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VATICANII-EXPERTS Oct-12-2005 (1,620 words) With photos. xxxn

U.S. experts at Vatican II recall history-making years

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore says the Second Vatican Council transformed his understanding of what it means to break open the word of God in preaching.

Retired Bishop Raymond W. Lessard of Savannah, Ga., says it was the council's ecumenical dimension, even in the preparatory phase, that he found most striking.

For retired Bishop John S. Cummins of Oakland, Calif., the council's accent on Scripture challenged him to preach better and "changed the way we pray."

Msgr. Robert Trisco, a noted church historian, says the 1962-65 council "was such a long and comprehensive experience that it's hard to sum it up. It was the part of my life that has been the most unforgettable."

What these four churchmen have in common is that they are among the few Americans still living who attended Vatican II as council periti, or scholarly experts, sitting in on the sessions as some 2,000 bishops from around the world met in St. Peter's Basilica. As the 40th anniversary of the council's closing approached, they talked about their experiences and the impact of the council in telephone interviews with Catholic News Service.

The periti were the 450-plus priests from around the world, including about 50 from the United States, who assisted the bishops gathered in Rome to decide what was needed to renew the church internally, engage it with the world in new ways and enter into a new era of friendship and dialogue with other Christian churches and other religions.

Some experts helped draft council documents while others helped write or translate speeches for bishops, research issues and explain the council to the media. Cardinal Keeler and Msgr. Trisco, for example, were part of the American press panel that met daily with journalists. They were also part of the team that produced "Council Digest," an English-language summary of the day's proceedings that was mimeographed each evening and distributed to English-speaking bishops.

Msgr. Trisco, now professor emeritus of church history at The Catholic University of America and editor of The Catholic Historical Review, said one of the tensest moments in the council came Nov. 8, 1963, when German Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne called the procedures of the Holy Office -- later renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- outdated, harmful and scandalous. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office -- which in those days was headed by the pope himself -- "was obviously angry and upset" and later in the same session delivered an emotional protest against the criticism, Msgr. Trisco said.

"That was a very dramatic morning," Msgr. Trisco said, because before that "no one had ever dared criticize the Holy Office that way in public, and least of all a cardinal in the council."

Bishop Lessard -- who has taught theology at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla., since chronic back problems forced him to retire as bishop of Savannah in 1995 -- was already in Rome during the preparations for the council and remained there afterward as an official of the Vatican's Consistorial Congregation and its successor, the Congregation for Bishops.

He recalled the council's preparatory commission debating the question, "Should we invite ecumenical observers?"

"I suspect that question came from John XXIII himself," he said. The decision to invite observers from other Christian churches "was a very important step at that early stage" and foreshadowed the "momentous strides" made in ecumenical relations since then, he said.

In working with the Vatican agency that oversaw bishops and bishops' conferences, Bishop Lessard had a unique vantage point from which to see the implementation worldwide of the council's teaching in those areas. He said much was done to expand bishops' authority, promote collegiality and resolve practical problems that rose with the formation of bishops' conferences. He called the establishment of the world Synod of Bishops a "pioneering step" in bringing the voice of the world's bishops to bear on issues facing the church. He called the issue of collegiality an "ongoing question" in the interplay of universal church and local church.

As a teacher of ecclesiology, the theology of the church, he said, "I'm enamored with 'Lumen Gentium' (the council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and the genius of that document. I can't get over how rich it is."

One of the most important points was the council's recovery of the early Christian understanding of the church as koinonia, or a communion or fellowship of disciples, he said -- and not in just an intellectual sense, but "how it is felt and lived."

Bishop Lessard said that one of the fascinating aspects of his work in priestly formation is "struggling with the prominent contemporary syndrome of individualism. It affects so many areas of our thinking and our life. How do you draw these young men, these prospective priests, to a more ecclesial way of looking at things ... the theological reality of your communion with the bishop and all the priests, not to mention your relationships with our lay people? That is a huge, huge challenge, how you translate all those fancy concepts into their spirituality."

Cardinal Keeler said when he looks back at the council "one of the things that struck me very emphatically" was when Cardinal Augustin Bea, first head of what is now the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, "made his address ... regarding the Jews." Cardinal Keeler said that talk, introducing what would eventually become a council declaration condemning anti-Semitism and recognizing God's continuing covenant with the Jews, was one of the turning points of the council.

He said another event he recalled vividly was the tabling of the Declaration on Religious Freedom in the last week of the council's third session.

"People from our country and much of Europe were very upset by the fact that it didn't get approval," he said, "but actually, the document that came back the following year was a much better document."

Cardinal Keeler said he recalls the importance the bishops placed on praying before the Blessed Sacrament in St. Peter's Basilica every morning before the meeting started.

"Then the next thing was the procession of the Gospel book. The Gospel book was carried up the main aisle and opened on the altar. The idea was that the Gospel book was presiding" over the council, he said. He added that the central importance of God's word was spelled out in the council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.

For his own ministry, "what I found, that I could translate into practice, was this understanding that we were breaking open the word of God when we preached. ... It was a revolution in thinking at that time, and I know it's made an impact on me ever since," he said.

Among other things Cardinal Keeler highlighted was the presence and impact of the bishops of the Eastern Catholic churches, who made the Latin bishops more aware of the diversity of Catholic traditions and cultures. Because of the deeper awareness of the Holy Spirit impressed upon him by the Eastern churches, he said, he always tries to close his major letters as a bishop with a reference to the Spirit "so that people will understand that the Holy Spirit is not something foreign to us but should be very much internal to us."

All the experts cited liturgical reforms promoting fuller participation of the people -- especially the introduction of the vernacular, or local languages, into the Latin rite -- as the council decision that had perhaps the greatest immediate and lasting impact on everyday Catholic life. Cardinal Keeler noted that it was not only European and American bishops who urged the use of local languages, but the bishops of the Southern Hemisphere, who pointed out that among their people "Latin is seen as a cultural domination; it's colonialism in another disguise."

When asked about the council's greatest accomplishments, Bishop Cummins immediately ticked off a list: "liturgy, church, Scripture, religious liberty, ecumenism."

He called the active involvement of people in the liturgy a major shift from before the council.

The council's teaching on the church as a community and as the people of God meant a new emphasis on the importance of baptism, the need for consultation and the importance of public opinion in the church, he said.

"It meant you have to recognize (lay) initiative and, from the point of view of authority, you have to create opportunities for initiative," he added.

Bishop Cummins said the council's focus on the centrality of Scripture in theology, in the liturgy and in prayer "was for me a radical change." There had not been much emphasis on biblical studies in his seminary formation, he said, and it was a struggle for him to learn to preach daily on the Scriptures.

He said he was only able to attend the 1963 session but found it a "wonderful" opportunity to meet many of the church's leading theologians and hear them discuss issues facing the church.

"We attended theological talks almost every day," he said.

The experts said that along with the tremendous progress they saw in the implementation of the council in many areas of church life they also saw much work still to be done.

"One of the big challenges is the implementation of the conciliar approach to pastoral ministry," by developing effective parish and diocesan pastoral councils, Bishop Lessard said.

Cardinal Keeler said part of the unfinished agenda is "really absorbing the main message" of the council's constitution on the church. "It's not yet fully absorbed by the people. ... It's a constant task to try and invite people to take a more active role in the church," he said.


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