October 11, 1962, the Feast of the Maternity of Our Lady, was set for the opening of the Second Vatican Council. For weeks bishops had been arriving by air, sea, road and rail. Rain heralded Autumn.
It is hard to imagine 2,300 or more bishops from almost every country. Among them some outstanding men like Bishop Paul Etoga, Bishop of Mbalmayo in the Cameroons, who had just scraped up enough money to take a boat to Le Havre in France, hitchhike to Paris, and buy a cheap rail ticket to Rome with his fellow African Bishop Joseph Busimba of the Congo, who arrived at Fiumicino Airport with three elephant tusks as a gift for the Pope. Two South African bishops, Denis Hurley of Durban and McCann of Capetown, were already rallying their people against their racist government and its apartheid system.
Among the Asian bishops was Bishop Philippe Nguyen Kim Dien who had worked as a street cleaner and rag picker before entering the seminary and, since becoming bishop of Can Tho in Vietnam, had given up his episcopal palace as too luxurious for such a poor country, as had Bishop Batano Salazar of Medellin in Colombia. He had moved into a shed in one of the city’s slums and had his palace converted into a school for workers.
This had inspired a Chilean bishop, Larrain of Talco, to hand over 866 acres (350 ha) of his episcopal domain to 18 impoverished families to farm.
Nearer home, Bishop Tabst of the Kimberleys in North Western Australia had bought 400,000 acres (162 ha) of semi-desert land for the economic rehabilitation of Australian aborigines.
These men rubbed shoulders with scholars like Cardinals Bea and Willebrands, Suenens of Belgium, Alfrink of Holland and Koenig of Vienna.
There were also the bishops from the ‘martyr’ churches especially in the communist countries – Cardinal Wyszynski of Poland with 13 of his bishops, two Hungarian bishops, three from Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and one from Lithuania.
When one of these arrived, Pope John would break off any engagement to embrace and take them to his own personal quarters to speak with them for lengthy periods.
A contingent of 217 American (US) bishops arrived including several cardinals – Cardinal Meyer of Chicago, the largest diocese in the world with three auxiliary bishops, 3,813 priests and 2,119,000 Catholics – a contrast to Bishop Gunnarson’s diocese of Iceland, the smallest in the world with nine priests and 806 Catholics.
Many of the American bishops headed for five-star hotels on the plush Via Veneto. One bishop checked into a hotel where a meeting of Anglican bishops and priests was in progress.
As usual in such expensive accommodation, the servants laid out the night attire while the guests were at dinner. When the Catholic bishop entered his room, he saw to his amazement his pyjamas on one pillow and his lace surplice arranged on the other as if it were his wife’s nightgown!
They came from the East
Eastern rite (Uniate) bishops were also there with their crowns and head dresses – the Maronites from Tyre and Tripoli, Baalbek, Nisibis, Cairo and Cyprus led by His Holiness the Patriarch Meouchi of Antioch, proud of 700 years’ resistance to Arabs and Turks.
The fiery Maximos IV Saigh led the Melchites from Aleppo, Antioch and Jerusalem, ready to fight for the ancient ways of the East in a church he felt was too Romanised.
The bearded bishops of other ancient rites were also there – the Syro Malabars, the Malankaras, the Copts, the Chaldeans and Armenians all in full communion with Rome as Uniates.
The Orthodox churches had been invited but for various reasons did not attend the first session except, in a surprise, last-minute move, communist Russia allowed the patriarch of Moscow to send two delegates to join the non-Catholic observers. Khrushchev had admired Pope John’s appeal to himself and US President John Kennedy over the Cuban crisis which had helped to heal that impending war that might have turned nuclear. Again, Pope John’s intervention bore fruit.
President Segni of Italy proclaimed the council’s opening day, a holiday and thousands flocked to St Peter’s Square. Some 2,318 bishops, in different headdresses, marched out of the papal palace’s bronze doors in rows of sixes, swung right across St Peter’s Square, then right again up the steps into the basilica entering the multi-tiered seats arranged in grandstand style, leaving a large central aisle for the Papal procession.
Pope John had been persuaded to mount the Sedia Gestatoria so he could be seen by the crowds but insisted on dismounting before he entered the basilica preceded by the Patriarchs and Cardinals.
He crossed the aisle to the altar thrilled by the thousands of bishops, superiors of religious orders, non-Catholic observers and members of the royal and aristocratic families of Europe, politicians and ambassadors all watching him.
Archbishop Enrico Dante, the Pope’s sacristan, had planned the usual Roman pageant of sparkling ceremonies, vestments, numerous candles and incense interspersed with the beautiful music of the Sistine Choir.
He was rather frustrated when Pope John changed the papal throne on a spot, two metres above the sanctuary floor, and ordered instead a simple brocade chair put on the highest level of the Bernini altar ‘so everyone can see a little better’.
He modified the ceremony of obeisance of the Cardinals and Archbishops and ordered the gospel to be sung in Arabic and old Slavonic as well as in Latin and Greek to show the universality of the church.
Cardinal Tisserant, the Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals, was the main celebrant and, after Mass, John read an ancient profession of faith repeated by all the bishops. The Secretary-General carried an ornate 15th century book of the gospel to the altar, opened it at the first chapter of St John, and the church’s 2000 years of history was climaxed by the opening of its 21st General Council.