From the Eternal City, Michael Novak reports on the general atmosphere as the time for the Council gets closer:
Rome sweltering hot this summer. Stepping out from the cool interior of St. Peter’s, one meets rolling waves of dry heat and a blinding glare from the Piazza. Rome is quiet now too. The great work of preparation for the Council has been concluded. Summaries have been sent out to the bishops of the world, and now, in the summer heat, Rome is settling down to wait for October.
Construction work inside St. Peter’s is proceeding piano piano, but steadily. Metal scaffolding runs the length of the great central nave on both sides, supporting rows of graduated platforms on which the seats, tables, and priedieus of the nearly three thousand Council Fathers will be placed. The huge central nave will gradually be closed off from pilgrims and visitors, a building within a building. The throne for Pope John will be in front of the Confession. Lower than he, on his right, will be the rows of Cardinals, facing the statue of St. Peter across the aisle, and then the Patriarchs. Archbishops and bishops will take their places facing one another across the wide central aisle. Each section for the bishops holds ten rows one above the other, six seats to a row; each section will have a loudspeaker and a telephone to the desk of the secretary of the Council. Microphones—not individual apparently, but one for every other section—will make it possible for every speaker to reach the whole assembly. A passage under the bleachers, with stairways to each section, makes access to one another relatively easy.
Latin will be the official language of the Council, but the rules so far adopted allow the use of the vernacular to those speakers who request it. Questions of agenda and voting procedure are not yet clear—the former, of course, is and will remain even during the Council the great uncertainty. The proposals of the Preparatory Commissions, in summary form, fill a book of 2,060 pages; their reports fill a projected fifteen volumes. The Central Commission, charged with synthesizing and relating the work of the other eleven commissions and three secretariates, is without doubt the most significant creation of the three-year preparatory stage.
This commission, whose presidency Pope John retained for himself or an appointed delegate ( different from occasion to occasion), was composed of one hundred and three men from many nations. The bishop of Utrecht—one of the outspoken and imposing figures in the preparations—has already urged that this commission remain a permanent body, meeting at intervals in Rome. A consistent run of current stories (Latin secrecy forbids retailing direct facts, but who can stop parable or jest?) report that the meetings of the Central Commission were characterized by several extremely sharp and direct confrontations, and that the airing of viewpoints and pastoral experience from diverse parts of the world was pungently salutary to all concerned. In this suggestion for the permanent reconvening of the Central Commission may be the creative thrust that will, in the long run, support the optimism once felt about the coming Council.
For there seems no doubt that the short-view hopes for the Council, as expressed casually and unofficially around Rome, are not optimistic. As one Irish cleric put it: “The Holy Ghost has His back up against the wall.” It is difficult to sink one’s teeth into any facts supporting the pessimism; the chief basis seems to be a pervasive long-suffering vis-á-vis the Roman Curia. There are countless stories, exciting to the imagination for the very reason that they match external events while secrecy hides the inner maneuvering, whose point is that the Curia has been afraid of the Council , minimizing its importance, trivializing its scope. The question of unity with other Christians, for example, seems more and more remote from the center of concern. The rationalization—so very typical of one type of ecclesiastical mind—is that, “That problem is too complicated, it will take centuries; for now, we must put in operation certain long-term organizational reforms….” Which means that no one need be disturbed.
The Roman Curia is not a monolith, however. Cardinal Bea has worked inexhaustibly in talks, letters , and interviews to keep the theme of union near the heart of this Council, in effect if not in direct discussion. In such personal efforts as his, and in the life that is stirred in their wake, many of Pope John’s creative hopes for the Council will be realized even outside of formal sessions. Younger members of the Curia like Archbishop Sigismondi of Propaganda have been in contact with world-wide currents for much of their priestly life. Older members like Cardinals Agagianian, Valeri and Cicognani, either through visits abroad or through working with non-Italians or in “Northern” countries, have a sense for the problems that exercise the non-Latin world. The influence of such men, together, with that of now little-known but articulate and thoughtful bishops from sees around the world, will tell heavily in the Council. The First Vatican Council in 1870 seated only seven hundred bishops; the counterweight now to the Curia is three times that great.
Reports also say that the attitude of the Curia in the Preparatory Commissions was unobstructive and generous, however great the mark of the Curia (through the commission presidents, for example) was bound to be on the results. There seems no bitterness in the air. The bishops of the world have all had a chance to present their own questions for discussion, and they will have a chance again now that the summary report is in their hands. Above all, Pope John himself knows how to keep the good will of the Curia, while peacefully going where he wants to go.
In the personality of Pope John lies, in fact, the master key to this Council. As president, a timely word of his, even perhaps subtle approval or disapproval in his manner, and of course the final decisions as t o agenda and procedure, will be able to make even of a listless session a constructive one. Significantly, while preparing a free and unstructured Council, the good Pope has reserved the major guiding powers to his own care; it is very truly ‘Pope John’s Council.” Who will speak first on various matters? What tone will be set? What impressions will be made on those thoughtful but silent Fathers who come to vote but not to speak? Whatever these intangible crevices through which the Holy Spirit finds ample room to act in the affairs of men, Pope John will be able to work even more directly. His pleas for prayer and penance to ask God’s guidance do not seem merely conventional.
The first session of the Council is scheduled to last from October 11 until December 8, with the possibility, even probability, of at least one more session in the new year. Much of the legislation to be affirmed will no doubt be disciplinary, but—it is said—with specifics left in the hands of national synods. No one at this stage knows what exactly will be discussed. Questions bruited about range from the power and role of bishops to trivial things like the number of candles in a Byzantine Mass.
The great overarching question is the modernization of the Church. But the Church at large means by “modernization” something quite different from what many members of the Curia can imagine. Italians love the rhetoric of “evolution,” “updating,” “modernissimo,” but they have not experienced much that we mean by the terms. Few, almost no, laymen were members of the preparatory commissions; some were consulted by the Commission on the Lay Apostolate and the like. The language and concepts used in schemata and topics do not seem of the latest and best in Catholic thought.
It may be invidious after the recent statement o f the Holy Office about Teilhard de Chardin (a hope – fully mild and reasonable warning, even if the accompanying Osservatore article wasn’t acute), but Vatican Council II is already giving evidence that we are living in the “noosphere.” The pressure of a universal point of view is building up. It is straining the abilities of a preponderantly Italian Curia. The drama of the Council, then, will not be so much what happens from day to day, or what particular decisions emerge; about these, there may well be pessimism among those living at the vanguard of the contemporary world. (I have seen no notice of the discussion of nuclear warfare , for example; but it must surely be there, somewhere. ) The profoundest drama of the Council will be, psychologically and let us hope institutionally, the breakthrough to a truly universal Church. If this breakthrough is achieved, even germinally, the enthusiasm of those who once hoped for the greatest Church event in twenty centuries will be quietly justified.
From the August 24, 1962 issue of Commonweal. Reprinted with permission.