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Witnesses recall joy, pains of Vatican II


The Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church is a group that argues the difference between being faithful to Jesus’ teachings and being faithful to the specific church structure. It claims that fidelity to Jesus’ teaching can require change within the church.

Founded 20 years ago by lay and clerical Catholics in the wake of Vatican condemnations of prominent theologians as Frs. Edward Schillebeeckx, Jacques Pohier, and Hans Küng, the association has worked diligently to assure that every Catholic’s human and baptismal rights are secured by a church constitution.

This is not the kind of work that will win the association the accolades of the hierarchy soon. Nor can the organization be easily dismissed. These are committed renewal-minded Catholics.

A year ago several association board members, including Mary Louise Hartman, had the idea of bringing together Catholics whose renewal initiatives dated back to Pope John XXIII, now Blessed John XXIII, and the Vatican Council (1962-1965) he initiated in the name of renewal.

Hartman’s efforts paid off Nov. 3 when some 230 Catholics -- nearly twice as many as initially expected -- packed into a conference room at the Midwest Express Center in Milwaukee just before the opening of the Call To Action’s annual gathering.

They came to listen to and speak with a dozen Vatican II witnesses, a graying group whose personal recollections become more valuable by the year.

Not surprisingly, some of the warmest personal memories shared by the panelists centered on John XXIII, the pontiff who seems to have become the patron saint of almost everyone in this group. He was remembered as a simple and very personal man, a totally unassuming person with a great sense of humor. Again and again, panelists talked about John’s “humanity” and suggested his authority was never demanded and always earned.

New Ulm, Minn., Bishop Raymond Lucker spoke of John’s “special warmth and openness.” He noted the pontiff’s humor. Said Lucker: “Once asked, ‘How many people work in the Vatican?’ John responded, ‘About half.’ ”

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected pope in 1958. At the time it was still the practice to carry the pope in and out of St. Peter’s on a papal chair. The story was told that John, a rotund man and described as “looking more like a pizzamaker than a pope,” immediately after being elected pontiff, gave a raise to the men who had to carry him on his papal throne.

Not all Vatican II memories were warm.

Sr. Ruth Wallace, a member of the California Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, was invited by Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens to come to the council to organize discussions, reminded the group that Vatican II had “an all-male cast.”

“Women who were not auditors,” she said, “participated only by attending the Mass celebrated prior to each day’s session.”

There were only 22 women auditors and approximately 3,000 men at the council. Noted Wallace: “A woman’s voice was never heard during the council deliberations.”

Women auditors were told they could not drink coffee during coffee breaks with the bishops. Instead, the women were assigned their own private “coffee bar” -- alongside the basilica altar, behind curtains and away from the bishops.

Sister of Loretto Mary Luke Tobin remembered the last day of the council and a sinking feeling she experienced after the final Mass in St. Peter’s Square. That’s when, in sets of four, various categories of people walked up to Pope Paul VI to receive honorary insignia. First came the philosophers, then historians, then artists … and then women. “Women aren’t a category!” she blurted to Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, who stood beside her.

Vatican II usually gets high marks on the charts of renewal-minded Catholics. The gathering of the Association of the Rights served as a reminder of the pain and discrimination felt by the Catholic women who attended the council.

Most who offered comments on the council spoke of it as a “life shaping” event. Clearly the council energized and directed many lives. Not without pain and disappointment.

Humanae Vitae, the Pope Paul VI 1968 encyclical that reaffirmed the church’s ban on artificial contraception, was described as the first post-conciliar setback. Laywoman Patty Crowley, frail and still spirited, beckoned all at the conference to get the “full birth control story” by reading Robert McClory’s book, Turning Point. Crowley and her husband, Pat, were members of the papal birth control commission, which ended up asking the pope to end the ban on artificial contraception.

The pontificate of Pope John Paul II was cast as the most significant council setback. Although John Paul’s social teachings won praise at the meeting, his episcopal appointments and the clericalism of his attitudes on church were widely criticized. Some of the harshest criticisms came from Robert Blair Kaiser, who covered the council for Time magazine, and spoke at the association luncheon.

Kaiser said Pope John Paul intentionally “reversed Vatican II.” The council marked a radical break from the past, Kaiser said. It was a new moment in church history. John Paul, he said, never saw it as such. By stressing continuity, the pope missed the point and purposely has tried to subvert the council, Kaiser argued.

John Paul has subverted the council through “a process of centralization and clericalization” and by fostering “a kind of folk religion that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Kaiser spoke of the pope’s fascination with the Shroud of Turin and the Third Secret of Fatima.

Yes, there have been setbacks, but the consensus of the gathering was that council renewal is going forward and will continue to do so. Vatican II lives on, it was said. Blessed John XXIII won’t let the dream die.

Tom Fox, NCR publisher, can be reached at tcfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000