Reports From Rome

From America, November 24, 1962:

Two letters furnish some on-the-spot observations of the Council’s progress

ROME—Pomp and circumstance have their place in deliberations of the Ecumenical Council which convened in Rome the second week of October. But the big televised moments are few, while the hours upon hours of close, detailed, generally serene, but often momentarily heated discussion are many.

Council Fathers who wish to speak must present their names three days in advance. At the beginning of each day’s meeting—after Mass, which has become by custom a dialogue Mass—the names of the day’s speakers are read out in the order in which they are to address the Council.

Latin is the language of the Council. Most of the bishops are quite fluent in this tongue, though almost all rely on notes or a full script. At any rate, the full script is turned over to a secretary as soon as each prelate has finished his remarks. These texts are then copied by a corps of secretaries, who compare them with their steno and tape-recorded versions in order to include sentences or phrases which creep into the original ad libitum.

The acoustics in the basilica are just about perfect. Many of the Europeans, however, find it difficult to comprehend the Americans and British when they speak, since even fluent Latin on the tongues of most Anglo-Saxons carries intonations and stresses that are strange to the French, Spanish or Italian ear. Conversely, “French” Latin, for example, has a Gallic ring in our ears. Just one little but telling difference is provided by the way in which the French pronounce the letter “u.” Anyone who has taken a first-year French course knows how difficult it is for the average student to master the peculiar lip-pursing that goes into producing this vowel in a satisfactorily French manner. The French-speaking Fathers of the Council—many of them the charming Negro bishops of Africa whom one sees everywhere in Rome these days—are all eloquent, but more in the manner of bossuet than of Cicero.

Latin is spoken, of course, even in discourses on liturgical practice which favor wider use of vernacular languages. Some of these appeals for the vernacular are made in mellifluous periods of which Cicero himself would be proud.

There are some two hundred theologians—specialists in various branches of theology—present at all the sessions of the Council. (Many have remarked on the absence of Fr. John Courtney Murray, of the United States.) They are the so-called periti or “experts,” and they take no direct part in the actual deliberations of the Council. Present, too, are the numerous official observers, representatives of the Orthodox and Protestant Churches, who have—as far as seating is concerned— a place of honor in St. Peter’s. Fr. Gustave Weigel, S. J., a corresponding editor of America, sits with them as interpreter and official liaison officer. Many observers, I am told, are scholars and understand the spoken Latin quite readily. They have been profoundly impressed by the freedom of discussion and the care that Council officers have exercised to see that all who wish to speak are allowed to have their turns at the microphone.

One difficulty with a system which requires a three-day lapse between the time of filing your name to speak and actually speaking is that in the interim some other Father of the Council may well say precisely what you were going to say. You then have the choice of ceding your place to the next Father, or taking the floor to repeat in other words what has been said. One American bishop attempted to set an example by limiting his remarks to two sentences, but greater volubility is the general practice, although there is a cutoff point at ten or, at the most, fifteen minutes.

How long will the Council last? A long time, no doubt. Some have estimated two or three years. Of course, the present session will conclude December 8. There has been some talk of reconvening in January. Missionary bishops especially—but many others, too— would find it very difficult, from a financial viewpoint, to go to Rome and return to their sees many times over. But it is likely that the second session will not be convoked until April, 1963.

Yes, the work of renewing the life of the Church will take many months or even years. Some even say that it is likely that a sort of permanent Council of Fathers, a smaller group chosen to represent the various hierarchies of the world, may eventuate from the sessions of Vatican II. They would meet annually for several weeks or months, and keep on meeting until all the work is done. Since the work of the Church is never done, Vatican II might thus lead the Church to adopt a wholly new external form of her life as Mother and Teacher of all men, a life she leads from age to age under the directing hand of Christ’s Vicar on earth.

Fr. Davis, the editor-in-chief of this Review, has been in Rome since October.


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