The Human Side of the Council

While the grave problems of the universal Church are being examined in the Second Vatican Council, there is a side-play of human activity reminiscent of congresses and parliaments around the world.

The general meetings of the council begin at 9 sharp every morning. At that hour the bishops find their assigned places and attend Mass.

The Mass, with which each day’s work begins, is in a different Rite almost every day. The ancient tongues chants provide a daily education in the fact that all is not Western and Latin in the Catholic Church.

After the Mass is over, the ceremony of enthroning the Gospels on the center of the altar is repeated everyday. Some bishop, each day chosen from a different part of the world, carries the book the full length of the council hall accompanied by two candle bearers.

Perhaps 40 minutes has been required for all this. Now there is the muffled coughing and shuffling of papers which is the sign everywhere on earth that the assembly is settling down for the work of the day.

At this point the council secretary general usually makes announcements which concern the whole assembly but which are outside the material on the agenda. He may note, for example, some particular feast day or announce that some particular document is about to be distributed.

Then he announces the names of council Fathers who have requested permission to address the assembly that day. The usual list of about 30 names is said to give the Fathers their first attack of cushion consciousness. The full roster of speakers is never completed.

The cardinals, usually about six, lead off the speeches. Then the archbishops, bishops and superiors general of religious societies follow, in no particular order of rank or dignity.

Apparently only the cardinals are permitted to speak without making previous application to the general secretariat. Hardly a day passes without some council Father yielding his permission to speak, generally because he feels his intended remarks have already been covered by a previous speaker. He does, however, retain the right to file his written text with the general secretariat so that it will be taken under consideration by the council commission in amending the particular proposal for legislation under discussion.

Around 11 o’clock each morning scenes develop in the side aisles of St. Peter’s basilica which—except for the purple robes and colored marbles—could be seen, say, in the corridors and cloakroom of the United States Senate.

While loudspeakers keep them in touch with the debates in progress in the council hall—the center nave of the basilica—clusters of bishops engage in animated conversation, form, dissolve, reform with new members, and break up into strolling pairs and threes.

The council also has its cloakroom and coffee lounge. The loudspeaker in the coffee room might send 20 or 30 bishops scurrying back to their seats for a ballot that is about to take place.

Although the council Fathers have been instructed to refrain from expressing their feelings by “audience reaction,” a spontaneous reaction sometimes breaks out. Only one time did the Fathers applaud, and then they were called to order. At other times an audible murmur has been heard when a particularly significant speaker has approached the microphone.

A dramatic moment can be sensed sometimes in the assembly.

A dramatic statement may be made, a dramatic proposal may be put forward. Then all present, almost as though moved by a single lever, will lean forward; all motion and sound will stop, and the eyes and minds of over 2,000 men will be focused on the sound of one man’s voice.

The council presidency, divided between 10 cardinals, is an active one. A member presides in turn over each day’s general meeting.

There is absolute freedom of speech, with limits only on time (10 minutes) and matter (the subject under discussion). If either of these limits is exceeded, the president rings a bell and says something like: “Habe excusatum, Pater, sed tempus jam elapsum est” (Excuse me, Father, but time is up) or “Non pertinet ad rem” (That has nothing to do with the subject).

A touch of humor sometimes enters in, as happened once when the president reminded an orator that “Time is money” or when the president chided the speaker for “preaching to preachers.”

Sometimes the humor, intended or not, is provided by the speaker himself. One speaker, carried away with his defense of Latin in the Mass, pleaded: “At least leave us the ‘Kyrie’,” without reflecting that the “Kyrie” is one of the few non-Latin words in the Mass. Another entertained the assembly with his discourse, complete with gestures, on the awkward moments encountered in administering the Sacrament of Baptism.

The general meeting normally comes to an end around 12:15. Then, when the weather is sunny, the front steps of St. Peter’s basilica burst into color as the purple and scarlet-robed figures flow in waves into the square. When the weather is bad, as it generally is in the early winter days, there is a jam at the door as the bishops struggle into raincoats and attempt to open umbrellas.

From Council Daybook: Vatican II, Sessions 1 and 2, Floyd Anderson, ed. © 1965 by The National Catholic Welfare Conference, Inc. Used by permission of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the successor organization to the NCWC. All rights reserved.

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