Council preparations were front page news for local Catholics

| October 11, 2012 | 0 Comments

“Pope John XXIII Announces First Ecumenical Council Since 1870, Expected in One Year”
— Headline, The Catholic Bulletin, Jan. 30, 1959

Just three months into his papacy in 1959, Pope John XXIII used the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul — Jan. 25 — to announce his goal to do something the church hadn’t done for 90 years: hold an ecumenical council of all the world’s Catholic bishops.

The two-line banner headline across the top of Page 1 of the Catholic Bulletin that week led readers to some 120 inches of copy reporting on the news, including the pope’s own words.

“Some people dare to speak ill of the church, claiming it is behind the times,” the pope was quoted as saying that day. “But the church is alive and is not the custodian of a museum. Though the church has great respect for what is ancient, beautiful and good, her first concern is souls.”

For Catholics at the time, it was a hint that things in their church were about to change — and the beginning of practices that Catholics today recognize as part of the life of the church:

  • Mass typically not in Latin but in their own language.
  • The priest facing the people as he presides at the altar during Mass, not with his back to the people.
  • Active participation in the Mass by the people in the pews — praying the Mass with the priest rather than watching while the priest prays the Mass for them.
  • Prayers of the Faithful, an element restored to the liturgy.
  • Roles for lay people in church operations and advisory bodies as well as in liturgy as lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.
  • The three-year Lectionary cycle, which provides opportunity for the faithful to hear a greater percentage of Scripture than the former one-year cycle Lectionary did.
  • National conferences of bishops.

Archbishop Leo Binz, right, of St. Paul and Minneapolis is pictured with Pope John XXIII in this undated file photo.

But those are more the “outward signs,” if you will, of what happened at the Second Vatican Council.

The renewal or revitalization of Catholicism brought about by Vatican II opened dialogue with those of other faith traditions; the council taught Catholics to see the world not as a threat to Christian life but as an opportunity to announce the Gospel, and that spreading the Gospel was the work of all the baptized, not just priests and religious. The church was defined as the “people of God.”

More and more in the news

After that 1959 announcement, the coming council was news in the Catholic Bulletin every so often, usually spurred by the pope himself, who spoke often about issues he expected the Council Fathers to discuss.

It wasn’t until three years later, though, that word came from the Vatican that the council would begin in October of that year.

That story, too, was Page 1 news in the Catholic Bulletin, on Jan. 5, 1962.

As spring and summer unfolded 50 years ago, coverage of the preparations for the council took up more and more of the news hole and commentary columns in the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the predecessor of The Catholic Spirit — and that’s when the buzz about Vatican II began in earnest.

“Good Pope John” had appointed a dozen commissions and three secretariats to lay the groundwork for the council, and a National Catholic News Service report said the Holy Father personally attended their meetings “to spur their work.”
A central planning committee of cardinals, patriarchs and bishops had been preparing documents for the bishops to read prior to the council, and when the Catholic Bulletin and other publications carried news of what was in those proposals, expectations rose, as did the commenting about each proposal.

The comments came not only from Catholics. Leaders of other faith traditions were also interested in what the council would have to say about them and their relationship to the Catholic Church.

The council commissions discussed possibilities such as Mass in the vernacular, of restoring the diaconate, about the optimal size for dioceses, about reforming the church calendar so that Easter would always be on a fixed date. (Editor’s note: That was not approved, and today Easter continues to be a moveable feast.)

As the council opening drew near, more proposals came to light. The council agenda would include discussion on the role of laity, church-state relations, communism, ecumenism, Christian unity, the church’s authority and teaching role, and the church’s duty to spread the Gospel to all people.

Reinvigorating Christian life

One member of the preparatory commission, Archbishop Karl J. Alter of Cincinnati, was quoted about the council on a number of occasions in stories The Catholic Bulletin published from NC News Service, the forerunner of today’s Catholic News Service.

In April 1962, Archbishop Alter told NCNS that the purpose of the council is “to reinvigorate Christian life in view of the tremendous change that has taken place in the world, particularly with the communist revolution — a frontal attack on the whole concept of Judeo-Christian culture and civilization.”

A couple of months later, in July, a Catholic Bulletin headline read “Council Agenda Set after 3 Years Work,” and in a sidebar article Archbishop Alter explained what Catholics might expect from the council: No reform of teachings of the church with regard to faith and morals or the essential sacramental life or the essential discipline of the church, but many changes to the application of the fundamental teaching of the church “to make it more closely related to present-day needs.”

In the July 13 issue, to prepare readers for the council, the Catholic Bulletin began a series of articles — always on Page 1 — that were reprints from a book about the coming council by German Archbishop Lorenz Jaeger. The 120-part series ran through the middle of September.

In August 1962 Bishop Leonard Cowley, a St. Paul-Minneapolis auxiliary, told the local board of directors of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women that it was Pope John’s intention to restore authority to local bishops, as opposed to it being concentrated in Vatican congregations. “Each diocese will have its own flavor,” Bishop Cowley said at the time, “but there will be no conflict with the universal church. There will be different cultures, but each bishop will discipline local rituals.”

Flurry of council news

Once the council actually opened on Oct. 11, stories, photos, editorials and opinion columns about what the Council Fathers were doing inside St. Peter’s Basilica dominated the news.

During that first session of the council — there would be four, continuing into 1965 — each week Archbishop Leo Binz wrote letters to the people of the archdiocese that were carried as Page 1 columns in the Catholic Bulletin. In them he offered an insider’s look at the council proceedings, describing the colorful scenes, where he sat and near whom, what he saw in and about Rome and Italy, but not the discussions themselves. He considered the secrecy of the discussions important for the unity of the church after the council.

As the council progressed through the fall of 1962, the Council Fathers discussed the need for peace and justice around the globe, the role of the laity, church-state relations, using modern means of communication, communion under both species, Christian unity, the source of revelation and, of course, they debated renewal of the liturgy.

The Catholic Bulletin carried a NCNS story on Nov. 23 that noted that discussion of the “liturgical project” occupied 15 general sessions. It reported that the Council Fathers had submitted 625 proposals or amendments concerning the liturgy, and that more than half of those had been read orally in the council hall.

In another story in November, the work of the council was described as similar to that of parliaments the world over, with caucuses and calls for votes.

After 36 general sessions over the course of two months, the first session of the Second Vatican Council ended on Dec. 8, 1962.

Pope John, in his closing remarks made several points:

  • That the volume of work accomplished was a good beginning.
  • That the bishops of the world should continue their studies in the months ahead.
  • That the work of the council would continue in between sessions “thanks to modern rapid communications.”
  • And that the expected results will be a benefit not only to Catholics but to “our brethren who cherish the name Christian.”

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Category: Vatican II