Christ, Cross, Candle, and Gospel: An Early Lenten Reflection on the Deacon and the Exsultet

light_christRecently, a good friend and a priest whom I respect very much, asked me just WHY the deacon should be the person who chants the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil.  “The rubrics permit someone other than the deacon to sing it, so why not just get the person with the best voice to do it?  Tell me why the deacon should do it!”  This reflection is an attempt to respond to those questions.

In light of world events, this may seem like little more than “insider baseball,” matters that might be of passing interest only to those concerned with liturgical history and precision rather than things that truly matter.  After all, when people when people are being martyred simply for being “People of the Cross” (as their executioners called them), what difference does it make who sings a long chant to a candle in a darkened church the night before Easter?

I’ve decided to offer this reflection, however, because I think there is so much more than simply worrying about the niceties of who gets to do what during the Easter Vigil.  In particular, we should reflect on why the Church has long called upon her deacons for this responsibility. exsultet1 As one commentator summarizes, “From the time of Saint Jerome, when deacons composed their own poems in praise of the candle, to the later Middle Ages. . . , the blessing of the Easter candle was the high moment of the deacon’s year.” (Margaret B. Freeman, “Lighting of the Easter Candle.”  Freeman was a curator of Medieval Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

We Catholics are, of course, a people who value sign and symbol, who attempt to express the ineffable in any ways available to us.  We still wear vestments that date back to the Roman Empire, we still use ancient prayers and rites, and our sacred texts reflect God’s relationship with humanity going back nearly 4,000 years.  We believe that the living God continues to be present in our world, the world that God created, and that God communicates with humanity through other persons and indeed through all of His creation.  We Catholics love to use so many signs of God’s creation as conveyors of God’s meaning: bread and wine, water, oils, fire, light, darkness, and color.  We use outward, visible signs to communicate inward, invisible reality.

Nowhere does this sacramental world view find deeper expression than during the sacred Three Days, the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, which all lead to the glorious Easter Vigil itself.  I have often told people that if they want to find out more about WHAT Catholics believe and HOW we believe, they should come to the Triduum.


0590C_ 035At the end of the Good Friday service (never a Mass; to celebrate Mass on Good Friday and Holy Saturday is forbidden), everything extraneous is removed from the sanctuary, and the tabernacle has remained empty since Holy Thursday.  This is a sacred time in which the Church recalls Christ’s death and burial in the tomb.  We place ourselves with those first disciples of Christ, wondering what the future holds for them now that Christ has died.  It is a time of cold and dark.

candleAnd then, with the spark of new light, a new fire erupts, signalling a return of warmth and light.  This is why the great Vigil of Easter begins — not like a regular Mass — but with the Service of Light, sometimes referred to as the Lucernarium.  Today, the service is quite streamlined.  People gather in darkness outside the church where the makings of a new fire have been prepared.  When everything is ready, the bishop or priest who is presiding directs that the fire be lighted.  After blessing the New Fire, the presider prepares the candle by inserting five grains of incense in the form of a cross into the wax; more about that 0502.easter.vigil_1later.  He also inscribes the four digits of the current year, reminding all that Christ is the Beginning and the End (the Alpha and the Omega), including our own time.  Finally he lights the Candle from the New Fire and entrusts the Candle to the deacon.

The deacon then leads the assembly into the darkened church, stopping at the entrance to the church to proclaim, “Christ, our Light”, at which point people begin to light their own individual candles (representing the candle received at baptism).  The deacon continues to the middle of the church where he stops and again intones, “Christ, our Light” and the process of candle-lighting continues.  Finally, for the third and last time, the deacon reaches the front of the church and intones “Christ, our Light” for the last time.  He places the Candle in its stand “near the ambo” and awaits the arrival in the sanctuary of the presider and other ministers.  The deacon requests and receives a blessing from the presider, and then moves back to the Candle, where he incenses the Candle and intones the Exsultet.  When that is complete, the deacon returns to his place next to the presider.  Then begins the extensive Liturgy of the Word, followed by the Celebration of Initiation and finally, the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

That’s the rite in a nutshell.  As many people have noticed, there is a clear and rich responsibility given to the deacon for the care and the meaning of the Candle itself.  As we look more closely, there are very deliberate reasons for this, and they revolve around Christ: the Cross, the Candle, and the Gospel.


The literature of the patristic era is filled with references to the ministry of Christ.  Interestingly, it is the deacon who is most often associated with the ministry of Christ, while the Bishop is presented as being in the role of God the Father, and the presbyterate as the college of apostles.  Here are a few examples:

18956-st-lawrence-distributing-alms-fra-angelicoBishop Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early second Century:

“Correspondingly, everyone must show the deacons respect.  They represent Jesus Christ, just as the bishop has the role of the Father, and the presbyters are like God’s council and an apostolic band.  You cannot have a Church without these. . . .  Let the deacons (my special favorites) be entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ who was with the Father from eternity and appeared at the end of the world.”

A few years later, Polycarp of Smyrna observed:

“It is necessary. . . to be subject to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ.”

In Polycarp’s writing, there is no mention of bishops; presbyters were the senior clergy.  Notice that, in this instance, presbyters are associated with God the Father and the deacons, again, with Christ.

In the middle of the Third Century in Syria, the Didascalia Apostolorum has:

“The bishop sits for you in the place of God Almighty.  But the deacon stands in place of Christ; and do you love him. . . . If then our Lord did thus, will you, O deacons, hesitate to do the like for them that are sick and infirm, you who are workmen of the truth, and bear the likeness of Christ?”

Why have I reviewed the history of this association of the ministry of deacons with the ministry of Christ?  Quite simply, because the history of the association of the deacon with the Candle goes back to this same period.  The minister most often associated with Christ in this literature is the deacon; for this reason, the deacon is entrusted with the great sign of the risen Christ: the Easter Candle.  In fact, in many early liturgical texts, and even some into the early 20th Century, it is the Deacon who actually blesses the Candle and inserts the grains of incense.


Although now done by the bishop or presbyter presiding, in many locations the ancient practice had the Deacon preparing, blessing and lighting the Paschal Candle.  It is significant candle and incensethat the grains of incense were to placed — as they still are — in the sign of the Cross: the Candle itself becomes a sign of the Cross of Christ, bringing light into the world’s darkness.

Another interesting connection occurs during the blessing of the water to be used for baptism during the Easter Vigil.  For centuries, it was the Deacon who would take up the Paschal Candle and lower it into the water while the bishop prays: “May the power of the Holy Spirit, O Lord, we pray, come down through your Son into the fullness of this font, so that all who have been buried with Christ by Baptism into death may rise again to life with him. 064 Deacon dipping the Paschal Candle in the water_595 Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”  While current rubrics no longer require that it be the deacon who does this, many deacons still carry this out at the request of the presider.  Again we see a clear connection in the Tradition between Christ, the Cross, the Gospel, and the deacon.


Another related ancient association is between the deacon and proclamation of the Gospel. From these same sources we find a further association between the proclamation of the Gospel and, in particular, the proclamation of the Exsultet.  Our contemporary rubrics for the Easter Vigil continue to make this connection.


1) The rubrics of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal direct that the deacon “places the paschal candle on a large candlestand prepared next to the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary” (#17).  Given the history of the rite, the preference for placing the Candle near the ambo from which the deacon will later proclaim the Gospel is understandable.  In some of the early texts, the Candle is placed near the ambo for two reasons: to provide the sacred light of Deacons7-IMG_8907Christ to permit the deacon to see the Gospel text, as well as to associate Christ, our Light, with his Gospel.  As the current General Instruction teaches, “When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his own word, proclaims the Gospel. . .”(GIRM #29).

3) The rites leading up to the chanting of the Exsultet parallel precisely the rites followed prior to the Gospel proclamation.  The deacon approaches the presider and asks for a blessing.  Before the Gospel, the presider will pray,

“May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips, that you may proclaim his Gospel worthily and well, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

After placing the Paschal Candle in its stand at the Easter Vigil, the Deacon approaches the presider and asks for a blessing, and the presider prays in almost identical words,

“May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips, that you may proclaim his paschal praise worthily and well, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Finally, the rites address the use of incense in both cases.  Just as the deacon will often incense the Book of the Gospels before proclaiming the Gospel, so too does he incense the Candle before beginning the proclamation of the Exsultet.  The parallels between Christ, the Cross and the Gospel could not be clearer, both in the historical Tradition as we as contemporary practice.

Lastly, we should consider the text of the Exsultet itself.

The message of the Exsultet for the Easter people is nothing less than a joy-filled proclamation of the Gospel of Christ.  All of creation is called to rejoice at the end of “gloom and darkness.”  This is the night, we hear repeatedly, that everything has changed through the power of Christ.  In its most powerful passage, we are told that this is the night that “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”  In short, the great Easter Proclamation is a shout of unrestrained joy over the Good News of our God.  It is, in a very special way, the Gospel itself.   It is the Deacon who has – from the charge received at ordination – a primary responsibility for the proclamation of that Gospel.


Following the reforms of Holy Week begun by Pope Pius XII in 1955, an option has been given to have a minister other than the Deacon proclaim the Exsultet.  I would suggest that a primary and original reason for this option, especially in those days prior to the Second Vatican Council, was the overall absence of deacons in the Latin Church; therefore, other provisions had to be made.  However, post-Conciliar editions of the General Instruction and the rubrics have returned the primary responsibility for the Exsultet and its surrounding rites to the Deacon.  Notice the way the current rubrics read:  “The Easter Proclamation may be made, in the absence of a deacon, by the priest himself or by another concelebrating priest.  If, however, because of necessity, a lay cantor sings the Proclamation. . . ,” adjustments are then made to the text accordingly (#19).  Clearly the mind of the Church is that Proclamation is the responsibility of the ordained and, in particular, the deacon, paralleling his responsibility for the Gospel.  Just as in the case of the Gospel, it is only in the absence of the deacon that a priest is to proclaim the Gospel.  In a similar way here, it is only in the absence of the deacon that a priest is to proclaim the Exsultet.  The only difference is that, in the case of some unspecified necessity in the absence of the deacon, a lay cantor may proclaim a modified form of the Exsultet.

So we return to the basic questions which began this reflection.  If the Service of Light at the Easter Vigil were simply a matter of choral performance, the answers would be simple.  However, as we have seen, there is much more to the history and theology of this part of the Vigil than performance alone.  After all, there are other parts of our sacramental celebrations that might easily be “performed” better by another.  For example, a trained actor might bring much to the solemn Eucharistic Prayer at Mass, but we rightly insist that only a priest do so BECAUSE THERE IS MUCH MORE INVOLVED in the Eucharistic Prayer than “performance” alone. It seems the same applies to the Service of Light, culminating with the Exsultet: there is more to its proclamation than performance considerations alone.  Perhaps creative ways are necessary to assist the deacon in this task, or alternative musical settings might be made available.  Ultimately, of course, the decision of who will chant the Exsultet rests as it should with the pastor.  However, the significant connections between the Candle, the Cross, the Gospel and the deacon should not easily be overlooked or set aside.

Christ our Light

The Pope’s Challenge: Where would YOU stop? UPDATED

The internet is abuzz with the images of Pope Francis making an impromptu visit to a refugee camp while he was en route to visit a local parish,  St. Michael the Archangel in Pietralata.  Watch the video here.  Here’s another copy of the video, without the English getting in the way.  UPDATE: See that priest leading the Pope into the camp?  More about him later.

That’s the basic scenario, and that’s the challenge the Pope’s action places before us, especially those ordained to serve.

Here’s the parish the Pope was heading for when he took his pastoral detour.  260px-Chiesa_san_michele_arcangelo_a_pietralata

Imagine the excitement of the parishioners: the Pope is coming!  Here’s the picture they had on their website.


The pastor of St. Michael’s is Monsignor Aristide Sana, who was ordained on 18 March 1965 in St. John XXIII’s home diocese of Bergamo.  Now a priest of the Diocese of Rome, he’s been the pastor of this parish since 1998.  From what I can find, there are three other priests assigned, but I didn’t notice any deacons.

I keep imagining a conversation between Pope Francis and Monsignor Sana: “So, I just stopped at the refugee camp on the way here.  Nice people!  What are you guys doing to help?”  Actually, I can only imagine the Pope’s question; we can leave the response to our own consciences.

UPDATE: Here’s a new video clip from the Pope’s visit to St. Michael the Archangel.  He is teaching a religious education class to the kids; they all (including the Pope) seem very excited!  Also, if you look closely, the priest near the Holy Father looks like the same man who was with the Pope at the refugee camp.  I wonder if that is Monsignor Sana, the pastor of the parish?

If the pope was coming to visit OUR parishes, where would he choose to stop while en route? Imagine the pope asking those kind of questions of US!  What are the “refugee camps” right in our own back yards?  Where are the “margins” within our own communities?  And, knowing that, where are WE?

Returning to the Blog: As Life Goes On

Every so often I receive an e-mail that will say “So-and-so is now following your blog,” and I will feel guilty for not doing more on the blog.  Despite every good intention to do so, other things far more important than my essays in the blogosphere — family, work, and ministry — quickly take precedence.  Still, here I am, tapping away, and hoping that I can return to blogging with some regularity.

Mom and Dad 1948

Mom and Dad Wedding Breakfast 1948

A major event in the life of our family happened just before Christmas.  On 21 December, our beloved mother, Kathleen Powers Ditewig, passed into eternal life at the age of 90.  Her instructions to us were simple and direct: she wanted “no fuss” and no big visitation, wake, or funeral.  She had made all her own arrangements and we respected them.  My two sisters and I decided, however, that nothing in our promises to her prevented us from planning a big family gathering at some point in the future at which we would celebrate her life in proper style!  So, Mom, get ready for that!  You knew we’d be doing it all along.  Life here without you is a sadder place for us, but faith leads to the realization that you and Dad are together again, freed from earthly care.  Love you and miss you both!

To so many of you readers who sent along expressions of prayer and condolences, our deepest appreciation.

Since then, of course, we’ve been dealing with multiple projects and ministries within the Diocese as well as the beginning of a new academic term and assorted health issues.  But, praise God, eternal and temporal life goes on!  So, “watch this space,” as the construction signs always command, for upcoming essays.

“Deacon Digest”: Check it Out!

Deacon Digest CoverThis afternoon I received the current issue of Deacon Digest (November 2014), the only national magazine dedicated to the ministry of deacons.  Every November issue is provided to every deacon and deacon candidate in the United States.  This year, Silas Henderson, the Managing Editor of the Digest, writes that this national distribution is not only a chance to connect with the diaconate and formation communities in the country; “it also gives us an opportunity to say ‘Thank you’ for the important ministry you are doing for and with the Church.”

silas henderson

Silas Henderson

This November’s issue is a double issue, with columns and articles by an impressive list of contributors, lay and clergy, on the theme of “Reflecting the Love of Christ the Servant.”  Included are: Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Bishop Richard B. Higgins, Fr. James Martin, SJ, Deacon Bill Ditewig, Sr. Honora Werner, OP, Mr. Jeff Cavins, Deacon Joseph Ferrari, Deacon Steve Swope, Deacon Kevin Bagley, Deacon Guadalupe Rodriguez, Deacon Louis Malfara, Bishop Robert Morneau, Patti Normile, Johanna Gurr with Marcia Romanansky, Cynthia Geisen, Elizabeth Boo, and Deacon Ralph Torrelli.

Deacon Sam Taub

Deacon Sam Taub

The history behind this remarkable journal goes back decades.  Shortly after the diaconate was renewed in the United States, the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the national episcopal conference began publishing a quarterly journal.  Critical to that effort was Deacon Sam Taub who eventually headed the Secretariat for many years.  (Sam is a true pioneer of the diaconate in this country, and all of us serving today owe him an immeasurable debt. I hope to write much more about him in future entries.)  In 1984, as the diaconate continued to grow rapidly, Sam asked Mr. Jim Alt, a respected journalist and editor, if he would take over responsibility for a national journal, Jim agreed, and Deacon Digest was born.

Jim and Audrey Alt

Jim and Audrey Alt

Jim and his wife Audrey, joined by their daughters, edited and published the magazine until a couple of years ago when they “retired.” Although the Digest is now published by Abbey Press at St. Meinrad, Jim remains a very active editorial consultant to the magazine.

I can’t imagine there are many Catholic deacons out there who are not already subscribers to Deacon Digest, but if you want to find out more, please visit their website here.  You can also sample a lot of past articles at their online archive here.

Check it out!

The Synod on the Family: Curtain Up on Act II

Beatification Paul VIToday we experienced the ringing down of the curtain on Act I of the synodal process on the Family.  Pope Francis closed the Extraordinary Synod today with Mass in St. Peter’s Square and the beatification of Blessed Paul VI.

But the process has only just begun!  Perhaps the best road map to the future is found in the Pope’s speech on Francis at SynodSaturday closing the final work session of the Extraordinary Synod.  In fact, I believe that this beautiful speech deserves to be read in its entirety; you may find it in English translation here, and if you read Italian you can read it as the Pope delivered it, here.  It is spiritually rich, and it also gives us wonderful insights into the Holy Father’s dreams for the next steps in the process.

Act II, which has now begun, takes place over the next twelve months.  Act III will be Ordinary Synod on the Family to be held in October 2015.  Here’s how the Pope explained it in his speech:

Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.

One year to work on the “Synodal Relatio” which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as “lineamenta” [guidelines].

US BishopsUsing the Synod’s Relatio, the various bishops’ conferences around the world will be discussing its contents and mapping out their specific courses of action for their dioceses.  For example, here in the United States, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will have it on their agenda next month at the Fall Meeting in Baltimore.  We can expect that individual diocesan bishops will then develop ways and means of encouraging further conversations within their own dioceses over the coming year.  Keep in mind, as the Pope says above, that the current Relatio is merely a starting point, a kind of rough draft, for the work that lies ahead.

Then, next October, Act III will begin as the Pope opens an Ordinary Synod (not an Extraordinary one such as just ended) on the Family.  At that time, more discussions will be held by the Synod Fathers, many of whom will be different bishops than the ones who attended this one, and a final document will be prepared for the Holy Father.  It can then be anticipated that the Pope will take all of these results and draft his own Apostolic Exhortation in which he charts the course ahead.

I think there are several important things to keep in mind.

1) To speak of the current Relatio as anything other than a working document is a mistake.  It does not constitute in any way “official teaching.”  Rather, it simply recounts, as the Pope says, the various elements which were discussed during this first stage of the process.  So, for people to be upset over what the document currently says, or doesn’t say, is very inappropriate and unnecessary.  The various topics for FUTURE work are all there; what final forms may come in the year remain to be seen.

2) This is why the Pope directed that even those three paragraphs which did not gain a 2/3 majority vote would still be printed in the text.  He also directed that the voting results be included so that everyone (and not just bishops!) could see how the voting went.

francis at synod 23) I would strongly recommend that people spend more time on the Pope’s speech at this point, because it gives the clearest indication of how HE is seeing things.  Consider just two tantalizing tidbits.

  • When the mid-point version of the Relatio was released last week, much attention was given to the language of “welcome” that used with regard to homosexuals, as well as the gifts that they bring to the Church.  In fact, some in the blogosphere complained about that translation of “welcome”.  The Italian verb used was “accogliere”.  According to Italians I’ve asked, the best English translation for that verb is “to welcome.”  Still, the English translation was later changed to “provide for” — clearly not an accurate translation.  Now look at the Pope’s speech from Saturday.  He’s not talking specifically about homosexual persons, but more generally, and he uses “accogliere” again.  He reminds the bishops that there first duty is to “feed your sheep, feed your sheep.”  He then tells them that they are to:

Seek to welcome [“accogliere”] – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome [“accogliere”]: [rather] go out and find them! [“Ho sbagliato, qui. Ho detto accogliere: andare a trovarle.”]

I find it interesting that he takes the time here to use the very verb so many were fussing about earlier in the week: and then he plainly says that even as “welcoming” it doesn’t go far enough!  We’re not merely to welcome those who come to us who are lost: we are to go out and find them.

  • The Pope also reminds us that, as a Church, we are already to be open to all who seek.  In a particularly beautiful passage, he teaches:

And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

So, however Act II and Act III develop over the next year, the vision of our Holy Father Francis is quite clear: the Church as “field hospital” for all in need is open to receive patients; in fact, we’re supposed to be out in the streets and the fields and the back alleys finding those in need.  Brother deacons, this message is particularly apt for us!  If the whole Church is a field hospital, we deacons should be the EMTs.

Stay tuned.  This is going to be quite a year ahead!  And, as the Pope requested, pray for him.  He has set us on a challenging course, but one that will, with God’s grace, bear much fruit.

Moon Over St. Peter's

Synod 2014: Lessons on the Process from Vatican II

Pope at SynodSo much hyperventilation!  Bishops fighting bishops!  “The press is out of control!”  “Translations are all messed up!”  “Release the information!”  “Don’t release the information!”  “This is bringing scandal to the world!”

After more than a week of living in the breathless world of exclamation points, it’s past time for everyone to just calm down.  In terms of the process, there is absolutely nothing new here.  This is how these things work, and we just need to take a deep breath (as I suggested yesterday) and exhale slowly.

During Vatican II, we saw analogous happenings.

  • The Roman Curia had announced that the working language for the Council would be Latin.  Therefore, the CardinalArchbishop of Los Angeles at the time, James McIntyre, offered to provide a simultaneous translation system for the Council. (Some sources maintain that the offer was made by Cardinal Cushing, but several bishop-participants later reported that it was McIntyre, with his Hollywood connections, who offered first.) Regardless, the offer was refused by the curia because the General Sessions of the Council were to be secret and there was concern that word would leak out. Did the sessions remain “secret”?  Of course not!
  • Vatican II Presser

    Vatican II Presser

    Many countries held daily press briefings, in addition to the official Vatican briefings.  For the United States, these were often held at the Pontifical North American College.  Other countries held frequent press briefings, just not on a daily basis.  Frequently these “pressers” contained information that was at odds with the official press offering, or they provided additional details.

  • Early on, the US bishops’ conference (then known as the National Catholic Welfare Conference), began assembling daily summaries of key events, interviews and interventions (speeches) from the day’s activities.  These were eventually put together as “Council Daybooks” and were published by the NCWC.  The Foreword gives some insight into the process.  I apologize in advance for the length of the quote, but read this in light of current events at the Synod,  I’ve highlighted certain interesting passages:

Council DaybookFrom various sources requests have come to the NCWC to gather as soon as possible into one volume whatever information is available covering the day-to-day proceedings of the Second Vatican Council.  One of the distinctive features of the present council in contrast to all preceding ones was the prompt reporting of each day’s activities, including a summary statement of each speech delivered in the aula of St. Peter’s.  The correspondents of the NCWC News Service had access to the official press releases each day by early afternoon, and were able to supplement the record by the discussions which took place at the meeting of the daily press panel.  The representatives of the various international news media, especially those from the United States, queried the “periti” or experts who had been present at the morning congregations of the council, and were in consequence able to fill in any lacunae which might have occurred and also to clear up any obscurities in the official releases.

The bishops of the United States had the benefit of receiving each evening or early the next morning a mimeographed copy of these reports.  It was the general, one might say even the unanimous judgment of the United States hierarchy that this was an invaluable service.  It enabled the bishops to review in substance the speeches or the interventions made each day, with more leisure to evaluate the various contributions made to the subject under debate. . . .

I would also point out that in interviews I conducted with several bishops who attended the sessions of the Council, they remarked that almost no Council Father from any country knew Latin sufficiently to follow the actual Latin interventions as they were being given.  The bishops noted that they knew Latin well enough to celebrate Mass and the sacraments, but not well enough to follow particular speeches in real time, especially when the Latin was spoken in such a variety of different accents from around the world!  Therefore, these daily working translations and summaries were invaluable.

  • Bishops disagreed frequently and in public on the matters under discussion.  This was helpful in sorting out the nuances of every position being taken.  It was unusual to see such things, but I don’t recall anyone being scandalized by it.  As I’ve blogged before, the almost violent disagreements that most of the world’s bishops had with the way Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani was running the Holy Office (the precursor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) were quite open and frank.  They were not unlike the public disagreements now seen between Cardinals Burke and Kasper.
  • John in TimeLong debates were held, often in public, over the meaning of specific words and passages in the the draft documents, and sometimes parts of those drafts were available to the public.  Robert Blair Kaiser, the Rome bureau chief for Time Magazine during the Council, recounts the many cocktail and dinner parties he and his wife hosted in their apartment for the Council Fathers and the periti.  He loves to tell of the conversations groups of bishops would have, debating and arguing over the text they were considering, and sometimes even going into a room and finding a group of them drafting a revised text.
  • The speeches at the Council were only the tip of the information iceberg.  For more bishop submitted their own interventions and emendations to the draft documents in written form, and so just listening to the speeches alone would never give the full story.  That would only be known sometimes days later, when all of the written interventions had been studied.
  • Just as now, people around the world could not get enough news about the Council.  The fact that the Council had been called specifically to “update” the Church (St. John XXIII’s aggiornamento) was exciting in itself!  How would they do this?  What would they do?  Writing from Rome, an American professor of Moral Theology shared his behind-the-scenes experiences with family and friends back home.  They encouraged him to submit similar accounts to the The New Yorker, and they became regular columns known as “Letters from Vatican City.”  To protect himself and his family, he wrote under the nom-de-plume “Xavier Rynne”.  For years the real identity of Xavier Rynne was as much an exciting mystery as the identity of “Deep Throat” would be years later during the Watergate scandal (Many people who knew him, however, had little trouble figuring it out: Fr. Francis X. Murphy used his middle name Xavier and his mother’s maiden name Rynne.) Many figures at the Council, particularly among the curia, were not amused by his writing, since he pulled no punches about the inner workings of what was going on.

There are countless other examples, but these make my point: RELAX, people!  This is all part of the process, warts and all.  We have the “benefit” today of instantaneous communication via electronic media to a level unknown during the Council, and we have the “benefit” of so many “experts” who really are not, except in their own minds.  Everyone has opinions; few have the facts.  And what is most important: this is only the beginning of the end of Act One of the overall synodal process initiated by Pope Francis.

“Pace, pace”: Peace, my sisters and brothers, peace!

“In medio stat virtus (et synodus)”: What if the OTHER side is correct?

santa-teresa-de-avila-12sept2012In honor of the great Saint Teresa, whom we remember today, and before reading what follows, take a deep breath.  Exhale s-l-o-w-l-y.  Repeat several times.

Now, given all of the extreme positions being taken by some people in response to Synod 2014’s Relatio post disceptationem, we should all be asking ourselves two questions:

1) Do I find myself agreeing with the extremes on either side?  Do you side with Muller/Burke or with Kasper?  Are you demonizing “the other side” as you define it?  Now, few people may answer that question directly, preferring to say, with St. Paul, “I stand with Christ.”  Honestly, though, every Christian will say that, won’t they, even when they take contradictory positions?

2) IF you find yourself on one of the extremes, I’m curious: what will you do if the “other” side (whichever that is) should become the preferred position taken by the Church?  What if the Church adopts positions which do not precisely correspond with your own?  What will you do?

As a followup to yesterday’s blog post (here), I just hope and pray that ALL of us can find the virtue that stands “in the middle.”  What is necessary now is a proper sense of reason and balance.  Aristotelian ethics, which would later influence St. Thomas Aquinas, held that every virtue is a balance between extremes: courage lies between cowardice and foolhardiness, for example.

Please, fellow Catholics, take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and pray.  As a people of faith, we believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge; we should all act like it!

Holy Spirit