Memories and Reflections

Michael Costigan

“In the Advocate Michael Costigan gave a more thorough day-by-day account of the Council than any other English-language diocesan weekly”

– Edmund Campion, Australian Catholics, Viking 1987, p.204

Father Campion’s generous view of what was accomplished by the Melbourne Catholic Advocate under my editorship during Vatican II could be challenged, but not by me.

Whatever about that, the fact remains that experiencing and reporting the Council, at a large cost in terms of expended time and energy, was the personal highlight of my life.

Reflecting on this in 1982 for a special National Council of Priests publication marking the twentieth anniversary of the Council’s opening, I wrote: “The Second Vatican Council dominated ten of the fourteen years (1955-69) I spent in the priesthood. Reporting the Council for Melbourne’s Catholic weekly newspaper, the Advocate, and at times for other sections of the Australian Catholic press, was the biggest professional challenge I faced during a twelve-year career in journalism. And experiencing the Council during its second session in 1963 was the turning point of my life”.

The same article concluded with a judgement and a not wholly successful attempt at prophecy: “No public event in my lifetime has meant more to me personally than the Second Vatican Council. For the Church as a whole, I believe it will continue to be regarded as the most significant happening of this century. And I predict that, when the year 2000 arrives and journalists are speculating on who should be named the Man (or Person) of the Century, there will be a strong case for Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, the Pope of the Council.”

While living in Rome as a seminarian and student priest from 1952 to 1961 I had witnessed the final six years of Pope Pius XII’s pontificate, the election of John XXIII in 1958 (I was there in St Peter’s Square that night – and later met him three times) and the preparations being made for the Council following Pope John’s surprise announcement at St Paul’s Basilica in January 1959.

During those years I came to know and be influenced by a number of Roman teachers who were to emerge as significant figures in the course of the Council and the post-conciliar period. Three who stand out in my memory were the future Cardinals Pietro Parente and Pietro Pavan and the future Archbishop Annibale Bugnini.

In spite of his theological conservatism, Parente, who was the deputy in the Holy Office to the formidable Cardinal Ottaviani, played a key role in winning majority acceptance for the idea of episcopal collegiality. He defended it, to the astonishment of many liberals, in one of the most important speeches delivered at the Council, during the third session in 1964.

Pavan, my doctoral supervisor at the Pontifical Lateran University, had been a principal drafter of Pope John’s encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris. He was a major ally of the likes of Father John Courtney Murray SJ and Bishop Emile-Josef De Smedt in successfully promoting the Council’s epoch-making teachings on Religious Liberty and the Church in the Modern World.

And Bugnini, who taught liturgy to a generation of Propaganda College students at the Pontifical Urban University, was probably the main architect of the Church’s still controversial liturgical reforms. Some of us had a foretaste of what was to come at the First International Congress of Pastoral Liturgy in Assisi in September 1956. There we young clerics listened with rapt attention to such speakers as Cardinal Lercaro, Father Jungmann SJ, Cardinal Gerlier, Bishop von Bekkum, Father Antonelli OFM, Bishop Spuelbeck and Father Clifford Howell SJ. We also heard a cautious final address in Rome from Pius XII, who warned against a number of liturgical innovations, some of which were to be adopted less than a decade later at Vatican II.

I record these memories (and there are many others) as a corrective to the view that Romans were totally unprepared for what emerged at the Council. Certainly some of the transalpine theologians were harshly treated by the Vatican in the 1950s and were often pilloried in our classrooms by theologians of the Roman School. But we students in the Pontifical Universities were not unaware of the views of the future stars of the Council, some of whom were later to be highly honoured by the Church (Congar, de Lubac, Danielou, von Balthasar, Rahner etc.).

One of my classmates and best friends, the late Adrian Hastings, English theologian, historian and Africanist, was already anticipating the great conciliar developments in ecclesiology, ecumenism and the Church’s turnaround on human rights.

Was our excitement and enthusiasm during the Council years misplaced?

Even at that time it was recognised that some of the Council’s documents were flawed. As a journalist, for example, I found the statement on mass communications innocuous and unhelpful, while many clergy and religious were unimpressed by what the Council Fathers had to say about their calling. And, viewed retrospectively, even the most important and historic documents – those on the Church, the Unity of Christians, Revelation, the Liturgy, the Church in the Modern World and Religious Liberty – are also not beyond criticism, as commentators as eminent as Cardinal Ratzinger have found. But their teachings did set the Church on a new course – and their acceptance and full implementation will continue to be a major priority of Popes, Bishops, Clergy, Religious and Laity for many more years.

While certain other developments in the post-conciliar period are a source of worry and disappointment to all who truly love the Church, it seems to me that virtually every matter of concern is offset by hopeful signs. Here are some random thoughts on just a few of the key challenges that will continue to face the Church.

  • Collegiality. This central theme of the Council needs to be further explored before its global expressions (as in the Synod of Bishops) and more localised manifestations (as in national and regional Conferences of Bishops) satisfactorily reflect the aspirations awakened at the Council. Nevertheless, ours is more truly a World Church today than at any time in history. While the Popes have done much to internationalise the Roman Curia, critics sometimes find that the Curia’s exercise of authority in relation to local Churches raises unresolved questions. The retirement of Bishops at 75 has also led to a more rapid hierarchical turnover since Vatican II. The fact that Popes are not bound by this requirement appears to be strengthening the Holy See’s power in relation to dioceses around the world. Undoubtedly this issue will receive more attention in the future, especially as the Pope himself has invited comment on his role.
  • The Church in Society. One of the highlights of the past forty years has been the involvement of the Church at every level in the pursuit of social justice and the defence of human rights. Somewhat belatedly, the Church’s leaders are now giving environmental justice a more prominent place on their agenda. Pope John Paul II has been an outstanding social justice advocate and defender of the poor and oppressed. During his pontificate, there has been a doubling of the papal diplomatic service, with the result that the Church is more than ever before an influential, well informed and unique international institution, with an unprecedented capacity to play a healing role when conflicts between or within nations erupt. I sometimes wonder, however, if lay Catholics could not be given more of a role in this area. (Do Papal Nuncios all need to be Archbishops?)
  • Ecumenism. Optimists in the 1960s might have expected that more would have been achieved ecumenically by now, in fulfillment of Pope John’s greatest dream. But many significant steps have been taken, sometimes in the face of huge difficulties. We have been blessed in the leadership given in Rome to the Church’s unity movement by successive Cardinals of the calibre of Bea, Willebrands, our own Cassidy and now Kasper. The Encyclical Ut Unum Sint was especially welcome. In Australia, old suspicions and hostilities have mostly vanished. The Catholic Church’s membership in the National Council of Churches in Australia was a very desirable development.
  • Ministry. The so-called “vocations crisis” in some affluent countries is one of the more worrying post-conciliar phenomena. It is also a challenge and is partly offset by the increasing number of recruits to the priesthood and religious life in other places and by the growing lay interest in the sacred sciences. Theological reflection on the nature and evolution of the various kinds of ministry continues, as does the (officially discouraged) debate on such related issues as compulsory celibacy and the exclusion of women from ordination.
  • Women in the Church. Inspiring as it was to be an eye-witness of numerous sessions of Vatican II from one of tribunes, I remember observing at the time (1963) that this was a very male event, with most of the participants celibates aged over fifty or sixty. In 1964, women “auditrices”, including Australia’s Rosemary Goldie, were admitted, but the involvement of the female majority of active Catholics remained marginal throughout the whole of the Council. In Australia, my more recent role in helping to administer the research study on women’s participation in the Church for our Bishops has reinforced my belief that much has yet to be done before true equity is achieved and justice is done.
  • The People of God. The Council’s adoption of the concept of the Church as God’s People on pilgrimage was enthusiastically received by the faithful. The image might have temporarily lost something of its force and currency but it is still helpful in conveying an understanding of the Council’s vision of the true nature of the Church. Without minimising the importance of the Church’s hierarchical structure, we need to reinforce and if necessary revive our understanding of the positive role of all of the faithful.
  • Reception of the Council’s teaching. While the Church recognises twenty-one “Ecumenical Councils”, they do not all have equal force and authority. Without denying the need for Catholics to adhere faithfully to papal and conciliar magisterial teachings, informed Catholics can legitimately make adverse judgements about aspects of either a pontificate or an ecumenical council, including the Second Vatican Council itself. Justice, charity, prudence and a high regard for truth must of course inform such a venture into criticism
  • The idea that teaching from above should be accepted or “received” by believers may be seen as a dangerous one which needs to be carefully qualified, but it certainly applies, with those qualifications, to all that has been handed on to us Catholics of the 21st century by the Fathers of Vatican II. I cling to the hope that the reception of the teaching of the Council and of its spirit will bring rich blessings to the Church.
  • (Dr Michael Costigan is the Executive Secretary to the Bishops Committee for Justice, Development and Peace. He was an accredited correspondent at the Second Vatican Council.)