After the pomp and ceremony of Vatican II’s opening, the more than 2,000 bishops settled down the next day to start the actual council. It is hard to believe, but it took only a quarter of an hour for signs to emerge that it was going to be a general council different from those of the previous thousand years.
These had been very much under papal and curial control in contrast to the councils of the first thousand years convoked generally by the Roman emperors and part of the Roman Eastern Empire. In this vein, Pope John XXIII had entrusted most of the preparation for the 70 documents to curial sources. The preparatory commissions were composed by curial members or nominees with a certain number of bishops from around the world including Archbishop Peter McKeefry from New Zealand.
However, there was still the firm tradition right from the Council of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles (which is not listed as a general council) that it needed a Council of the Apostles or their successors including Peter (or his successor) for an agreement to be accepted by the whole church.
Political histories of Vatican II have been written from at least two positions often in terms of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. We must try to respect the integrity of each bishop whether ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’.
The conservative side tended to be most of the curial cardinals and bishops together with seeming majorities among the Southern European bishops especially the Italians. They tended not to want any change to the Mass, sacraments or the present hierarchical and belief system.
They were not at first united although many were curial and had been studying the council documents beforehand.
Nothing should change
The leader of the Curial party was Cardinal Ottaviani, Head of the Holy Office which was the old Inquisition. He was a humble-born Italian from the Trastevere, the poorer part of Rome near the Vatican, whose motto bore the inscription Semper Idem (always the same) stating his belief that nothing should change unless a sudden danger arose.
The ‘Progressives’, too, were not really united but one suspects often met informally in small groups before the council. Like the conservatives they came from every continent, but their first strength tended to be from north-west European bishops – Germany, France, Holland, Belgium.
Openness in the centre
The vast majority of the bishops were in the centre and ultimately voted one way or another on the strength of the arguments put forward. Meanwhile they quickly expanded their basic seminary theological knowledge in the night classes given by the periti (experts) who tried to bring them up to date with modern advances in theology, moral theology, scripture and church history. No one really knew the strength of these categories at the beginning of the council.
On the first day of the council’s sitting, October 12, the bishops assembled after the daily Mass. Cardinal Tisserant, who was presiding, introduced the agenda and called for the election of 16 members for each of the 10 conciliar commissions which succeeded the preparatory commissions. These would present the draft proposals for decrees (or schemata) and consider the amendments that arose in the course of debate. Eight members for each commission would be appointed directly by the Pope.
The bishops take charge
As soon as Cardinal Tisserant announced this, Cardinal Tiénart of Lille rose and read a prepared statement in which he suggested that, instead of voting immediately, the bishops meet in national or regional caucuses and attempt to agree on slates of candidates for the different commissions. Immediately Cardinal Frings of Cologne backed him on behalf of the German bishops.
Vigorous applause followed and Cardinal Tisserant suggested that the regional bishops then take the next few days to vote and he adjourned the meeting after a quarter of an hour. This was a victory for the bishops showing that they and the Holy Father were in charge of the council and the lists prepared by the curia could be passed over.
From October 13 to 16, the bishops prepared their slates and, because two-thirds of votes were needed for a candidate to be successful, the Pope reduced this quota to one-half before the results were announced on October 20.
The bishops then voted on an address to mankind (sic) to be forwarded to the Pope. Not wanting to interfere in the debates, the Pope watched the council on closed circuit TV in his rooms. The council was in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
The vernacular a hot issue
The first item was the schemata on the liturgy which had been well prepared and was the only one of the 70 schemata that stayed substantially the same. The other 69 were replaced by the new debates. It developed into a hot debate especially when the question of the vernacular language for Mass came in. The curial and conservative fear was that it would take away their power over a universal Latin liturgy.
A light from the East
The debate was put in perspective by Maximus IV Saigh, Melchite Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, the leading light among the Uniate bishops (eastern bishops in union with Rome): ‘Christ, after all, talked in the language of his contemporaries. It was also in Aramaic that he offered the first sacrifice of the Eucharist – the apostles and disciples did the same – the Roman Church used Greek in her liturgy up to the third century, because it was the language used by the faithful in those times. And if then she started to abandon Greek in favour of Latin, it was precisely because Latin had become the language of the faithful. The East never had a problem on the subject of liturgical language. Every language is in effect liturgical language.
Many bishops spoke for and against the vernacular in the liturgy. Anxious that the debate seemed to be favouring the vernacular, Cardinal Ottaviani gave an address criticising all the pro-vernacular arguments. However, his address took longer than the allotted 10 minutes and the president, Cardinal Alfrink politely interposed,
‘Excuse me, Eminence, but you have already spoken more than 15 minutes’ and asked for the microphone to be handed over to the next speaker.
Curial leader walks out
The bishops expressed their displeasure at the tenor of the speech by applauding Cardinal Alfrink’s intervention. Insulted, Ottaviani left the assembly.
It was two weeks before he returned, most days seeing Pope John who eventually persuaded him to stay on, refusing to take his resignation. Again this showed Pope John’s attitude. He may well have been pleased to see him go, but he knew the Holy Spirit was working through human factors to bring about a conclusion.
The debates about the liturgy, scripture and revelation are full of passion and superb arguments which were to be summarised when, in the next sessions, the actual documents would be voted on.
In particular, the speeches of Bishop De Smedt of Bruges about the necessity of the church being more ecumenical rather than condemnatory drew sustained applause.
Original documents discarded
Cardinal Ottaviani in the last days tried to avoid an opening of the debate on the church by putting forward one on Our Lady and then one on the mass media. All were deferred and the original documents rejected.
The council finished its meetings of the First Session on December 7 and the next day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope John congratulated the bishops on a valuable session and urged them to study the revised schemata for the next sessions where a new Pentecost would be effected. ‘We will be back in September’ said Pope John.
But would he? They all knew he was due for an operation in a few days. If he died, would a new pope be as enthusiastic as he for carrying on the work of the council?
Msgr Broadbent’s series on the Second Vatican Council continues next month.