Remembering the Council

 Fr. James Allen, OMIBy Fr. James Allen, OMI


A few years ago, when I was director of the prenovitiate program in Miami, I shared with the prenovices some of my personal recollections about the Second Vatican Council. I had been a scholastic at the International Roman Scholasticate throughout the Council. A few days after I had talked with the prenovices about the Council, I learned that they had bragged in their Church History class at the seminary that their director was “historical” as well, since he had been at the Council! I had become a “fossil” and a footnote of Church History.


I must admit that my memories of the Council are rather piecemeal. I did not keep a diary nor do I have any other personal written recollections of the period. I’ll simply note here what comes to mind in a number of categories.


The International Roman Scholasticate community.


Blessed Pope John XXIII had already announced the Council a few months before my arrival in Rome in late September of 1959. I had just come from the novitiate where there had been very little “buzz” about this Church event that would have such an impact on our lives. I found a scholasticate community in Rome that was already excited about the Council. Much of what was said in those early days amounted to gossip and wishful thinking. Ecumenism and the liturgy were the most popular topics of conversation among the scholastics. But there was also talk about some of the negative reactions to the proposed Council, especially from certain members of the Vatican Curia. I don’t think we were yet using he terms “progressive” and “conservative” at that time, but eventually, those would be the names pinned on various people involved with the Council.


Ours was a very international community – 18 different countries represented in 1959; therefore, individuals and groups looked forward to the event from different points of view. Since I was barely beginning my philosophical studies, some of the issues about Divine Revelation and other theological arguments were way over my head. I remember sitting in on a community discussion about “catechetical” preaching vs. “kerygmatic” preaching. I had no idea what they were talking about. It took me a while to really understand the importance of what was going to take place.


Once the Council actually began, I was already a theology student and was able to engage better in what became the main topics of many of our conversations. Every scrap of news, every bit of gossip, every draft of Council documents that we could get our hands on became the focus of our chatter. We knew who the heroes of the Council were and who we thought was working against the heroes.


One of the great advantages of being in Rome during the Council was to have access to some of the renowned theologians who were serving as “periti” or “experts” to the Council Fathers. Not only could we attend public talks by such men as the saintly Dom Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil. We had as dinner guests and heard presentations in our own house from such men as Yves Congar, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Karl Rahner. While I did not hear him myself, I remember a German classmate telling me about his having heard a young theologian who was making a name for himself: Fr. Josef Ratzinger. A couple of American Oblates were at some of the sessions as “periti.”  I believe Fr. John King, OMI, was the theologian of the Apostolic Delegate to the USA, Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi; Fr. Donald Dietz, OMI, was there with Bishop John Taylor, OMI; Fr. Peter Rogers, OMI, came for one session with Bishop Fergus O’Grady, OMI, more as a fund raiser than as a theologian.


The first session of the Council was probably the most exciting for me since that was when a lot of the behind-the-scenes activity was happening and the real meat of the Council was being prepared; it was activity that would pit the more conservative Council Fathers against those who were more progressive. Our scholastic ears would perk up at any piece of news, any rumor, any hint of intrigue.


An area of discussion that was of particular interest was the Sacred Liturgy and the rumors we heard about possible innovations that could give new life to the official prayer of the Church. While we were enthusiastic supporters of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, we knew that there was a handful of Oblates in the General House who were adamantly opposed to anything but the traditional Latin language. A couple of them were even publishing articles in journals about the sacred character of Latin.


Shortly before the Council began, Pope John XXIII invited all of the seminarians in Rome to a special audience at the Vatican. It was the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, February 22, 1962, and we thought he wanted to speak with us about the upcoming Council. At the beginning of the audience, they brought out a little table, set it before the pope and on it, the Holy Father signed and promulgated the Apostolic Constitution “Veterum Sapientia,” promoting the study and use of the Latin language. I remember walking home afterwards with some fellow scholastics, wondering what that was all about. Of course, we were already taking all of our classes in Latin. That was simply one of the things one expected if sent to Rome for studies. But all of a sudden in seminaries throughout the world, professors were walking into classes and speaking Latin to ears that often had no idea what was being said. Was this a sign of what was to come from the Council regarding the vernacular in the liturgy? The story that circulated the most is that the document was in reaction to a decision of the Italian government to no longer require the Latin language in Italian middle schools. Whatever the case may have been, the Council did approve use of the vernacular in the liturgy. Not only that, but within a few short years, classes at the pontifical universities would be taught mostly in Italian or even in English (at my alma mater, the Angelicum).


Another liturgical issue that caused a lot of chatter among the seminarians was the placement of the altar and the celebrant’s facing the people. One Oblate commented that he was against having the celebrant face the people because “Some of us are not as beautiful as others.”


The Oblate Bishops.


The Superior General, Fr. Leo Deschȃtelets, decided to invite all of the Oblates who were Council Fathers to live at the General House during the sessions of the Council. That meant that rooms had to be prepared for over 30 archbishops and bishops, a couple apostolic prefects and several theologians who accompanied the bishops. The student priests of the Studium Generale had to move out of the General House and take up lodging in a nearby apartment house owned by the Oblates.


This fact had little impact on the lives of the Roman scholastics since access to the General House was pretty much taboo for us. The most obvious thing for us was that we had to serve the bishops’ individual Masses each morning (this was pre-concelebration).


Some of the bishops were very friendly; some barely acknowledged our presence. Those who really stand out in my memory were Bishops Gerard Mongeau and Francis McSorley from the Philippines; Bishop John Taylor from Stockholm; and most especially, Archbishop Denis Hurley. These men would spend time chatting with the scholastics whenever our paths would cross. Archbishop Hurley was a source of many interesting tidbits from the Council. He had been a member of the Central Preparatory Commission, so he knew a lot of the stories behind the stories. It was he who came over to the scholasticate to tell us of the assassination of President Kennedy. (We had no TV in our side of the building!) Although he was not an Oblate, I did meet by chance one of the heroes of my youth, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. He was kind enough to stop and chat with me when I met him on a street of Rome.


Probably the most important thing about the bishops’ presence is that we saw them each day getting into their bus to go to the Council just as we were getting in our buses to go to classes. This made us feel part of something bigger than our own little world of books and classes.


The Holy Father(s)


When I was a young scholastic in my early 20’s, I willingly stood for hours to be part of a papal Mass or other celebration. I was present when Blessed Pope John XXIII stood in the portico of St. Peter’s to officially set the date for the beginning of the Council. I was also present in St. Peter’s Square on October 11, 1962, when what appeared to be a steady stream of white moved across the Square into St. Peter’s. The white sea was composed of the miters atop the heads of the Council Fathers, solemnly accompanying the Holy Father in his sedia gestatoria. I never had the opportunity to be actually present inside the Basilica during a session. However, one time in between sessions, there was a Mass in honor of St. Charles Borromeo to which seminarians in Rome were invited. We got to sit in the special tiers of seats built for the Council Fathers.


I was also in St. Peter’s Square on June 3, 1963, for a Mass for the dying John XXIII. Just as the Mass ended, the lights went on in the papal apartment and the death of the Holy Father was announced. I felt truly blessed to have been so close to his “going home.”


During the conclave later that month, I was in the midst of final exams. We were about a 20 minute walk from St. Peter’s (we never had money for city buses in those days!). I went down there on June 20 to see black smoke over the Sistine Chapel. The next day, June 21, I studied all morning and decided at the last minute to go down for the noontime burning of ballots. I no sooner walked into the square when smoke came out of the chimney….first black and then white. Again, I was going to see history in the making. After what seemed a long wait (we had not yet had lunch!), the announcement was made: “Habemus papam…!” And as soon as the Cardinal Dean had said “Johannem Baptistam…” before he could say “Montini”….the roar went up. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini had been the heir presumptive for some time. The big surprise was his taking a name that had not been used for several centuries: Pope Paul VI.


A few days later, I stood in St. Peter’s Square under a very hot sun waiting for the coronation of the new pope to begin.  I think I got there at about 3 p.m. The ceremony did not begin until the sun had gone down behind St. Peter’s dome….at around 7. watched the coronation with a sun-burned face and neck.


My days at the Holy Office!


I can say that something I did had a direct link with the Council. One of the formators on the staff of our scholasticate, Fr. Michel Leclerq, OMI, worked at what was then known as the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). During the summer of 1963, between the first and second sessions of the Council, he asked me to come to Rome from our summer home in Roviano to do some typing for the Council. Some conciliar schemata had been discussed at the first session of the Council. The bishops were invited to send in their comments and suggestions for new drafts of these documents. I spent about two weeks in a room in the basement of the Holy Office typing onto mimeograph stencils these comments and suggestions. They were in Latin and a lot of it was repetitive. But I knew that even the Holy Father might possibly read what I was typing. I think this is the reason the prenovices mentioned above saw me as “part of history!” And I enjoyed it when the Swiss Guards clicked their heels in salute when I walked by them!


At the University.


I did my seven years of studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Urbe, commonly known as the Angelicum. During the first three years, I was in the philosophy department. The Council was in the preparatory phase and I don’t remember much being said about it in our classes.


But we happened to be in first year theology during the first session of the Council which was discussing such topics as Divine Revelation and the Church. We were simultaneously studying those vary things in our course work. Unfortunately, both of our professors in those fields were not at all amused by the Council or the direction it was taking in their disciplines. The professor of Divine Revelation referred in class to the German theologians at the Council as “dogs.” “Sunt canes!” I recall the professor of theology of the Church drawing the famous pyramid on the blackboard, insisting that was the only valid way of describing the Church. Yet we were already hearing and reading about the “People of God” and a new way of looking at the Church.


One of my classmates was a young Dominican Friar from Malta. He told us that the great theologian, Fr. Yves Congar, O.P., was staying at the Angelicum during the Council. They had relegated him to a tiny room in the attic. But when the Dominican Master General had an audience with Pope Paul VI, and was told by the Holy Father that Congar was one of his favorite theologians, the future cardinal was moved to the best guest room in the house!


During the subsequent sessions of the Council, the students at the Angelicum were beginning to voice their discontent with the way the Council was being either ignored or criticized by a few of the professors. Student representatives made a formal complaint to the rector. I don’t recall the specific issues they brought up at that time, but such complaints from the students were considered somewhat rebellious. I believe the incident even made Time magazine.


Of course, what was perceived as impertinence on the part of the seminary students in the first half of the 1960’s was nothing compared to the “revolution” that took place on university campuses in Europe and North America in the late 60’s. By then, things had calmed down in the pontifical universities and many changes were already underway.


This is not to imply that all of our professors were reacting against what was happening at the Vatican. We had several excellent professors of Sacred Scripture and dogma. I have to smile when I think of how little Canon Law I learned in those days. We had an excellent professor who was also on the commission set up to revise the Code of Canon Law. He would get to something they were discussing in the commission and say, “This is going to be changed, so we will skip it for now.” It would take until 1983 for the new Code to be promulgated!


After the Council.


The Council concluded on December 8, 1965. Ten days later, I was ordained to the priesthood at the General House chapel in Rome. I guess I can call myself a Vatican II priest. For my “First Mass” at the Villa Nazareth boarding school for poor boys, I was able to use both English and Italian for parts of the Mass since in Italy the use of the vernacular had begun on the first Sunday of Advent that year. The Eucharistic prayer was still in Latin, however, and the altar had not yet been turned toward the people.


When in late June of 1966, I left Rome to return to the United States after having been away for seven years, I was full of enthusiasm about the ideas contained in the documents of the Council. I thought the folks at home would be interested too. I was somewhat disappointed when I learned that after all I had experienced in Rome during those years, people seemed more interested in knowing whether the Holy Father was going to reveal the so-called “Third Fatima secret.”


I won’t go into a lot of commentary about the post-Vatican II era. Those early years (the late 60’s and the 70’s) were full of all sorts of changes, not only in the way we lived our faith, but also in society at large. Some of the changes were good; some of them went awry. Some had to do with the implementation of Vatican II, according to different interpretations; some changes were simply the result of the “signs of the times.” The whole world was going through a tumultuous period that saw anti-war protests, the women’s liberation movement, people leaving priesthood and religious life, the “sexual revolution,” the civil rights movement, the hippies, protests and demonstrations, etc.


Blessed Pope John XXIII was convinced that it was the Holy Spirit that guided his decision to call an Ecumenical Council for the good of the Church. During the Council, the members daily invoked this same Spirit upon their deliberations. Just as happened in the Church of apostolic times, there were disagreements about how the Spirit was leading the Church. There will be similar disagreements until the Second Coming of the Lord in glory. I’m just glad that I have lived in this particular era of the Spirit’s working among us. And I am consoled by the words of Jesus: “I will not leave you orphans.”


June 12, 2012, Feast of Blessed Josef Cebula, OMI