized that different priests may vary in their judgments of “where the middle is.” I’ve been there.
I took the day off yesterday from the blog for a number of unspectacular reasons. The highlight of the day was a trip to McDonald’s in midafternoon for its signature one-dollar smoothie ice cream cone. This is something of a retirement ritual for us, though we usually do it on Thursdays or “date days.” But our calendar is still out of synch after being on the road so long that this was our first McDonald’s run in a long time. I think I saw McDonald’s in Ireland, but in honesty I was looking for quaint pubs and eateries most of the time. Even here in the states McDonald’s is not a place I care to eat a regular meal; there is too much distraction behind the counter, for one thing. McDonald’s never caught on to the simple architectural step of building a wall between their industrial kitchens and the eating space, a la Panera’s.
McDonald’s, it seems, is having a hard time maintaining a place in the present culture. (I guess the same could be said about the Catholic Church, for that matter.) I observe the dynamics on my weekly ice cream visit. It is no secret that the company has worked to improve its menu toward the healthy side. There are more meal-sized salads, to be sure, but they sit alongside the multi-patty, bacon and cheese classics that have made cardiologists rich men. The coffee is recently better, relatively speaking. Once the worst on fast-food row, it has moved up to undistinguished, good enough to hold the seniors who make a day out of their visits. But in my state there is much better coffee in a variety of flavors in 7-11, WaWa’s, and surprisingly Racetrac. (I stopped there last week on the road for a 24-oz. hazelnut; even with the tachycardia it was still a grand experience.) McDonald’s has always been noncommittal on desserts, and the size and quality make that evident; I tried the little Bundt cakes introduced earlier this year to see if McDonald had captured some of the Panera lightning, and it had not.
McDonald’s does have a curious social scene. It is still a hotspot for kids, from the little tots to the high schoolers, though I’ve never seen anyone of that age cohort purchase an Asian chicken salad. They eat the same stuff that made McDonald’s famous forty years ago. Clusters of seniors visit in the mornings. I guess most of the stores now have Wi-Fi, though on a busy day it is hard to find a clean place to set your laptop. If you go in the slow early afternoon hours as we often do, you might catch a management meeting with the staff in the dining room where you can strain to hear what the corporate suits are thinking about on a given day. The thing I really don’t get about McDonald’s is drive-through. Yesterday the building was entirely circled by cars in line, allowing me to park at the door, eat, and back out in the time an order was filled at drive-through.
Now whether McDonald’s has a future is uncertain; it may well outlive me. It serves in some ways as America’s parks: a place to hang out with friends but with food service, where the little kids can swing after picking at a Big Mac junior and the older ones check their social networks. It is more predictable than food trucks. Retired folks enjoying coffee on the patio can always move back indoors if it rains.
So what does all of this have to do with our Monday theme of Liturgy? Well, I looked at my blank terminal at 7:30 AM and said to myself, what is there really to add about sacramental life, particularly the Mass, in a blog entry? Years ago, in the generation proceeding Vatican II, liturgy was a vibrant subject of discussion and academic pursuit. There was a lot of church shopping, so to speak, for parishes with good music, compelling preaching, conducive environment, social outreach, and the like. The same was true of priests: people used to seek out confessors and counselors for reputations of compassion and inclusion. One day a savvy layman in my diocese told me that the parish I was pastoring was known in the diocese as a refugium peccatorum, or “refuge for sinners.” There was something to that: I began to notice that many lesbians, not presently registered in the parish, were seeking appointments with me, to a point where I had several such meetings a week. (The term “social networking” was still a ways away.) They all asked, in the context of their life stories, one basic thing; it was of the highest importance that a pastor kindly tell them they were welcomed to worship and were still part of the Catholic Church of their youth.
Today the landscape of sacramental life is so different, at least from the vantage point of how we do business. We talk of the “New Evangelization,” and I must commend my own parish priests who never fail to welcome newcomers and seekers at every Sunday Mass. But despite their local efforts, Church policy as a whole seems devoting more time to delineating who can and who can’t participate in the sacraments. Look at your Sunday missalette or worship aid with its full page description of who may and may not receive communion. Look closely at the diocesan or parish premarital guidelines and note the checklist of reservation. Read the national press about Catholic employees who have been fired because they are gay. Consider the number of seminarian applicants who have been refused entry to priestly study because of honest philosophical differences over specific matters of teachings, such as the use of oral contraceptives.
Each of these issues is complex, of course, but when seen in totality there is the vision of exclusion clouding the sun of successful evangelization of baptized Catholics and those who see us from afar. Corporately we look like McDonald’s: we want to promote a healthier dietary fare but we want to hold on to the 1100 oz. milkshakes, too.
And so parishes and the Sunday liturgies will no doubt live on, though not everywhere, like McDonald’s, the village watering hole that meets many needs but will never attract those in search of a round-the-clock balanced diet.