Vatican Council II: An Insider’s Diary

My Time after the Council Part 4 Executing the Council leads to an execution!

by Dr. Anthony Massimini, Ph.D.

Preparing to Return to Philadelphia

The Beheading of St. Paul in Rome

   A week or so after Kennedy’s visit, I defended my dissertation and was awarded my Doctor’s degree.  It was time to go home.  Bill Leahy and I booked passage on the S. S. Independence.  (He would return again for the remaining council sessions.)  Just before we left, our classmates warned us.  “You two are thinking of going home to Philadelphia and talking about the “New Pentecost.”  You know what’s going to happen to you?  The same thing that happened to St. Paul when he came to Rome.  You’re going to get your heads chopped off.”  

   We laughed.  But we shouldn’t have.  This wasn’t the first time we were warned.  During the council’s first session, Bill Leahy had invited theologian/peritus Hans Kung to the graduate house for an informal talk session.  I clearly remember the contrast between his rugged features and twinkling eyes.  Even more so, I remember my naive surprise to hear him criticize the Curia.  He noted that the Curia was upset because they were losing control of the council.  Wishing they had more time to ensure their control, they were now complaining that the council was being held too soon.  Kung smiled and said, “My response is that the council is being held 400 years too late.”  

Theologian/peritus Hans Kung

  He went on to say that we should not force the Protestants to give up their beliefs and principles for the sake of reunion with Rome.  It’s too much to ask people to give up principles they firmly believe in.  The way to reunion was not a return to Rome but a return to Christ.  “I say to the Protestants, ‘You come closer to Christ your way, and we’ll come closer to Christ our way.  Some day we’ll meet in Christ.” 

  The next day, Bill Leahy suggested that I write an article on what Kung had said.  I did so and then brought it to the place where Archbishop Krol was staying, to get his prior approval before sending it for possible publication somewhere.  He wasn’t there so I left the article.  The next morning, Krol was in the pulpit making the announcements that opened each council session.  When he finished, he called me over and said, “We’re going to lunch.”

  A little after noon, Krol and I walked out of St. Peter’s, turned left through the Bernini colonnade and found a little trattoria.  As we started to eat, he said, “I read your article.  First of all, there is nothing new happening at the council.”  I thought of Cardinal Ottaviani’s coat of arms, which contains the words, “Semper Idem,” Always the Same.  “And,” Krol continued, “there are no arguments going on.  Everything is going along well.  There are no disagreements at the


Cardinal John Krol

  Naively, I protested, “But there are disagreements.  The church is going to change and the people back home should be prepared for the changes.”

  Krol would have none of it.  “The church is one.  After the council the church will still be the same as it was before.  And I don’t want you having anything to do with this Hans Kung or any others who are stirring up dissention.  When you get back to Philadelphia, I don’t want you telling people that there are disagreements.  I want you to present the church just as the authorities say it is.”

  Back at the graduate house I told Leahy what had happened.  He said, “Well, now we know for sure where we stand.  We’re alone.”  

  Years later, I told this story to the National Catholic Reporter and it was included in an extensive report on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  I ended my story by saying that the only good thing that happened that day was that Krol paid for my lunch.

   So here we were, being warned again.  Nevertheless, we were going home with high hopes.  

Pope Paul VI

   On the ship Bill Leahy and I discussed Pope Paul VI’s election.  The story was that Paul was supposed to be Pius XII’s immediate successor.  But Pius had failed to make him a Cardinal, so John XXIII was chosen as an interim.  After all, the jolly old man would die quickly without doing anything notable, except naming Montini a Cardinal so he could become pope.  Yet, during the council’s first session, Montini showed some progressive tendencies which caused the Curia some concern.  They would have to control him.

   Controlling Paul would be easy.  He was known to have difficulty making up his mind.    He even had a nick-name, “Hamlet.”  “To be or not to be”, was seen as his motto.  Another of his nick-names was, “The Frenchman.”  He preferred reading French literature, including French Existentialists like Sartre and Camus., who wrote about the anguish of existence.  Yes, he could be handled.

The Spirit was “Blowing in the Wind”

    We excitedly prepared to present the “New Pentecost” to Philadelphia, to show how Pope John XXIII had opened the windows of the church and how the Spirit of renewal and hope was flying freely.  I added my new-found wonder over the spiritual vision of Teilhard de Chardin, whose teaching of the “Within” especially captured my imagination.  

   Since I was a public school graduate, my Theology courses at the Gregorian University were my introduction to the teachings of the church.  And there, one day I learned that the Kingdom of God was not only something we would enter into after we die but was already here on earth, in space/time, in an incipient form.  When I heard the professor say that, I saw the whole world suddenly light up.  God was here!  Here on earth!  Here within us!  Within everyone and everything!  God within all!  The whole world was a union of God and nature, God and us.  The whole world was truly an expression of Christ.  

   De Chardin was saying the same thing in a very beautiful way! And the council was saying it too.  The new liturgy was truly the prayer of the People of God here on earth.  The “New Pentecost” was off to a great start. The Spirit was blowing where she would!  Bill and I had so much to tell the people of Philly!  Then we remembered the warnings.  Would anybody listen to us?  What would happen?  Where would all this lead us?

   From the music in the ship’s lounge came a new and strange message, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”  I immediately knew that the answer was the Spirit.

Opposition to Vatican II

   Many people blame Vatican II for the negative changes the church and our culture experienced in the 1960’s and beyond, e.g., the breakdown of traditional family life, the hippies, the sexual revolution, and the disaffection that caused so many Catholics to walk away from the church.  The truth is just the opposite.  Vatican II foresaw major changes coming, along with great opportunities, and showed Catholics how to handle these changes and take advantage of the opportunities actively and successfully.  

   Others had also seen changes coming.  In 1945, as the atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Albert Einstein prophetically said, “Everything has changed, except our way of thinking.”  Some 20 years earlier the mystical poet, W. B. Yeats, had written concerning the 20th century, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold: Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…  …The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.  Then he added, “Surely some new revelation is at hand.”  Teilhard de Chardin had said that the Modern World was dying, not by accident but because its aberrations were built right into it.  “A new kind of life is starting,” he said.  

   After World War II, Catholics began moving out of the big cities, where many of them lived on “Catholic islands” that took care of all their religious and social needs, and which they left only to go to work.  On the “island” the faith was everywhere and moral behavior was built right into the social structure.  Then, when they moved away into an open culture where neighbors weren’t all Catholic or of the same ethnic heritage, they were challenged to change from their “island” mindset to an active, self-responsible and more spiritually mature life of faith. 

   To help Catholics live in the new world that was dawning, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church was telling them that they had their own individual vocations, and that they were able to discern God’s presence and intentions within themselves, and that they were spiritually empowered and responsible as sharers in Christ’s prophetic and kingly office to uplift and even correct their new environment in the grace of Christ, without imposing their faith on anyone. (See the various pages in this blog.)  

   Catholics were being told that they were all receivers of God’s revelation and that their belief was an essential part, along with the belief of the theologians and bishops and pope, of the church’s understanding of faith and morality.

   But the distance between the bishops and the laity was too great.  Even with the good will that the bishops took home with them after the Council ended, they were not prepared to properly inform the laity and form them into spiritually mature and effective Catholics.  Through the years, that distance has grown and the situation has worsened.  This is one  reason why many Catholics have walked away from the church.  As Hans Kung predicted, there would be no big revolution among the Catholic laity, just a quiet walking away.   

Clarifying the Council’s Purposes

   When Pope John XXIII died, the council was automatically suspended.  It could have died with him.  But Paul VI chose to continue it.  

Pope Paul VI attending Mass at the Council

   John’s call for a pastoral council and for aggiornamento was vague, so Paul made the council’s purposes clearer by setting four priorities:

    1.  The church would understand itself more clearly.  

    2.  The church would reform itself in line with its updated understanding of itself.

    3.  Ecumenism, especially working toward the unity of all Christians.

    4.  Dialogue with the everyday world.

   With these priorities in mind the council went to work on the schema that became the Constitution on the Church, which can be considered the council’s basic document, out of which all the other documents arise.  During the intermission, the commission on the church, along with its theologians, had re-written the Curia’s old schema (which John XXIII had rejected).  The council fathers now voted to accept this new Schema for discussion by 2231 to 70.  Yet there were some strong disagreements to follow.

   One major understanding of the church that the council changed was the apologetic, or defensive, understanding.  The Council of Trent, that followed upon the Reformation, had explained the church and its teachings in strong, defensive language, saying that if anyone disagreed, Anathema sit!  Let him go to hell!  In my course on the church at the Gregorian University, just about every lecture began, “The Protestants teach so and so, but we teach so and so.” In those days we could say that if it hadn’t been for the Reformation, we wouldn’t know who we were.

Re-envisioning the Church    

   Vatican II began its updated understanding of the church by placing the focus not on the church itself but on Christ as founder and head of the church.  “Christ is the light of all nations,” the document begins.  Then the council went beyond all literal fundamentalism by declaring that the church is a Mystery.  That doesn’t mean that the church is something we can’t understand at all, but that it is a reality whose understanding is inexhaustible.  Founded by Christ, it shares in the inexhaustible fullness of reality that is Christ, and that is God and the Trinity, and even the Mystery of creation itself.

   The council then moved from the pyramid view of the church, with the pope on top, the bishops under him, then the clergy, and then the laity on the bottom.  We are a People, the People of God, a family, a circle of believers.  All share equal baptismal dignity.  Among us, some are ordained for service-leadership.  

  The new understanding influenced Cardinal Avery Dulles, who later wrote about the models of the church.  He said that the church is a:

   a. Mystical Communion:  people united in their faith and in the Spirit of Christ

   b. Sacrament:  the sign of God’s presence in the world

   c. Herald: the proclaimer of the Good New of Christ to the world   

   d. Servant: the humble sharer in the concerns of the people of the world

   e. An Organization:  a visible structure

   Dulles said that the Organization should not be the first model when we understand the church.

   The council then took up the teaching on the sensus fidelium, a teaching that still divides Catholics today.  We will discuss it next time.

The Sensus Fidelium:  the whole Church’s “instinct” for the Truth of our Faith

    The sensus fidelium is a very important key to seeing what the church would be like today if Vatican II had been fully implemented.  We will discuss it in the next few entries.

  We go to school and choose careers.  Many of us get married and have children.  We vote for this or that candidate.  We work or run businesses.  Some of us provide services, e.g., plumbing, roofing, legal services, health services, etc.  Some study the universe.  Some are artists.  We all watch TV and movies.  We pray.  Etc., etc.       

 Q.  Which of the above pertain to our spiritual life?

 A.  All of them.

       By believing in God, we are personally responding to God’s self-communication to us.  God literally gives himself to us and the Spirit of Christ comes to dwell within us.  We respond to God’s self-gift by saying, “I believe in You.”  This first moment of our personal relationship with God is also the first moment of our spiritual enlightenment and understanding.  This moment is followed by a steady stream of evolving understanding.

   As we grow in our lives and in our faith, our relationship with God in faith–our loving friendship with God–grows.  In this wondrous friendship, our understanding of God and ourselves grows in clarity and sensitivity.  We can tell ever more clearly and effectively when our life is “in sync” with God’s intentions for us and when it is not.  We develop a “sense’ or “instinct” for God and God’s intentions.  This is our personal “sense of faith,” in Latin, sensus fidei.  It is our individual participation is the sense of the faith of the whole church, in Latin, the sensus fidelium.

   Our sense of the faith is involved when we successfully choose what we want to study, whom we marry, whom we vote for, etc.  It makes our everyday experience make faith-sense, i.e., it shows us that our everyday choices and actions are in accord with our faith.  It also puts our faith in sync with our everyday experiences and choices, i.e., it shows that our faith is correctly animating and influencing our everyday experiences and choices.  In both ways, we are elevated to a higher plane toward the “life in abundance” that Christ brings us.  

   Today, our experiences and choices involve some very controversial issues of faith and morals, e.g., freedom of religion in our American society, contraception, women’s rights, war, etc.  Everyone of us is making decisions in these areas as part of today’s spiritual journey.  By “decisions,” I don’t mean political or cultural opinions, but true discernment within our personal relationship with God.  At this deep and sensitive level, our own everyday experiences and choices would ideally be in sync with our faith.  But how do we know we are right?  How do we know that our individual sense of the faith is correct?  

   No one in the church has the truth all by themselves, not even the pope.  We all know the truth by sharing our individual sense of the faith with the faith of the whole church.  How do we do this?  Vatican II taught that there should be an open and free discussion among the laity, theologians and hierarchy, so that we could correctly “test the Spirit,” in matters that concern today’s life and choices.  But as I noted in an earlier post in this diary, there are forces in the church at the highest level that do not want this openness  among the hierarchy, theologians and laity.  One result is that, some years ago, a group of American bishops publicly admitted that they are not set up to discern the faith of the people.  That makes things more difficult for us because, in many ways, we’re on our own.

Lay Initiative

   Certainly, there are individual bishops who would like to listen to the laity and guide us in our sense of the faith.  But they are constrained by their many “church-organization” duties.  Many, too, are not theologically up to date. So we have to listen to what the bishops say, and then judge what part of it is of their determination to regain the power and credibility that they have lost, and what is of God.

   In the meantime, we can operate on our own initiative.  Our sense of the faith is alive.  Being alive, it grows and evolves as we grow and evolve.  So, to begin with, we have to check out our idea of God to make sure our sense of the faith is truly up to date, that it fits our life in today’s society and culture.  Ask yourself, “How would I describe God?”  There are very, very many ways to describe God, some good and some that are out of date and therefore obstacles between God and ourselves.  For example, Genesis describes God as a potter, who picks up red clay, (in Hebrew, adam), forms it in his hand, and then breathes life into it.  This is a beautiful image, unless we take adam as Adam, a particular man, who actually lived in a garden with Eve and a snake.  Psalm 23 describes God as our Shepherd.  Again beautiful, unless we think of ourselves as passive sheep.  The Middle Ages gave us Michelangelo’s view of God as an old man with a beard flying in the sky.  Magnificent, but of course, correct only artistically.  Many of us were taught to describe God as the Supreme Being, living “up there” in heaven as a king, running the universe at his will, and from time to time miraculously changing the way nature works.  This image is an obstacle to today’s sense of the faith.

  Our best image of God begins with Jesus.  We look at him and in him, with the eyes of faith, we see God.  We see in Jesus his humanity, which is part of our nature; and we see in him, God who is present and active, right here, right now, in our everyday world and in our everyday lives–on our everyday terms.  This is the God whom Jesus has given to us, a God, who is present within the entire world and earth, joyfully watching creation evolve through all its wonderful ways.  This is a God, who is personally dwelling within each of us, animating and encouraging us to express him by living our lives in creative, healing and world-transforming love.  Our sense of faith then, operates within our deeply personal relationship with God, living and active within us here and now, in everything we think, decide and do every day.  It is within this view of God that we develop our sense of faith and determine that our everyday thoughts and actions are in sync with our faith, and that our faith is in sync with out everyday thoughts and actions.

Seeing How Our Faith Helps Form Our Everyday Experiences

   Our sense of the faith is very closely related to, “Contemplation in Action”, which I describe on the “Prayer” page.  We literally take God with us everywhere we go and in everything we do.  As spiritual writers say, we don’t see God directly, we “catch sight of God out of the corner of our eye.” The question is, how clearly and effectively do we “see” God within us, and how clearly and effectively does God “show forth” where we are and in what we do?”  In other words, “How do we see our faith forming our everyday experience, and how does our everyday experience show forth our faith?

   When the sense of faith shows forth in us, God is “magnified” and shines through here and now in space/time.  This applies to both general and particular situations.  Here are some general examples of how, to people of faith, God showed forth and shows forth today :

     –when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus

     –when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached civil rights for African Americans and by extension, for all Americans 

     –in the government’s attempt to get health care for as many Americans as possible (how this is done in open to discussion)

     –in the continuing advances in science and in medical care

     –in the Arab Spring

     –our American freedoms, and our traditional youthful optimism and sense of fairness

   Within the church community:

     –when the bishops of Central and South America declared that the Gospel demands that we show a preferential option for the poor and oppressed

     –in the 1980’s when the American bishops wrote their excellent papers on Peace and on the Economy

     –Catholic Charities 

     –the up-to-date, effective spiritual work of nuns

     –in Vatican II and the laity’s increasing desire to learn how to apply their faith to their everyday lives and situations

  When the sense of the faith is missing, the Spirit is denied and God is hidden or even mocked.  Here are some examples:

    –the Iraq invasion and war, which Pope John Paul II declared to be immoral and unjustified

    –the incompetence and greed that caused our economic recession 

    –our present political inability to get anything done

    –ecological pollution, continuing racism and sexism

    –the decline of education, and the political and economic attacks on our schools

    –the hypocrisy and hatred spewed by some politicians, radio and TV commentators, and writers, and the fact that so many people believe what is being said

    –our almost pathological, “Me first!” and even, “Me only!” individualism, and killing competition.  Our consumerism and shallowness.

  Within the church community:

     –the horrific damage done to innocent children and to the whole church and society by the sex abuse and its on-going cover-up

    –the inability or refusal of church officials to replace the present corrupt authority system with a system that permits the Spirit to fly free throughout the church

   –the passivity and apathy of many of the laity

   –the anger and hatred expressed by some Catholics in defense of “the church” as they see it

  These general examples give us the context and culture within which we live our individual spiritual lives.  At times, the outlook seems daunting.  But the sense of the faith tells us that God is with us.  In the next entry, we will begin to look at the various aspects of our individual sense of the faith.

   Here’s one way to experience your sense of the faith.  Look at a child.  Imagine that the child is made of energy.  Now turn that energy into light, and imagine that the child is made of light.  Now imagine an even greater light shining within the child, filling him or her completely.  Imagine that that light is God.  Now imagine that at every point where the brighter light is touching the lesser light, that touch is immaculate.  You now have a picture of a child who is a luminous expression of Christ.  Your ability to see the child that way is part of the gift of faith that God has given you.  (Our faith also tells us that as we grow older, we inevitably add some darkness that tends to cover over the immaculate touch within us.  But that immaculate touch is never lost.  It also is there, inspiring us forward and even, when necessary, “burning,” us to repent.)

   Now imagine that God is speaking to that child from within.  God is calling the child to ever fuller and greater life.  Since God lives in eternity, we can say that God is calling that child not only in the present but also from the child’s future.  That child is yours and you are responsible to help the child respond to God’s call to become all that they are destined to become. 

   As you form that child in Christ, you will also form yourself in Christ.

And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Mt 18:3

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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