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Vatican II: 40 years later

Bishops too had to re-learn ‘being church’


In the very year of my being made a bishop, on the feast of the conversion of St. Paul, Jan. 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII announced that there would be an ecumenical council, calling all the bishops of the world to modernize and to adapt the church to modern times. The Second Vatican Council was about to begin.

I received a paper blizzard, giving indications and directions for the council as well as topics and schemas for each session. I was rather busy myself getting used to my role as bishop of the diocese and did not pay too much attention to the material that was sent. I sensed that much of it appeared to be a rerun of the material we had been given in seminary.

During the three years before the beginning of the council I regularly attended the annual meeting of the bishops of the United States. At that time it was called the NCWC -- National Catholic Welfare Conference -- and the president was always the ranking prelate of the United States. At that time the ranking prelate was Cardinal [Francis] Spellman, the archbishop of New York. He presided over the sessions of the bishops with a spirit of authority. There was not much discussion, and I think the cardinal felt he was responsible only to God. Some of the bishops of the West said NCWC meant not National Catholic Welfare Conference, but Nothing Counts West of Chicago. Often the cardinal would propose a question, have no discussion of it, and proclaim that the motion had been moved, seconded and carried all in one breath. There was never any discussion.

In contrast, however, the Second Vatican Council held public discussion on all sorts of matters given for our consideration. There was freedom and encouragement to open topics for discernment. This freedom was especially apparent when the first speaker was presented at the council. The speakers were chosen in order of seniority. The first speaker was Cardinal [Achille] Lienart, the cardinal archbishop of Lille in France. The general secretary had Archbishop Pericle Felici announce that the Roman curia had assigned those who would be members of the conciliar committee and would be entrusted with the responsibility of moving the material of the council. Cardinal Lienart took exception to this decision made by the Roman curia and said the bishops themselves would name this committee, since the council was to be a council of bishops and not a council of the Roman curia. The second speaker, Cardinal [Josef] Frings, archbishop of Cologne, Germany, seconded the suggestion, saying the bishops should be given the responsibility for moving the prepared material of the council. At that point Archbishop Felici terminated the discussion and went to the board of five presidents that the Holy Father had named for resolution of the issue. They determined that indeed the committee should be made up of the bishops themselves. Archbishop Felici then announced that this working session would be terminated and the bishops, not the Roman curia, would be free to name the members of the committee as well as be responsible for the workings of the council. This was an important breakthrough at the very beginning.

At the [council’s opening liturgy], presided over by Pope John XXIII, he gave a very impressive homily that set the tone for the entire council. He said there would be no definitive statements of the council that would be condemnations or excommunications. There would be freedom of discussion and the purpose of the council would be to give new light to the world. The church was not to be a static remnant of past glory but would be a dynamic organism to penetrate the world with a spirit of truth and light. The church would open windows to let in fresh air and bring in a new vision that prepares the world for new responsibility for the world in which we live.

There would then be four sessions of the council, each dominated by the spirit that John XXIII indicated at that first liturgy: a spirit of freedom and common understanding and a spirit of openness to other religions and the world. The council would provide an opportunity for the church to exercise a real influence toward good for all, and to help in the cause of peace for all nations.

The first session centered on a discussion of the liturgy of the church. I think the initial plan was to have the nature of the church to be the first matter to be discussed. But it was determined that the documentation for this grave and important matter was not sufficiently in tune with the spirit of Pope John XXIII. In fact, all prepared material was subject to careful scrutiny because it had been built upon the past spirit of the church and Pope John wanted to infuse the church with a new spirit.

There was one document that had not been prepared by the Roman curia but by an international group of theological and liturgical scholars. In this group were two U.S. priests who were experts in modern liturgy. One was Fr. (later Msgr.) Frederick McManus, and Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann from Collegeville, Minn., who played an important part in the commission’s activities. I had been part of the National Liturgical Conference in which these two men were especially prominent, and from them I had received a new awareness and education on the importance of liturgy in the formation of the church.

I was very impressed and convinced that new forms for the liturgy would be proposed at the council. Because of the freshness of the material provided by the preparatory commission for the liturgy, it was the liturgy that became the first item chosen to begin the council’s activities. As a matter of fact, the entire first session was given over to the topic of the liturgy and it gave certain indications that would be important for the future work of the council. For instance, one of the most important parts of the liturgical reform was the call for the full and active participation of the faithful in carrying out the liturgy of the church. Formerly the bishops and priests were solely responsible for carrying out the liturgy. Now, while they would still be responsible for it, it must include the full, conscious and active participation of all baptized persons in the worship of the church. This could be interpreted to mean that all of us, ordained or unordained, would be responsible for the church, because we are the church.

The council reminded us that the church is the church of all baptized people, and the faithful, both men and women, have a responsibility for the welfare of the church. All should be considered as equal to one another through baptism and the outpouring of the Spirit. So “laypeople” were to be considered in full equality. We were to have different responsibilities, but all are one in Christ. The church also has responsibility for those “outside” the church, that is, not members of the Roman Catholic church, and those not baptized. So the council would reconsider its relationship with non-baptized persons with a new ecumenical spirit. The Second Vatican Council gave us a new outlook on the church as an organization, as an organism, and as part of the human family even outside its own membership, seeing all people as an important part of the human family with whom we need to interrelate and learn.

In the liturgy, as we bishops saw in the discussion of the document on the liturgy, the Word of God played a very important part and needs to be a vital part of church worship. Not only would the scriptures be presented more fully over a three-year period of time but also would be brought to bear on the lives we live. We are reminded that the scripture proclaims that God is really present and speaks to us directly through the Word. In the following documents of the council, then we are reminded that it becomes imperative that we apply the Word to ourselves in order to bring us to an understanding of the importance of working toward justice and peace.

It is through the Word of God that we are to become men and women of justice and peace. The Word of God is the word of peace. The Word of God prohibits all discrimination within and outside the church. There is to be no discrimination because of sex, color of skin or any other factor. We are to respect the dignity of every person. I felt driven then, to help make the church of Pueblo, Colo., a Vatican Council church, that is a church blessed with openness and freedom with high regard for the dignity of every person.

Bishop Charles Buswell, now retired, led the Pueblo, Colo., diocese from 1959, the eve of the Second Vatican Council, until 1979. His reflections are excerpted from his privately published autobiography, Peace and Love Always; reprinted with permission.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002