October 15, 2012

It didn't take long for the tide to turn at the Second Vatican Council. Curia officials had spent much of the 44 months between the day Pope John XXIII announced the council until it actually began planning for how they believed it should be carried out.

They produced a mountain of documents – 70 in total – and expected the assembled bishops of the world to rubber stamp them and the council's business to be concluded by Christmas.

Once the lengthy formalities of the opening of Vatican II were completed, the next task was to elect the commissions that would handle any revisions and rewriting of the proposed documents.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy Office and leader of the curial forces who wanted no meaningful reform to emerge from Vatican II, even circulated a list of bishops he wanted to see elected to the commissions.

No one was in a position to offer alternatives. The bishops simply did not know each other. Often, they barely knew their colleague in the neighbouring diocese, let alone anyone from halfway around the world.

Today, this might seem unfathomable. However, 50 years ago, transportation was rudimentary and infrequent, even within one's own country.


Moreover, there was no tradition of bishops collaborating. Episcopal conferences, where they existed, did not play the major role in the Church that they began to carry out as soon as the council ended.


The council fathers were expected to elect members to conciliar commissions from among 2,500 bishops, few of whom they knew.

As the young Father Joseph Ratzinger noted, diocesan bishops had more contact with the Roman Curia than they did with prelates in their own nation.

So when the bishops assembled in St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 13, 1962 and were told they were to vote immediately on membership on the commissions, a great murmur went through the vast assembly hall.

"All the names, how are we to know them and how are we to choose them?" even the well-connected Cardinal Giovanni Montini of Milan (the future Pope Paul VI) later wrote to his priests.

Amidst the confusion and discontent, one of the 10 presidents of Vatican II, the elderly French Cardinal Achille Lienart, rose and put forward a motion to delay the voting for several days. The basilica erupted with the prolonged applause of the council fathers.

Another president, Cardinal Jozef Frings of Colonge, West Germany, rose to speak in favour of Lienart's proposal. More applause.

Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, dean of the College of Cardinals, then announced that Lienart's proposal had been accepted and voting was to be delayed until the following Tuesday, three days later.

The majority of the bishops greeted that decision with great approval. However, Ottaviani's frends were not pleased.


His close associate, Cardinal Giuseppi Siri of Genoa, fumed that Lienart's motion was an example of the "Northerners" and their "eternal inferiority complex toward Rome." In his diary that day, Siri wrote, "The devil has had his hand in this."

Three days is not much time. But the tight deadline forced the rapid development of collegiality among the bishops. By the Monday deadline for nominations, 34 lists of nominees from various countries and regions had been put forward.

Cardinal Jozef Frings

Cardinal Jozef Frings

Ottaviani's own list had not been well-received. Many saw it as an attempt to steer the work of the commissions and to force a particular agenda through the council.


Further, at least among some key Western European bishops, there was great discontent with what was known about the 70 documents. There was even more discontent with the fact that the bishops had seen only a tiny fraction of those documents. The council fathers had come to Rome at great personal inconvenience and expense. They were not going to be taken for granted.

The voting process was complex. However, by the time the commissions were chosen, a reasonable stab had been made at making them representative of the global Church.

More importantly, the council fathers had seized control of the agenda. They were not going to be rubber stamps.

"It was a confrontation that opened the way to the spirit of collegiality," said the young African Bishop Bernardin Gantin.


Ratzinger agreed. "Now it became clear that, besides the official Curia organs (subordinated to the pope), the body of bishops was a reality in its own right, infusing into the dialogue and the very life of the Church its own spiritual experience.

"A long dormant spiritual power was now coming into the open."

There is little doubt that Pope John wanted the bishops, not the Curia, to determine the direction of Vatican II. Ever-patient to watch events unfold in their own way, the pope nevertheless paid tribute to "the holy freedom of the council."

Once that holy freedom erupted on the first day of the council deliberations, it would not be put back into the bottle. The bishops were going to set the direction for Vatican II.

(Information in this article was taken from History of Vatican II, vol. 2, edited by Giuseppi Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak and from Theological Highlights of Vatican II by Joseph Ratzinger.)