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The Council begins

Fifty years ago today the Second Vatican Council began with a solemn ceremony in St. Peters Basilica. It had rained through most of the night before, threatening to wash out the procession through the Square. But the skies cleared into the brilliant Roman blue and things could proceed as planned.Students at the North American College had begun the week on retreat, given by Bishop John Wright. But the retreat was interrupted so that we could attend the opening of the Council. St. Peters Square was cordoned off, and despite our best efforts we were unable to get to good sites from which to watch the procession. Then we noticed that bishops, when they approached a guard, were granted immediate entrance: Avanti, Monsignore! And we also noticed that when bishops were accompanied by priest-chaplains, all of them got in. So we waited until we saw a bishop come who had no chaplains with him, and two of us placed ourselves right behind him, and we were all admitted: Avanti, Monsignore! So it was from the steps of St. Peters that I watched the opening procession of 2,400 bishops across the piazza and into the basilica, a most impressive sight!The most important moment occurred inside, of course, when after the Solemn High Mass, Pope John XXIII delivered his opening speech in which he set out his vision of the Council. Some of the highlights:

1. The popes repudiation of the prophets of doom who can see nothing but prevarication and ruin in modern times, who think things are getting worse and worse, who speak as if the end of the world is at hand. He is here describing an attitude that has been called Catholic catastrophism, which was very common in many RC circles over the previous century and a half, when various revolutions diminished the control the Church had over vast areas of human life. Such people, he said, tend to idealize the past as if it were always favorable to the Church and to ignore the restrictions on the Churchs freedom that came along with the support of the temporal authorities. Pope John asked the Council to consider whether humanity might not be entering a new order of things, under divine providence.2. He said that the chief aim of the Council was the defense and presentation of the revealed deposit of faith. This would require that the Church never turn her eyes from the sacred heritage of truth which she has received from those who went before; and at the same time she must also look at the present times which have introduced new conditions and new forms of life, and have opened new avenues for the Catholic apostolate. Notice the two-fold task, to be undertaken simultaneously, that the Council at once be faithful to the heritage of truth and be alert to the contemporary world. I imagine the pope as saying that the Council has to do what a good preacher has to do: preach the Gospel and know your congregation! Our task, he says later, is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with an antiquity; eagerly and without fear, we must devote ourselves to the task our age demands, pursuing the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries.3. He did not want the Council simply to repeat what everyone already knew. He wanted a new and deeper comprehension of the faith and he wanted the ancient faith presented in a manner intelligible to contemporaries: The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the formulation in which it is clothed is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great account, with patience if necessary, measuring everything by the forms and proportions of a teaching authority primarily pastoral in character." That the Council should be pastoral and not dogmatic was an extremely important guideline for the bishops to follow.4. He did not want the Council to issue a set of condemnations to combat errors, which, he said, often vanish as quickly as mist after sunrise. The Church had often been severe against errors in the past, and he acknowledged that there were errors to combat today. But at the present time, he said, the spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity; and, she thinks she meets today's needs by explaining the validity of her doctrine more fully rather than by condemning.If one knows the kinds of texts that were prepared for the Council, particularly by the preparatory Theological Commission, it is obvious that by these four points Pope John was distancing himself from that material and giving the bishops the authority of his own voice should they also find those texts inadequate to the challenges facing the Church. And when bishops were to declare their dissatisfaction with the prepared material, they would often invoke Pope Johns description of the aims and methods of the Council.For these reasons I think Pope Johns opening speech was certainly the most important of all the papal speeches given at Vatican II, and I would even argue that it was the most important speech of the four sessions of the Council.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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So, after 50 years, has the Church remained primarily pastoral in her orthopraxy, or has she once again lurched back to a strict juridical enforcement of the faith?

Those prophets of doom are today's bishops. like Wuerl who, although they play lip service to V2, they are disparaging of it.

These first two comments certainly sound like the moans of latter-day "prophets of doom"!

"The Spirit of the Council' ? 'Spirit and Enfleshment of the Spirit" go together in a space/time universe, do they not? Do note the analysis and reflections of canon lawyer Mary McAleese (former president of Ireland) in her "Quo Vadis?:Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law" (The Columba Press, Dublin, 2012). Where are you going, Lord? , Peter asks. Why to Rome - to be crucified again. So helpful President McAleese.

JAK --Holy hope doesn't mean ignoring facts. After the Council seemed to open up the Church to greater exercise of collegiality by the bishops, that hope seems to have been squelched by JP II. No, the Church is not dead, but it's in bad shape. You do it no favor by ignoring the fact. I think Pope John would be quite disapointed in what has happened, or, rather, what has not happened.

Ann: I'd be interested in knowing which fact you think I'm ignoring in my comment above, and why, on the basis of that simple comment, you think I am ignoring it.

So we waited until we saw a bishop come who had no chaplains with him, and two of us placed ourselves right behind him, and we were all admittedWell! Doesn't that indicate a deplorable lack of proper respect for the rules?

JAK --When Pope John used the phrase "prophets of doom" he was being sarcastic . He meant that the pessimists' outlook on the Church was not justified by the facts within the Church. By using the phrase you seem to want to mean what John meant when he used it (isn't that why you used quote marks?), but I say you are not justified in using it as John did. The facts in the Church in John's day were actually positive, while today they are terribly negative. The Church is in dreadful shape, and to make fun of its critics by calling them prophets of doom with the sense Pope John gave it is hardly justified. Sure, the Holy Spirit can work miracles, but that is what it will take for the Barque of Peter too stop its journey downward. So far the miracles are not in evidence.

As Jimmy Mac has reminded us in past threads, beware of the guys running the engine room. The Barque of Peter is in bad --- and I mean, bad --- shape. Last time it was in homeport, I got off!!! The old barque needs to go in drydock.

Pope John was not being sarcastic in using the term "prophets of doom"; that is an accurate description of people he said could see nothing around them but prevarication and ruin, who were always saying, "Things are getting worse and worse," as if the end of the world were near. I was using it to apply to people who seem to see nothing but decline in the Church today. For a counter-description, you might read Rowan Williams' assessment of the Church today. He actually thinks there are some signs that Christ and his Spirit have not abandoned the Church, another recurrent theme of Pope John's.

Yesterday, it appears that the procession looked mostly green and white: green vestments, white episcopal miters. I am under the impression that fifty years ago the procession looked mostly red and golden. Is that right, or else, what color was it?

JAK --Yes, no doubt the complainers were terrible pessimists. But surely Pope John didn't think that they were real prophets. How could they be prophets when they were wrong? On the contrary. I conclude that his phrase wasn't intended literally, it was meant sarcastically. Larry and Bill M. above are being quite negative == but they are clearly justified in being so, unlike the "prophets of doom" Pope John spoke of. So there is no parallel between Larry and Bill and those doomsayers in 1962. The Church now IS in horrible shape. Calling critics names won't help.

Claire --Here is some footage of Pope John's entry into the Basilica at the beginning of the Council. that the popes' entrances into St, Peter's are no longer so full of pomp. At least that has changed a bit for the better. (And don't some of those Fathers look positively sinister??? :-) I think you'd enjoy the Conciliaria blog.

Ann,When were you last present at the pope's entrance -- anywhere? The chair is gone, but the pomp is not. He is ushered into every celebration with more fainfare than you could imagine. It is ALL about HIM -- the Vicar of Christ on Earth.This is a scandal.And heretical. As is the business of addressing him as Holy Father, which is what Christians rightly and reverently call the First Person of the Holy Trinity. Just listen to the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which spills the beans.(I await the father-theologian minders of this blog to correct and chastise me.)

Mr. Mickens --Does the Pope's entourage still include those bearers of those huge sort of fans that tower over everything? (They always looked like they were made of feathers to me.) I don't even know what their symbolism was supposed to be. They looked more appropriate to the court of an eastern potentate.Did you look at the footage of the beginning of the Council? At the end a cleric kisses the foot of a statue garbed in the most ornate sorts of robes. Was the statue supposed to be St. Peter? It reminded me of the Isak Dinesen story of the pilgrim who goes to St. Peter's and kisses the foot of St. Peter's statue and catches leprosy or something. Yep, it's all highly unsavory.

Ann: The parallel consists in that the doom-sayers, then as now, see nothing but "prevarication and ruin," that is, nothing good going on, in part, I think, because they don't look for it but are obsessed with faults among hierarchs as if the activities of the latter are the only measure of whether the Church is alive or not. To repeat the suggestion, read Abp. Williams' speech to the Synod.And it surely shouldn't be necessary to say that just because one doesn't think it's all gloom and doom in the Church one must think that all is sweetness and light. Or are we perpetually doomed to this either-or silliness? Didn't you use to sigh over "Complexity! Complexity!" Why can't you see any when you look at the Church?As I said above, Pope John called those people "prophets of doom" because they were prophesying ruin. "Everything is getting worse and worse." (They remind me of my first pastor: "Oh, Father, I'm glad I won't live to see that happen.")

Ann: thanks. I think that it was black and white and has been partially colorized. I can't tell the color of the vestments, though.Robert: I'm sorry you still have to bear with the new missal. Since I started attending Mass in French a few months ago, I am distinctly happier and more upbeat about the church. Life as a Christian is much easier now that I am not subjected each week to the tension of praying in words from a bad text that was designed by an abusive process.

JAK --The relationship between the critics and the state of the Church as whole was far from the same as that between the critics now and the state of the Church now. The Church in 1962, though creaking with much outmoded stuff, included great signs of hope for reform (e.g., of the liturgy and lay action as in Catholic Action movements). At that time there was no sex scandal. Dozens and dozens of bishops had not been guilty of the sort of coverups so many bishops were later found to be guildty of. True, some of those old bishops probably did the same sort of enabling, but it doesn't seem to have been so widespread, and it is certain that there was (not yet anyway) a scandal about it. In other words, at the time of Vatican II the Catholic bishops still had an earned status in society. But since the scandal they have lost it. Sure, some of them are trying to right matters, but not nearly hard enough.This is not to deny that there has always been good done in large segments of the Church. But it is hemorraghing membership. That surely is a tragic sign of the state of the Church now. Stop being a Pollyanna!

Ann: On another thread, someone named Ann Olivier wrote: "As I was taught, Christ lives in us, and when we act out of true charity we reveal Him. So all of saints and all the not so saintly who also sometimes do good all reveal different aspects of Jesus life." Which I thought was a very good comment, the sort of thing that needs to be taken into account when assessing the present state of the Church rather than being obsessed simply with what hierarchs are or are not doing. But, then, I have a far more concrete notion of the Church than many people. I try to remain aware, for example, that 99.9% of the Church are lay people and that whether the Church is alive or moribund actually depends on whether they are or are not "revealing different aspects of Jesus' life." I think that many of them are "acting out of true charity," and, although I know you will find this difficult to believe, there are even some vowed religious, some deacons, some priests, some bishops, and even (Be still my heart!) a pope who "sometimes do good." It is not Pollyannish to ask that they and their lives be taken into account before indulging in prophecies of doom.

The Church in 1962 [...]. At that time there was no sex scandal. Dozens and dozens of bishops had not been guilty of the sort of coverups so many bishops were later found to be guilty of. True, some of those old bishops probably did the same sort of enabling, but it doesnt seem to have been so widespreadAnn, call me a cynic, but I don't believe that for a minute. Coverups happened as a matter of course. People did not talk about clerical misbehavior, just like they did not talk about incest in families or other shameful things, and the people in a position of power were more able to prevent leaks about their crimes, and it is possible that the well-being of children was less of a priority. Sex was more of a taboo, but since when have social taboos stopped pedophiles? If anything, my guess would be that there was more sexual abuse (and coverups) in the past, not less. What is new now is that respect for status no longer mutes disgust for abuse, and that information flows much more freely. Both of those changes are for the better. Exposing crime is good, and it is something for which the church can be grateful to modern times. Regarding clerical sexual abuse and coverups, I am convinced that the church is now in much better shape than, say, in 1962.

Claire --The John Jay report about the scandal didn't establish whether or not such crimes were as common before the 60's -- too many variables that can't be measured now. But even if such crimes and cover-ups were as common, the faithful didn't *know* they were, so the hierarchy retained the good opinion of the people in the pews. But that has changed. Yes, most bishops seem to be trying to set things right, but some of us think that they still don't understand how their own hierarchical culture was a large part of the problem, so they have not really changed that culture enough. For instance, it still seems to be an iron-clad rule among them that they are not supposed to criticize each others' judgements in public. For instance, even when Cardinal Rigali was acting at a snail's pace to correct the Philadelphia cess pool, not one bishop complained pubicly about the fact in order to try to pressure him to change. (My own bishop was the only American one who even mentioned Philadelphia as a problem by name -- and he didn't mention the Cardinal Rigali's name.) This comes across as silent approval of those who are still dragging their feet.

Ann, it seems to me that one problem may be the following.What do priests do? They help turn people towards Christ. How? By saying or doing the right thing at the right time, when people are open and ready to take it in. But the sexual abuse scandal damages the reputation not only of the abusers but also of the entire priesthood. All the news articles in the media cause priests to be viewed with suspicion, and people are on their guard; hostile, even. It makes the priests' job almost impossible. So what's a bishop to do? Most of them, one hopes, have learned that abusers must be put out of the way of doing harm. But, to avoid further damage to the reputation of the clergy, they try to deal with them as quietly as possible. They believe that it is for the best. Now. I have mentioned that I was involved in an incident of inappropriate behavior by a priest. What did I do then? I filed a report, not with the police, but only with his hierarchical superior (who promptly sent him into retirement.) Why did I not inform the police? Partly because in France we don't like to go to the police for mere misdemeanors, but also because I knew a couple of people who had been evangelized by that priest: formerly lapsed Catholics who returned to the church specifically because of him. I did not want to spread the bad news and cause them to rethink their return. Perhaps that was foolish on my part, and I should have been more trusting, but I was afraid of the consequences of speaking up. Given that the man was safely away in a retirement home, why stir things up? When looking at such situations from the outside, it's easy to say that one ought to speak up. But when I'm the one who has to decide whether to speak up, the responsibility makes me pause. Without a clear reason to go to the police, I was reluctant to do so. So I didn't. So why should a bishop speak up to publicly criticize another bishop? It is quite possible that they act behind the scenes: talk to them to put pressure on them, write to the nuncio or to Rome. But what good is done by their speaking up and feeding the media more news related to the sexual abuse scandal? How does that have a moral value? Without a clear reason to speak up publicly, they are reluctant to do so. So they don't. Then there is your own role. You've mentioned that you taught some seminarians who later turned out to commit sexual abuse of youth. Had your radar been up, had you watched them closely, had you been attuned to those problems, perhaps you could have noticed that something was off. Perhaps you should have, instead of being oblivious. I don't know. But it would make it difficult for you to cast blame on the silent priests who were around abusers and who claim that they did not see anything. Don't get me wrong: I am a big advocate of transparency. But should I have gone to the police? Should a bishop tell the mainstream media that Bp Finn must resign? Should you have watched your seminarians more closely and reported any and all dubious behavior? It's not such a slam dunk, and the apparent inaction does not necessarily mean that I, or they, or you, buy into the hierarchical culture. Now I will hold my breath, hit "submit", and see if a storm of criticism hits me back.

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