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!

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3 comments on “Synod 2014: Lessons on the Process from Vatican II

  1. Chris Sullivan says:

    It seems to me that this is a good example of how the Holy Spirit gently works thru our limited human capacities and understandings. Thanks for putting this into a helpful historical context of Ecumenical Councils.

    God Bless

  2. jennyroca says:

    Oh God, help us all in your wisdom….

  3. Deacon Steve Miller says:

    Bill, as always, fascinating insights. Given your vast historical knowledge of the SVC, it would be glorious if you were able to share any of the Daybook or Fr. Murphy’s writings sometime that may pertain directly to discussions on diaconal renewal. You are very busy, and so we understand this may not be a reasonable request.

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