Vatican Council II: An Insider’s Diary

My Time at the Council Part 1 by Anthony, Massimini , Ph.D.

Announcing the Council

     In 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced to a meeting of cardinals in Rome that he wanted to call an ecumenical council, he was met with cool silence.  The cardinals, and later the Vatican Curia, the pope’s “cabinet,” saw no need for a council.  The Protestant Reformers had attacked the papacy and the sacraments and the Council of Trent in the 16th century had fortified the notion of sacraments, and of the monarchical papacy and the central church institution.  In 1870, at the First Vatican Council, the church had defined the infallibility of the pope.  To the Vatican insiders, all possible questions had been settled.  The pope was infallible, and in various ways they had begun to spread the pope’s infallibility to include themselves.

Turmoil in Rome

   But in Rome, the years immediately before the council were tumultuous.  Throughout the 19th century, especially because the French Revolution and the Enlightenment had attacked and even ridiculed the faith and said that reason alone would save the world, various popes had condemned democracy, freedom of the press, the separation of church and state, religious freedom, and the modern world in general.  The Curia had suppressed just about every theologian who was trying to bring the church into the 20th century.  Catholic Scripture scholars were still teaching that stories like the six days of creation were literally true.

   In 1948, Pope Pius XII wrote an encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, that permitted the Scripture scholars to use modern methods to understand the Bible.  At the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, the Jesuit scholars began to teach this new understanding.  But in 1958, when Pius XII died, and Pope John XXIII was elected, the Curia fired the two leading Jesuit scholars.

Learning Teilhard de Chardin’s Views in Secret

   In 1962, I was studying for my Doctor’s degree in Spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University, across the street from the Biblical Institute.  In those days, our professors lectured in Latin and we spoke to them in Latin.  One day a professor began teaching us a new spirituality that began with the first flaring forth of the universe, and then continued through the evolution of the universe to the birth of the earth and life on earth and then to the rise of humans, the birth of the mind and our evolutionary progress toward an Omega point of love.  He spoke very fast and I could not keep up with him as I tried to take notes.  I asked a Jesuit in the class to ask him to give us notes and reading material. He went and asked him privately.  But the professor refused, saying he was afraid somebody would take his notes to the Vatican, and the Curia would fire him, as they had fired the Scripture scholars. It was not approved in those days to even mention the name of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit scientist and mystic.

John XXIII’s Personal Turmoil

  Later in 1962, just before Vatican II began, our Archbishop from Philadelphia, John Krol, came to Rome to see the pope.  Before he went to the Vatican, he came to the graduate house of the North American College*, on Humility Street, one block from the Trevi fountain, where we lived, and picked up my Philadelphia classmate,  Fr. Bill Leahy.  Together they went to the Vatican, and met the pope in his private study.  (During a prior visit to Rome, Krol had taken me with him to see the pope.)

    *(In Latin, our country is called North America)

  Pope John, jolly and gracious as always, greeted Bill and asked him what he was studying. When Bill answered in Italian, “Sacred Scripture, Holy Father,” John instantly became upset, to the point where he almost started crying.  “Oh my!  What are they teaching you over there? [at the Pontifical Biblical Institute where the professors had been fired.]  What are they doing?  They took away Adam and Eve!  Now they’re taking away the Magi!  What are we going to teach the children?!”

   Bill was shocked into silence.  When he and Krol left, Krol said to him, “Did you hear what the Holy Father said?!  I don’t want you studying those things or teaching those things.”  Bill had no answer.  The Curia had not only fired the professors; they had also influenced the Pope against the Institute.  How could Bill not study what he was being taught?

  When he returned to the graduate house, he told me what had happened.  Then he mentioned what I was being taught in secret, and added, “We have to choose what side we’re going to be on.  Either we will learn what we’re being taught and teach it when we get home, or we will suppress everything we’re learning and do nothing.”  With palpable trepidation, we decided to move ahead with our studies.

The Council Begins

  Then, in October, 1962, Vatican II opened.  Fr. Bill Leahy and I were in St. Peter’s for the historic day: Bill as a secretary or scribe, who would record the Council fathers’ speeches, and I as an assistant to the Council fathers.  We were there to hear Pope John XXIII give his now famous speech.  It included: 

          In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen,  much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure.  In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin.  They say that our era, in comparison with the past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they have learned nothing from history, which is, nonetheless, the teacher of life.  They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea of life and for proper religious liberty. We feel we must disagree with these prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.

   He then went on to say that we must open the windows of the church and let the Spirit fly in.

    Bill and I remembered how the pope had been so upset, and how I was being taught in secret.  John had changed!  He was now opening windows and letting in fresh air!  It was all right for us to learn what we were being taught.  It was all right for us to return to Philadelphia with the good news of a new era for the church!  Or so we thought.

The Division Begins

   At the graduate house the mood was tense.  Because so many American bishops and theologians were alumni of the North American College, it was often referred to as the “West Point of the church.”  At the time of Vatican II, young priests at the graduate house included Now Bishop Tom Gumbleton, Now retired Cardinal Justin Rigali, (Phila.), Rev. Charles Curran (fired from Catholic U., now at S.M.U.), Dr. Anthony Padovano (author, married. Founder of CORPUS, for married priests), Dr. Daniel Maguire (fired from Catholic U., Married and now at Marquette), Now retired Bishop Richard Sklba (Milwaukee), Fr. Val Peter (retired Director, Boys & Girls Town, Nebraska), Peter Kearney, Scripture Scholar (married).

   When news of Pope John’s speech hit the priests on Humility Street, we all began to take sides.  The College felt like West Point at the start of the Civil War.

Resistance from the Curia

   The Vatican Curia did not want the council.  In the five volume history of Vatican II recently published, author Carlo Falconi writes a section on the various factions existing in the church in 1962.  

   He calls one faction, The Zealots, members of the Curia who believed that they were the “remnants of Israel,” i.e., the minority that was the trustee and interpreter of God’s will.  Their

agenda for the council consisted of these points:

–prevent any lessening of papal prerogatives

   –avoid a reform of the Curia itself

   –check any increase of the power of the bishops.  

   –be on guard against collegiality, which they saw as a attack on the authority of the Curia.  If the bishops had a share in church government, the pope would have to respect their input and therefore would no longer have real primacy over the whole church

   –resist any meddling by the laity

   –moderate and gradually apply reforms of any kind

   –zeal for the proper and precise formulation of doctrine, specifically its scholastic formulation [the abstract formulations of scholastic theology.] This opposed the desire of John XXIII for a council that would present doctrine pastorally, i.e., in a way the laity and the world at large could understand.

   –an “essentialism,” i.e., the predominance of abstract thinking.  [My addition: without considering everyday experience]

   –a deep appreciation of tradition [my addition: without considering the development and evolution of insight into our faith]

   –the definitive and final importance of the Magisterium [my addition: without considering the importance of theologians and the discernment of the laity in forming the Magisterium]

   –an ahistoric triumphalism that led them to maintain, “as a cardinal rule, the Curia never acknowledges faults, at least not publicly.”

   –an individualism that was seen in their defense of the private celebration of Mass       

   –extreme Papalism, i.e., an intransigent defense of the rights or intangible privileges of the Holy See, which in many cases were simply the rights and privileges of the Curia.

   When the council was in session, Fr. Bill Leahy was working at the Vatican, carrying out his duties as a scribe.  Some of the Curia members around him were talking without fear of who was listening, saying that when the Council Fathers went home, they, the Curia, were going to take back the church.

   If we want to know why the council has never been fully or effectively implemented, especially in its teachings on the full participation of the laity, the collegiality of the bishops, and a true updating of church teaching, with respect for the experience of the People of God, the Curia’s agenda gives the answer.  It also helps explain the regressive new translation of the Liturgy.  In a very important way, it really made no difference what the council was voting on.  Pope Paul VI, who succeeded John XXIII, wanted the largest positive vote possible on every document.  The Curia and their allies gave it to him, knowing that they were going to hold everything back.

   Pope John XXIII knew that this agenda was in jeopardy.  I believe that is why, on the opening day of the council, when he entered St. Peter’s, carried aloft on the sedia gestatoria, he was crying so hard that the tears were clearly running down his face. The leader of the Curia, and of his opposition, was Cardinal Ottaviani. Gary Wills wrote that when John gave his opening speech, he was looking directly at Ottaviani, as if to say, O. K. Now what are you going to about it.”  As I described above, he got his answer.

 Catching up to God in Today’s World

   Pope John XXIII is reported to have said that there is a difference between what we believe and how we say what we believe.  Our faith is transcendent.  When it enters into human form it can be expressed with a trustworthy degree of certainty, yet it can never be fully understood and expressed, be it in creeds, dogmas, psalms, hymns, literature, art, church architecture, liturgical formulas, etc.  

   John focused on the historical dimension.  St. Francis of Assisi was a “nature mystic,” he saw God’s presence and intentions in the sun and moon, birds and animals.  John XXIII was a “history mystic.”  He saw God’s presence and intentions in history.  In different times God is understood and expressed in different ways.  For example, the Old Testament expressions of God are different from the Gospels, which were further expressed in the philosophical expressions of the early councils, e.,g., “consubstantial.  St. Augustine used Platonic thinking as a “template” for the Gospel; St. Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle, which begot scholastic philosophy and theology.  Later, in reaction to the Reformation, the Council of Trent took a tone of “triumphalism,” saying that the Catholic Church had the truth and if anyone disagreed with its teachings, Anathema sit!, which is a fancy way of saying, “Let him go to hell!”

   In the 1960’s John wanted the faith expressed in terms of the new era that was dawning, with its new challenges and opportunities.  He wanted aggiornamento, i.e., he wanted the church to “catch up” to the modern world and meet its challenges and opportunities.  He wanted the church to re-envision and reform herself (the council did so, as the “People of God”), to find peace with the Protestants and Jews, and even people of other faiths and no faith, and enter into a healthy, spirit-filled, humble, listening-learning-teaching dialogue with the everyday world.

          … ‘The church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.  Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which people ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationships of one to the other.  We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics…..Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. ‘

                                                                            The Church in the Modern World, No. 4

Dr. Anthony Massimini, Ph.D.

Ordained for Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Rome, 1959

Attended first session of Vatican II, 1962 

Dispensed by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and returned to the laity

Married in a Catholic ceremony, 1972

Editor and Translator: Council Speeches, Third Session of  Vatican II, with William K. Leahy

Author:  The New Dance of Christ–Discovering Our Spiritual Self in a New,  Evolving WorldXlibris Publishers, 2000  

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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