Vatican Council II: An Insider’s Diary

My Time at the Council Part 2  The Council in session

by Anthony, Massimini , Ph.D.


Progressives vs. Conservatives

   On October 13, 1962, Vatican II started its official work.  The day was short and dramatic.

The council fathers took their assigned places in the “grandstands” that ran the length of St. Peter’s, facing each other across the marble floor like the stands of a football stadium.

But where was Pope John XXIII?  Word quickly got around that the pope was in his apartment watching the council on closed-circuit TV.  His message to the council fathers was clear:  it’s your church, do something about it, and then report back to me.    

   The session started with a Mass, as it would every day thereafter. Council fathers then took turns making announcements in the various languages of the world.  One of them was my archbishop, John Krol, of Philadelphia.  One morning, while he was standing in the pulpit, which stood at the altar-end of the grandstands, I happened to walk by in front of him.  He looked down and gestured, “Look at me, I can’t believe I’m up here at this momentous event.”

   The fathers had been provided with documents, one of which had spaces for them to vote for members of the council’s commissions, whose highly influential job it would be to move the council debates forward toward passage of the council documents.  The papers also contained the names of council fathers who had served on the preparatory committees.  Most of them were members of the Curia or Curia followers.  The fathers were asked to start voting.  Immediately, the “progressives” started spreading the word that the list and the rush to vote smacked of a conspiracy.

The fathers had been provided with documents.

   Some fathers obediently started to vote but stopped when a voice came over the speakers.  Cardinal Lienart of Lille, France, was calling for a delay in the vote so the fathers could inform themselves of the best candidates for the commissions, meaning, of course, other than those listed.  Cardinal Frings, of Cologne, quickly supported Lienart.  Despite the council rules that no public displays were permitted, applause broke out from what was to become the progressive majority.  Cardinal Tisserant, the presider for the day, instead of quieting the applause, announced that the proposal had been accepted and the council would adjourn for three days to allow the fathers to inform themselves. The first meeting had taken 50 minutes.  That day, the Holy Spirit spoke abruptly!

   Throughout the next three days, the fathers met, got to know one another, discussed, argued and politicked.     

   Then the Spirit laughed.  When the fathers finally did vote, I joined the other council assistants and tried to decipher the handwriting of 2500 men from all over the world who wrote thousands of names into little spaces.  Finally, the commissions were set up, with members from “both sides.”  The council was ready to take up its first order of business, the liturgy.

A Theologians’ Council

   The council fathers had been given the preparatory commission’s document on the liturgy and they now had the opportunity to speak–for ten minutes–and propose additions, changes, etc.  It quickly became clear that many of the fathers could not understand the spoken Latin.  Business at the two coffee bars under the stands became brisk.  The main work of the council took place in small meetings held in the afternoons and evenings.

   It was at these meetings that the theologians made their influence felt.  Many of them had been suppressed and silenced for trying to bring the church into the 20th century.  Pope John XXIII invited them to participate in the council.  They included Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Yves Congar, and Jean Danielou.  Later, American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, who had also been silenced, was invited.  He played a major role in forming the council’s document on religious liberty, based in part on the American experience with freedom of religion.

Some American Politics

   Two occasions during the Liturgy debate especially mark my memory.  

One.  Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta, presided over one of the sub-committees working on the vernacular for the liturgy.  He was a progressive, who befriended progressives like young Hans Kung, who served as a theological expert for the German bishops, (along with another young progressive, Joseph Ratzinger), and Cardinal Leo Seunens, a leading advocate for aggiornamento, ecumenism and dialogue with the everyday world.  Hallinan’s sub-committee was scheduled to take an important vote that afternoon, and he wanted to make sure he had the progressive votes in hand before the meeting took place.

   He handed me a list containing the names of 13 bishops on his committee and said, “Find out where they’re sitting and get them to sign this paper.”   He smiled and added, “Just a little old American politicking.”  I went to the computer room under the grandstands and got a technician to print out the locations.  Then I went out into the basilica and started making the rounds–up and down the aisles, here and there.  Very quickly, the council fathers began to follow me, noting where I was going and to whom I was handing the paper.  I found my targets and got the signatures.  That afternoon, Hallinan got his vote.  The next morning, the announcers announced in all the languages of the world, “Would the assistants refrain from moving among the council fathers during the session.”  In all the history of the 21 ecumenical councils of the church, I wonder how many assistants had announcements directly personally at them!

The African Mass

   Two:  At first, the Mass that opened each session was a Latin Mass.  Then a few Eastern Rite Masses were celebrated.  All were celebrated at the main altar.  One morning, a small, plain altar was set up in the middle of the basilica, on the floor between the facing grandstands.  Directly behind it was arranged a semi-circle of plain benches.  An announcer said in Latin that an African Rite Mass would be celebrated.

   The massive doors of the basilica opened and a double row of very tall, either Watusi or Masai men started walking in.  They were wearing floor length, flowing white robes with very short sleeves, so that their black arms formed a stark contrast with their robes.  They carried drums of various sizes.  Behind them came three priests, wearing vestments that reflected every color of the rainbow.

    They entered silently.  The white robed men sat on the benches.  For another moment or so, more silence.  Pregnant silence.  Then, ever so very softly, a slow, rhythmic, sound caught everyone’s attention.  The beat was very soft and very far away.  As far away as Africa.  As rhythmic as the heartbeat of Africa itself.  Slowly, hypnotically, the beat continued.  Then it grew louder.  The pace quickened and the rhythm grew more and more intense.  Everyone in the basilica not only heard it but felt it.  The fathers’ feet began to move and tap along with the rhythm.  Then their bodies joined in and they began to move rhythmically in their seats.  Some caught themselves and laughed in embarrassment.  Most just went with the beat. 

   The celebrant began praying in his own language.  Behind him, the men became a chorus and chanted in soft accompaniment as they continued beating their drums.  Mesmerized, the fathers’ followed the Mass.  When the time came for the Gospel, one priest changed the Missal from one side of the altar to the other.  The chorus rose, and as the celebrant chanted the Gospel, they danced around the altar, chanting and beating their drums.  The announcer said, “Behold the joy of Africa at having received the Good News of Jesus Christ!”  At that, the almost 2200 council fathers began to applaud and cheer.

   I remembered hearing an African Cardinal, who spoke to a group of us before the council started.  He said, “We Africans have come to Rome to say, ‘Stop building your Gothic cathedrals in the middle of our jungles!  We have our own churches and our own way of praying!'”

   Despite the reluctance of the traditionalists, the liturgy document was accepted, 2147 to 4.

Truth Speaks to Power

  Every Monday afternoon, the American bishops met at the North American College on the Janiculum Hill to hear an expert bring them up to date on theology and Scripture studies.  The Janiculum, one of Rome’s seven hills, rises immediately to the south of St. Peter’s Square.  The College, which is the residence for American seminarians, was built just after World War II, and is a modern, stone and glass monument to America.  

  One Monday, a Scripture scholar was scheduled to speak, and Bill Leahy, who was in the process of becoming a Scripture scholar himself, decided that he and I should go listen to him.  I objected that it was not our place to be there.  Bill disagreed, arguing that we were an official part of Vatican II, albeit a minor part.  So we went.  Having lived there ourselves for four years, we knew how to safely sneak upstairs into the balcony of the auditorium.

   On the stage a Scripture scholar, dressed in a monk’s robe, addressed the bishops.  I believe it was Raymond Brown, but I’m not sure.  He was explaining that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death and were edited versions of the young Christian faith.  In fact, he pointed out, we did not have the exact words that Jesus used at the Last Supper when he instituted the Eucharist.  

  The bishops were shocked.  “You mean we don’t say the same words that Jesus said, when we say Mass?” one asked.  “Well, no,” the scholar answered, no doubt smiling to himself since Jesus had spoken Aramaic. As the scholar continued with his explanation, we heard loud footsteps.  Someone had entered the auditorium and was walking up the aisle toward the stage.    

   The scholar stopped speaking.  Then a strong, loud voice.  “Father, you should not be saying such things!  You should not be teaching the fathers in this way!”  

   Bill and I leaned forward to see who was speaking.  It was a Cardinal, possibly Giovanni Amleto Cicognani, who had been Apostolic Delegate to the U. S.  But we couldn’t be sure because we leaned back as quickly and quietly as we could and tried to make ourselves invisible. 

   There was dead silence in the auditorium.  Then another voice.  One of the bishops, speaking with a clear, mid-western twang, said, “Well, Fathers, we came here to here the truth.  I think we should hear the truth.”  Then another voice, “Yes, let’s hear the truth.”  And another.  Then applause.  

   Footsteps again, as the Cardinal walked back out of the auditorium.  Then one more voice, “Father, would you please continue.”  The speaker continued.

   Bill and I looked at each other.  Power had spoken to truth, and truth had spoken back to power.  We smiled, more inspired than ever at what Vatican II was bringing about.      

A Council of Everyday Spirituality

   The theologians whom John XXIII invited to Vatican II brought with them not only a 20th century view of theology but also of philosophy.  That philosophy was called Phenomenology.  In short, it focuses on our everyday experience in deciding what is real and true and right.  Psychology similarly speaks of raising consciousness.  

   The theologians brought this way of thinking into the council’s teaching in order to fulfill John’s instruction that the council explain our living faith pastorally, i.e., in terms of people’s everyday lives and the changing signs of the times.  The traditionalists strongly opposed this approach, preferring to focus on abstract, unchangeable teachings–and on their power to keep the teachings from changing.

   But experiences do change, and church teaching has changed as a result of new experiences.  It took over 1800 years, but the everyday experience of dire suffering by slaves finally made Christians officially realize that owning people was wrong.  Their raised consciousness moved them to change our moral teaching on slavery 180 degrees.  Experience also moved Christians to change the moral teaching on charging interest on loans.  On the crusades.  The Inquisition.  Anti-Semitism.  Racial segregation in American churches and schools.  Today, our consciousness is rising concerning just war and capital punishment, women’s rights and gay rights.  The Internet, Twitter, smart phones, etc., permit us to communicate with the world in an instant.  We are becoming increasingly aware of the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence of all people and things.  As a result of all these experiences and more, our experience of ourselves and of God is changing.  In sum, we are evolving, and our faith and moral judgments need to evolve with us.  

   Vatican II saw this coming and said that the human race is involved in a new stage of history. (Church in the Modern World, CMW, No. 4).  Cosmologist/mystic, Brian Swimme says we can now reinvent the human.  Theologian Elizabeth Johnson beautifully presents some of today’s experiences of God in her excellent book, Quest for a Living God.  (The bishops’ complaint is that she did not use the traditional approach to understanding God.)  Ilia Delio, O. S. F. writes of the evolving Christ.  Here we should give a special “shout out” to our American Religious Women, who are wondrously showing the beautiful features of the American face of Christ.  

   Vatican II wanted us to catch up to the Modern World, by which it meant, “today’s world”. We are now in what we call the Post-Modern World.  And in many ways, we are farther behind than before.  For one thing, the everyday experience of priests and bishops is not the same as that of the laity.  The immediate, direct discernment of God’s presence and intentions in the give and take of today’s world is up to the laity.  And so the initiative for coming up to date and expressing Christ in 21st century, American terms within our living, evolving faith, is very much up to the laity.

   Our society and culture are suffering.  People are suffering.  Waiting is not an option.     


Dr. Anthony Massimini, Ph.D.

Ordained for Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Rome, 1959

Attended first session of Vatican II, 1962 

Dispensed by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and returned to the laity

Married in a Catholic ceremony, 1972

Editor and Translator: Council Speeches, Third Session of  Vatican II, with William K. Leahy

Author:  The New Dance of Christ–Discovering Our Spiritual Self in a New,  Evolving World, Xlibris Publishers, 2000  

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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