In his introduction to the fourth and final session of Vatican II, Xavier Rynne provides something of the state of the union regarding the impact and expectations of the Council. By the fall of 1965 several truths were coming into clearer focus, and maybe the best phrase to describe them all is “tiger by the tail.” The Council had taken the Church to a place beyond where its supporters had hoped and its opponents feared. As a result of both the documents themselves-- and particularly the interworking of the men who approved them—the Council was not an administrative or liturgical updating, but a change in the way that Catholics thought about themselves, or in the words or an English abbot, “a fundamental reappraisal of Catholicism.”
Given the nature of this brave new world, it became very clear to the bishops and observers that the necessary formal work to keep up with heightened expectations could never be accomplished in one more three-month session, and by 1965 it was clear that there would be only one more session of the Council. Looking back a half-century, today’s reader may well ask, “Well, why not extend it a decade and settle everything that needed to be settled?” Rynne anticipated this question five decades ago and explains why an open-ended Council was not a real option.
In the first place, the Council declarations on collegiality and the authority of the college of bishops had set the framework for a regular, on-going structure to continue the post-conciliar renewal, specifically the restoration of the ancient practice of synods. These would be periodic working meetings chaired by the pope and attended by an invited or elected representation of the world’s bishops. On paper, the functioning of synods held promise—and in fact synods have been a part of our church life through the present day. Pope Francis’ Synod on the Family (2014 and 2015) and Pope John Paul II’s 1985 Synod—where the writing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was first commissioned—are just two examples in recent memory.
However, the possibility of a post-Council body of synods putting flesh on the bones of Vatican II’s inspirations was remote. The strongest supporters of Vatican II were diocesan bishops, and definitely not the Curia. But it would be the Curia—in concert with the pope—that would select matters for discussion and control the invitation list for these future synods. There were not enough prescient voices, and voices with clout, to raise the obvious: if the Curia had successfully floor-managed a once-in-a-century meeting of the world’s bishops with adroit insider administrative vigor, thwarting the wishes of large majorities, managing future smaller synods of bishops would obviously be quite easy.
Moreover, the bishops had come to appreciate that Vatican II, in its operational structure, was not really a “debate.” A typical work day was a series of speeches, with floor time requested several days in advance. Bishops did not talk to each other but delivered ten minute speeches—in Latin, no less. Little wonder Cardinal Cushing of Boston boycotted the second session. Equally troubling, little or no floor time was permitted Scripture scholars or other theological experts, nor to Christians of other faith traditions, nor to laity, and certainly none to women. Multiple historians attest to the report that the critical debates were undertaken nightly by the bishops in the recreation rooms of the many seminaries in Rome, and Father Andrew Greeley recalls these debates accompanied by “voluminous consumption of the creature.” By Session Four, it was painfully obvious that the floor mechanics of the Council would not be improved by adding more years to this archaic arrangement.
Another reason for ending the Council in 1965 was Paul VI himself. As Rynne observes, no pope since 1870 (Council Vatican I, which declared the doctrine of infallibility) had been subject to as much public criticism. The term often applied to him then (in a negative tilt) was “honest broker.” While it was obvious to observers that the Curia’s position of reforms was negative and intractable, Paul maintained the near Quixotic hope that he could reconcile all parties. What this meant in practice was that the Curia would continue its cease and desist tactics till the day when all the bishops went home and the store could be run properly again.
On top of everything else was the question of authority. The bishops had already approved with the pope a number of critical reforms, particularly in matters of liturgy. The pope himself strongly endorsed the concept that participants at Mass should be doers and not observers, but specific changes in sacramental rites were normally promulgated through the Curia, and no official texts were yet approved or in circulation. (In fairness, there had been very little time to do this work, given that the Council was still in progress.) Consequently, liturgical reforms—certainly in the United States—appeared in the grass roots, fueled by the news and teachings of the Council. In my memory, I recall innovation as early as 1964 in the seminary, though there was serious division among priests on my faculty about the legitimacy and the obedience of, say, offering Mass in English before a formal permission had come from Rome.
Paul VI, interestingly, was eager to implement liturgical change himself. He announced that he would offer Masses in Italian at churches throughout the Diocese of Rome during Lent. At the same time, Paul exhorted preachers to use pastoral sensitivity in their sermons about changes in the sacred liturgy and the religious habits of a lifetime. The irony, of course, is that the formalized approved Missal of the Roman Missal did not appear until five years later, meaning that a great deal of improvising was already underway.
I should add here that the new missal, released in 1970, had eliminated the washing of the priest’s hands during the offertory rite (the Lavabo.) My professor told me that Pope Paul, reviewing the proposed texts, wrote the washing ritual back into the draft with a blue pencil, and of course the hand washing is part of our present day ritual. One of the challenges of Session IV and of the Church in general is that by 1965 a lot of folks, from the pope to the CCD teacher, were carrying blue pencils in their ministerial tool boxes.