The opening of the Council
IT was a Thursday. It was
4October II. It was the Feast of the Motherhood of Our Lady—and the historians were quick to link this with the teachings of the Council of Ephesus. My diary for the day adds quite simply that it was raining in Rome when we got up that morning at 5.15 a.m.
The fact that it was raining was neither significant nor surprising. There were already legends about Pope John's bad weather. The time of our rising is likely to be more surprising now than it was then. It was customary enough for those who had to engage in the ritual marathons in St. Peter's which in those days marked the greater occasions in the life of the Church.
It also had some significance As I noted in that same diary. by special faculty the bishops summoned to take part in the Second Vatican Council had been granted the privilege of celebrating Mass in the evening. But the privilege was not extended to the entourage.
Early to rise
So those of us who were in attendance on our bishops rose early and repaired individually to the several altars specially erected in the gallery of the English College chapel. The concelebration of Mass was not yet with the Church.
The transport problem of the next few years had not by this time been resolved. Weeks were to pass before we were able to secure the bus which did daily duty between the Venerabile, where most of our bishops were housed and St. Peter's into which this purple blood transfusion was injected each morning.
Later the spectacle of nearly 3,000 bishops re-embussing soon after the midday exodus became one of the tourist attractions of Rome. But that morning of the opening ceremony we had to commandeer every car on which we could lay hands--some more reliable than others.
The expected congestion was less than feared that day largely because the rain kept down the number of spectators. In practice most of the bishops, with cope and mitre under their arms, abandoned their vehicles at the top of the Via della Con ciliazone, the principal approach road, and made their way on foot into the vesting rooms or corridors.
For Cardinal Godfrey the destination was the Cortile San Damara right in the heart of the Vatican buildings. There the official S.C.V. drivers made rings round the C.D. chauffeurs, who in turn made mincemeat of the amateurs pressed into service that morn ing. I left the curtile with the same feeling of delayed hopelessness with which one abandons a car in an irretrievable position in the car park at Twickenham. You are in: the Lord alone knows how you will get out when it is all over.
Inside Their Eminences duly vested, the Cardinal priests in chasuble and white mitre. Just before 8.30 a.m. I noticed the procession of abbots and bishops starting. They made their way down the great .reala regia from the Papal apartments and out into the piazza, before sweeping round into the basilica.
It was a stupendous sight, the procession six abreast apparently unending. Just before 9 the cardinals were moved downstairs to await Pope John at the Pauline Chapel. He arrived a few minutes later, but at 9.15 we were still waiting to join the procession. There Were more bishops than expected and an inevitable block developed.
The Italian masters of ceremonies were renowned as mediocre organisers but excellent improvisers: which was true as long as you kept your distance.
To delay the Pope was unthinkable, so the Papal M.C., Archbishop Dante, had the flow of bishops halted. The rest must find their way in later. The cortege of cardinals began ttieir ordeal down the scala regia, each step about a pace and a half.
Sense of humour
It was difficult to negotiate at the best of times. For Cardinal Godfrey, with an unhealed wound in his side from a recent cancer operation, it must have been agony. Mercifully he had a sense of humour, and television viewers in England were falsely reassured by his smile as he leaned heavily on me down the length of that formidable staircase.
The rain had eased by this time and the fresh air in the piazza was welcome. We wound our way in procession up the ramp to St. Peter's. Feeling strangely exhilarated by the somewhat martial music in my ears, I looked across to see Pope John emerging high on the sedia gestaloria.
At his side, carrying one of the two enormous fans of ostrich-feathers, was Mgr. Alan Clark, then Vice-Rector of the English College, proudly exercising his office as a Privy Chamberlain of His Holiness.
The sight awaiting us at the entrance to the basilica was breath-taking. Now we are all used to that famous picture of the greatest church in the world transformed into an incomparable debating chamber. But the first impression that morn ing, in spite of the confusion of prelates uncertain where to go, was startling in change and in brilliance.
My gawping was short-lived. Customarily cardinals' secretaries, when not required to carry something, literally sat on the floor at the feet of their masters. But with the new arrangement, their Eminences were to sit in tiered rows of benches and there was no floorspace.
So, as was also custom in those days, we who were an encumbrance were brushed to one side by guards and "gentlemen" in evening dress and banished to the side aisles. With the central seating raised to the tribunes high above, it was like being shut outside Wembley Stadium just as the winning goal was about to be scored.
Setting the tone
Unable to see anything, we heard the burst of applause which greeted the entrance of Pope John. It gathered force as he dismissed the sedia at the entrance and, as Bishop of Rome, walked up the nave amidst his brother bishops to the more simple chair which had been prepared for him before the high altar. In that moment was set the tone of much which was to follow.
My colleagues and I ran up and downstairs seeking entrance to one tribune after another. We were steadfastly resisted by the episcopal and abbatial occupants on the score that they were already overcrowded. A friendly monsignor took pity on us and led us in a special little procession to two empty benches in front of the wellplaced box containing the diplomats and special envoys.
There I was warmly greeted by the Irish Prime Minister, Mr. Sean Lemass, and received an encouraging handshake from my friend Mgr. Wilebrands, who hastened to greet me and then turned to a functionary and said: "They can't stay here." The reason became clear when we were removed again to make room for some late-coming separated brethren. It was a testing introduction to Conciliar ecumenical relations.
A general falling to the knees for the Veni Creator Spiritus gave us the opportunity to move in with the familiars of the Pope's household. Suitably enough there we found sanctuary and hospitality (albeit standing-room only) for the rest of the function.
Mass of the Holy Spirit was celebrated by the Dean of the Sacred College at an altar set up at the head of the nave. I wonder how many appreciated that Cardinal Tisserant was facing the congregation. One important aspect of the offering of Mass was neglected: there were no communicants other than the celebrant. In later sessions, when the lay auditors had joined the Council, this point was never overlooked, whatever the rite.
Then, one by one, the cardinals came forward to the Papal throne to greet the successor of Peter and make their obeisance. The muttered identifications buzzed among the bystanders, though faces and characters were often relatively unknown. Conservative or liberal, traditionalist or radical were still terms scarcely used: in future names would be accompanied by suitable personal reminiscence or classification of viewpoint.
Profession of faith
There followed what was for many the most moving event of the day. The Pope himself in firm and guttural voice made his solemn profession of faith. Far removed from the times and circumstances of the great Fisherman in whose memory the basilica had been named, but "On This Rock . . ." My eyes were drawn to the observers who seemed as fascinated as I. Even the Orthodox who had been having camera-strap trouble with his beard was now quite still.
Below them, beneath a ceremonial canopy and clad for the day in tiara and cope, sat the celebrated statue of St. Peter, his well-worn foot set forward. As the Church faced up to new experience in the future, her present was engulfed in history.
Litany of the saints
Now it was the turn of the Council Fathers. The General Secretary, Archbishop Felice, mounted his little pulpit to make the profession of faith to which his brethren subscribed. "I, Pericles .. ." he began; and the classicists, half in reminiscence and half in prophecy, reminded us of the great statesman who had dominated Athens by his oratory and strength of character.
The litany of the saints and oriental prayers followed, and then at last Pope John began his opening discourse. This was the now famous "Prophets of Doom" speech in which he dealt very plainly with the greybeards among his advisers who had clearly advocated enough reasons for delay as to deter an ordinary man.
The fact that the council op
ened only three and a half years atter it had been announced was a personal tribute to the determination of Pope John.
"In the daily exercise of our pastoral office," he said, "we sometimes have to listen much to our regret to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin, "They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty."
We tried not to stare at some purple faces nearby, as he went on: "We feel we must disagree with these prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.
"In the present order of things, divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their expectations, are directed towards the fulfilment of God's superior and inscrutable designs. Everything, even human differences—leads to the greater good of the Church."
In making a bold call for renewal and reform the Pope spoke strongly and clearly. The greatest concern of the Council was to be "that the sacred deposit of Christian doctriv should be guarded and taught more efficaciously."
It was not to be a process of discussing each article of the Faith in turn, but there should be careful research into authentic doctrine, which should be "expounded through the literary forms of modern thought."
Then he made that vital distinction which is not fully appreciated even today: "The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, the way in which it is presented is another." It was a long address, studded with the usual catalogue of courtesies and thanks. Finally the Pope invoked the intercession of Mary, Help of Christians.
Every phrase was being analysed as the vast congregation squeezed its way out of the basilica. I found a thoughtful Cardinal Godfrey standing looking at the vested statue of St. Peter. "When it's all over," he said to me, "Peter will still be there."
The remark was overheard by the more down-to-earth Cardinal Ciriaci who was beside us, looking for all the world like an exhausted Fernandel. "Yes," he added, "but we are not all made of bronze."
It should have ended there but already the Conciliar machine was swinging into action. Bishops from other Englishspeaking countries kept corning up to arrange meetings to pool ideas and lists of candidates for the commissions.
Car wouldn't start
Eventually I managed to regain possession of the borrowed car and put the cardinal aboard. But the damp weather had been too much. By no pear suasion could our driver restart the engine. On that day of all days I had the humiliation of having to seek help for a "push-start" beneath the Papal windows.
So we juddered and shuddered out into the world and into the promised new order. It was 1.45 p.m., and I realised that I had been standing without a break for six hours. Perhaps that too would change.