As noted in a previous column, part of our homework for the Year of Faith is to read and reflect on the council documents of Vatican II. It’s an important assignment. Vatican II was the central event of the last century, and in terms of size and reach, the most significant corporate act our church has ever undertaken.
Pope Benedict is one of the last living major figures who was present at the Council and he has spent much of his pontificate orienting the church towards its true meaning. Thus, the news that he would be holding an informal “chat” (as he called it) about the Council just days before retirement, had the air of a sort of “tell all” - a sharing of thoughts not normally shared in the otherwise careful and restrictive world of papal statements.
The pope did not disappoint - and left us much upon which to reflect. But the comment which caught my attention was his passing reference to the “Roman Synod”. It caught my attention because the Roman Synod is rarely if ever referenced by church authorities, and is considered by some to be a “lost synod” - erased, actually.
According to the Italian historian, Romano Amerio, there is no trace of the texts of the Roman Synod in any diocesan curias or archives, and can only be found in secular libraries. (1) Given the significance of the Synod, it’s erasure from church records is a clue to why disorientation appears to plague the legacy of the Council to this day.
The Roman Synod was convened by Pope John XXIII in January, 1960. It was meant to be the “solemn forerunner of the larger gathering (Vatican II) which it was meant to prefigure and anticipate” (2), and at which, the schema, the plans for the Council, as prepared by the pope’s preparatory commission, were finalized and promulgated.
According to Amerio, Pope John believed the Council would be completed in a couple of months. The pope’s hope for a speedy council was prompted by his belief that his preparatory commission had adequately prepared the schema for the Council. Thus the Council itself would be a rather simple and straightforward affair of fleshing out the schema and ratifying the final documents. “Over by Christmas”, said the Pope on October 11, 1962, the first day of the Council. (3)
Of course the Council was NOT “over by Christmas” nor the next, nor the next. The Council carried on for three years during which Pope John died. But it could be said that his plans for the Council died first. For as Amerio recounts, and Benedict reflects, the bishops’ first order of business at the Council was to set aside every one of the prepared schema, effectively negating nearly two year’s of work by the pope’s preparatory commission and nullifying all that he promulgated at the Roman Synod. (4)
In fact, as if to emphasize that this was their Council (the bishops) and NOT the pope’s, Amerio records that not only was the Synod never referenced in any Council document, every trace of it was deleted from church archives. It was treated, as Amerio says, “tanquam non fuerit” (“as if it had never been”). (5)
Throwing the pope’s agenda in the trash is a pretty profound way to commence an ecumenical council, especially one of the size and impact of Vatican II. However, even Pope Benedict saw this as a good thing. In his “chat”, Benedict labeled the Roman Synod a “negative model” - a view which implies that he saw the tossing of its texts overboard (even if they did contain the papal desires) a sign that the Holy Spirit was present at the Council from the beginning.
In short, the Council, immediately upon convening, unmoored itself from the pope who had convened it. And while such an action may well be evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding the Council beyond the mere wishes of a particular pope, it calls into question the credibility of those who insist that the effects of the Council were envisioned by John XXIII. As we just saw, and as Benedict affirmed, they were not.
In fact, not only did the final documents of the Council NOT embody Pope John’s vision as promulgated at the Roman Synod, according to Amerio, the papal agenda “was contradicted and negated in almost every detail.” (6) Nowhere is this more obvious than in the liturgical legislation called for by Pope John at the Roman Synod. Here are just a few items:
The use of Latin is solemnly confirmed. All attempts at creativity on the part of the celebrant are condemned. The need to baptize infants as soon as possible is emphasized. A tabernacle in the traditional form and position is prescribed, Gregorian Chant is ordered. All appearance of worldliness is forbidden. Women are forbidden entry to the sanctuary. And altars facing the congregation are to be allowed only by way of an exception. (7)
To be fair, the Vatican II document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, did not call for a direct departure from Pope John’s ideas for the restoration of the liturgy, and in fact reaffirmed several of these things including the continued use of Latin (8) and the primacy of Gregorian Chant (9).
But in the end, as we now see Sunday after Sunday, the Council, or, more specifically, its purveyors, gave us something very different. And while we must accept the authority of the Council, we can certainly question the authority of those who teach that what we got was Pope John’s idea. It was not.
(1) Romano Amerio, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century (Kansas City: Sarto House, 2012, 6th Printing, Translated from the Second Italian Edition by Rev. Fr. John P. Parsons), 56
(2) ibid., 54
(3) ibid., 54
(4) ibid., 49
(5) ibid., 56
(6) ibid., 56
(7) ibid., 55
(8) Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36. 1.
(9) ibid., 116.