Vatican II as I remember it as a priest-journalist who was there: the excitement, the personalities


I was a 28-year-old priest, studying canon and civil law in Rome three years after my ordination there, when Pope John Paul XXIII told a gathering of Cardinals in January 1959 that he planned to call a General or Ecumenical Council. For the next two and a half years, while continuing those studies, I was able to observe at close hand some of the preparations in Rome for the great event.

After my return to my Diocese, Melbourne, late in 1961, Archbishop Daniel Mannix appointed me Associate Editor of that diocese’s weekly Catholic newspaper, the Advocate.

I saw it as my special mission in that job to inform the Catholic community about the Council. Having returned from nearly a decade in Rome, I had been surprised by what struck me as a low level of interest among Catholics, including some clergy, in what was about to happen. Even some of the Bishops seemed apathetic or at least sceptical about the need for an Ecumenical Council. They considered that, at least in Australia, Catholicism was in such good shape that any calls for change or reform were unnecessary – or, even worse, dangerous. The concept of “Ecclesia semper reformanda” (the Church forever needing reform) was not popular in our rather self-satisfied Church.

In fact, the Holy See had been concerned for some time about bitter conflicts occurring among Australian Catholics. Sad divisions had arisen among Catholics and their leaders here during the 1950s over the anti-communist Movement and the Labor Party split. It might not have needed an Ecumenical Council to resolve the particular problems of the Church in Australia at that time, but we should not imagine that pre-Vatican II Australian Catholicism was faultless.

At the same time, however, the Bishops could point to the flourishing state of the seminaries, convents, religious congregations, parishes and Church organisations throughout the land. There is evidence that at least some Australian bishops believed that, if a Council could contribute anything, it would best be by a brief session condemning a few errors and affirming the great teachings of the Church and the way in which they were upheld and practised in places like Australia.

This was not quite the way that Pope John saw it when he spoke of the need for updating (“aggiornamento”) and renewal – and he certainly was not favourably inclined towards either triumphalism or condemnations. Nor was it the way that significant numbers of Bishops and their theological and pastoral advisors in some other parts of the world saw it.

Recent studies, notably by the Rockhampton scholar Jeffrey J. Murphy, have thrown more light on the extent of Australian Episcopal involvement in both the preparation for and the conduct of Vatican II. He has challenged some of the more extreme critical judgements on the quality of the Australian Bishops’ contribution to and acceptance of the major Conciliar reforms. One fascinating piece of information from Dr Murphy is that Daniel Mannix, in his late nineties and unable to travel to Rome, sent in a remarkably progressive commentary on the nature of the Church, less than nine months before his death in 1963. (See several recent issues of the quarterly Australasian Catholic Record.)

Coming from my theological and legal/sociological studies in Rome, where I had been given the privilege of some exposure to the ideas of such future key participants in the Council as Cardinals Suenens, Bea, Lercaro, Parente, Agagianian, Koenig, Pavan and Doepfner, and to such activities as those of Italian Catholic Action, the French priest workers, the German “Catholic Days” and the international liturgical reform movement, I was expecting some substantial fruits from what was about to happen in St Peter’s Basilica.

I don’t claim to have foreseen the dramatic way in which events unfolded at the first session in the Roman autumn of 1962. The keynote was Pope John’s remarkable inaugural address, which was to be followed by an epic struggle between those who supported and those who resisted his call for a genuine “aggiornamento” in the Church.

Reporting these happenings from a distance, we members of the Australian Catholic media depended mainly during that inaugural session on official Vatican releases and the conventional press agencies. These sources were soon supplemented by the famous writings of Xavier Rynne and Robert Kaiser and by the commentaries of theologians like Yves Congar and Bernard Haering.

It was Archbishop Guilford Young of Hobart whose suggestion led to my being sent back to Rome in 1963 to cover the second session for several Australian Catholic papers.

Guilford Young was undoubtedly the leading Australian figure at Vatican II. He enthused those of us who attended the annual meeting of the Catholic Press Association in Hobart early in 1963 by his account of the previous year’s session. He left us editors and reporters in no doubt that history was being made in Rome and that we should carry the story in full to our readers.

The 77 days that I spent at the Council from September to December 1963 were among the most memorable of my life.

Before recalling some of those memories, I should record that one of the lessons that I learned at that Council session was how the remaining two annual sessions could be effectively covered from Australia, since it was unlikely that my paper’s resources would enable me to return to Rome in 1964 and 1965. Using the contacts made and the experience gained in 1963, I made extensive use in the following two years of the coverage of the Council by several outstanding European, English and American commentators, notably Raniero La Valle of L’Avvenire d’Italia, Henri Fesquet of Le Monde, Antoine Wenger and Rene Laurentin of La Croix, Desmond Fisher of the Catholic Herald and, of course, Xavier Rynne of the New Yorker. I also devoured the books appearing after the second session, including those by the admirable Michael Novak (who coined the meaningful phrase, “non-historical orthodoxy”) and by the much less reliable oddball Jesuit, Malachy Martin, alias Michael Serafian (who died this year and whose love affair during the Council with Robert Kaiser’s wife is the subject of a recent “payback” book by Kaiser).

During the two final sessions, the Advocate published each week a four-page “lift out” supplement on the Council, written and edited by myself. I think it was this more than anything else in our paper’s coverage that persuaded Edmund Campion to write in his book Australian Catholics (Viking 1987, p.204) that “in the Advocate Michael Costigan gave a more thorough day-by-day account of the Council than any other English-language diocesan weekly”.


Returning now to that epoch-making second session, in 1963, may I recall a few of the events and personalities that helped to make it such an unforgettable time for a wide-eyed, somewhat naïve 32-year-old cleric?

My sense of wonder during those 77 days is reflected in the rough diary notes that I scribbled, often very late at night, in an exercise book. Never intended for publication, they better convey the atmosphere and mood of those days than any of the articles that I was sending back to Australia or the pamphlets that I wrote about the state of the Council after the Second and Third Sessions. I will ask for your indulgence while I quote some fragments from that 1963 diary.

  • Saturday 28 September: Pick up my press “tessera” and ticket for tomorrow’s opening ceremony from the Vatican media office. See Robert Kaiser (“Time” journalist whose book on the first session of the Council has caused a sensation).
  • Sunday 29 September: Drove to St Peter’s from the Blessed Sacrament Fathers’ head house in their new Fiat 1500, bought especially for the Council, bringing Father General (Father Huot), Archbishop Gomez of Columbia, his secretary Monsignor Vivas and a Blessed Sacrament Father Consultor, to the opening ceremony. I have willingly agreed to be their daily chauffeur to and from the Council, in return for the hospitality offered to me by the “Sacramentini”.
  • Monday 30 September: Drove to the Council in fourteen minutes. Went in with Father Huot and took my place in the tribune of the periti. Saw Kung (a contemporary of mine during student days) and Courtney Murray. Hear interventions by, among others, Ottaviani, Thuc, Florit and Frings…
  • Attending this 37th General Congregation of the Council was the experience of a lifetime. Easy to follow the debate (in Latin)…Attend U.S. Bishops’ Press panel, to be held daily in the USO building at the Tiber end of the Via della Conciliazione. Fathers Connell CSSR, Fred McManus, Sheerin etc. on the Panel. Then to Archbishop Young, who dictates a letter to his diocese about the Council.
  • Wednesday 2 October: Went into the Council’s 39th General Congregation, again with the periti. Met Father Huot at eleven in the Basilica and visited one of the bars, meeting many Council personalities.
  • Monday 7 October: In St Peter’s Square I run into Hans Kung and have a chat with him. Send off a 7-page report on the Council’s draft document on the Church.
  • Tuesday 8 October: Go to 5 o’clock talk by Cardinal Suenens to African Bishops and media. Seated next to missionary Bishops from the Philippines and Madagascar.
  • Thursday 10 October: Tragic landslide today provoked by collapse of hydroelectric dam at Vajont, near Belluno. Estimated three thousand dead…At the US Press Panel, Father Weigel SJ was nasty to Father Connell CSSR over the latter’s outdated way of explaining papal infallibility and its objects…Visit Pope John’s tomb and confess in St Peter’s.
  • Friday 11 October: Meet Father Stan Hosie SM, who is writing for Harvest. Long talk with Desmond O’Grady and Father Donald Campion SJ of America magazine.
  • Monday 14 October: Meet Guilford Young in St Peter’s Square. Melbourne friends, John and Lorna Parker, photograph me with him.
  • Tuesday 15 October: Coffee with an old friend, Cesare Cecarelli, the Boys’ Town and papal barber – one of the few lay people admitted to papal conclaves.
  • Tuesday 17 October: To Marist General House for dinner. Guests included Cardinal Gilroy, Bishop Muldoon, Bishop Joyce (NZ), Archbishop O’Donnell, Archbishop Cody of New Orleans (the future controversial Cardinal Cody of Chicago), several other American prelates and our own Father Bell.
  • Friday 18 October: At US Press Panel I meet Gary MacEoin, Irish-American columnist…See Father F. X. Murphy CSSR, reputed to be “Xavier Rynne”.
  • Monday 21 October: Ottaviani in Council today. Criticised periti who circularise the Council Fathers. Robert Kaiser prominent today at U.S. Press gathering.
  • Tuesday 22 October: At US Press Panel, discussion on women’s role in the Church. Had hysterical woman next to me…Go to hear Archbishop Roberts SJ on “Modern Inquisitions”. Sensational stuff.
  • Wednesday 23 October: At US Press Panel I asked my first question: “Can part of the Office be said in Latin and part in English?”…Paul Blanshard also asks a question.
  • Thursday 24 October: Coffee with Desmond Fisher, Editor of London’s Catholic Herald, Jim Johnson of the Kansas City Star and Alan McElwain, the veteran Rome-based Australian journalist.
  • Wednesday 6 November: A day to remember. At about 11.40am Sam Dimattina informed me in the Press Office (as I emerged from the toilet) that Archbishop Mannix was dead…At St Peter’s College, hear Congar on Ecumenism.
  • Monday 18 November: Lunch with Desmond Fisher, the Canadian journalist Bernard Daly and the English theologian Father Charles Davis. Run into Father Tom Boland at the US Press gathering.
  • Thursday 21 November: Lively Press Panel today. I question Father Haering about the Theological Commission’s vote on the Religious Liberty text.
  • Friday 22 November: The John Kennedy story is over, or has it properly started? At 45, the first Catholic President of the US was assassinated today (8pm in the evening, Rome time) in Dallas, Texas. The incredible, stunning news came to me from Father Stan Hosie, whom I was telephoning about 9pm. So, since my departure from Melbourne: Adenaur has retired; Macmillan has resigned; Kennedy has been assassinated; Diem has been murdered; there have been upheavals in Iraq; Italy’s Leone Government has fallen; and Archbishop Mannix has died. November 1963 will not be quickly forgotten.
  • Saturday 23 November: I offered Mass for John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The whole world is stunned by this appalling news. A 24-year-old, Lee Oswald, has been arrested and is Suspect Number One.
  • Monday 25 November: Lee Oswald shot by Jack Ruby…At the Press Panel, Haering tells of a fight among Bishops in the Piazza over the distribution of a protest about the inadequacy of the Council’s draft text on the Media. Our own Bishops John Cullinane and Francis Thomas had signed the protest… Watch Kennedy funeral on TV.
  • Tuesday 26 November: Meet Robert Kaiser. Try to read Time magazine in my room, but it is unbearable. I weep bitterly over the death of Kennedy.
  • Wednesday 27 November: Go to Domus Mariae to hear Karl Rahner on the Sources of Revelation (1-½ hours in Latin).
  • Thursday 28 November: Supper in pasticceria with Father Ralph Wiltgen. Tells me of his interview with Ottaviani, whom he found very charming and helpful. Worried by the alliance of the French and Germans at the Council. Considers that the German news agencies are managing the Council news coverage and invariably attribute most importance to interventions by German Bishops.
  • Friday 29 November: Go by scooter to US Press Panel and then interview Bishops Jimmy Carroll of Sydney and Joyce of New Zealand…Meet Pietro Pavan, Pat Keegan and Fred McManus…Watch Fulton Sheen doing a TV show in St Peter’s Square…Go on scooter at night to the Domus Mariae to hear Kung on Ecclesiology. Quite a day, really.
  • Sunday 1 December: Paul VI says a Mass for Council journalists and greets each one…Attended symposium of International Catholic Press Union where Courtney Murray spoke. At final session of symposium I made a brief speech, with Cardinal Lercaro in the chair…Went to Domus Mariae to hear De Lubac on Teilhard de Chardin.
  • Tuesday 10 December: Off to Fiumicino (but the traffic!). Arrive at 11.35 for 12.10 departure for New York on TWA Boeing. Next to me was the Administrator of U.S. Aid in the East. Drank several Manhattans.


Our main aim at this seminar is to reflect on the present state of the Council’s unfinished business. While the memories awakened by re-visiting my 39-year-old diary are precious to me personally, I am not sure (and can only hope) that my sharing these excerpts with you has some value in relation to the seminar’s purpose. It seemed one way of sharing a rich experience with you.

I have dropped a good number of names and I do believe that many of them belong to personalities whose contribution to the Council as a historical event should be remembered. If we understand the significance of the work of leading Council figures like Bea, Suenens, Lercaro, Maximos IV Saigh, Alfrink, Koenig, De Smedt – and Ottaviani, Parente and Ruffini too – we are better equipped, I believe, to carry on that work in the vastly different world (and Church) of the 21st Century.

While the Council Fathers themselves were the only participants in Vatican II vested with teaching authority, they are not the only ones whose involvement in the great event can be fruitfully recalled today. The theological advisers played a very important role, as did some of the commentators and journalists who brought Vatican II’s message to the community, sometimes accurately and sometimes with their own interpretation.

This is not to claim that all of the reformist ideas expressed either inside or outside the Council Hall between 1962 and 1965 were or are acceptable. But I for one reject the notion that the Council’s importance is limited to its sixteen approved and promulgated documents. Several of them, of course, have led to enormous changes in the life and practice of Catholics, but others have had little effect on the Church during the past four decades. And even the best of them are not immune from criticism, as I have noted in an article in the July issue of the Mix.

The Council as a total event, however, the famous opening of windows to allow the breezes to enter, to use Pope John’s metaphor, has continued to exert its influence on the way in which millions of us live and think and act.

That there have been some aberrations following the Council and some distortions of its spirit and message is undeniable. Among those who took part in or observed the event were a number who were convinced that it should not have been allowed to happen. To this day there are people who consider that it was all a huge mistake.

While their right to hold such an opinion has to be respected, their view gives little credit to the genius of Pope John XXIII. His decision to convoke the Council might have caught many people by surprise, including those close to him, but he knew what he was doing. He realised from his own experience and wisdom that it was time for the Church to take stock of its position in the light of the way in which the world of the mid-20th Century had changed. Pope John was also aware of the various movements and trends in the Church that had been preparing the way for such an event. It is wrong to think that he unnecessarily awakened the Church from a kind of tranquil slumber. What he did was to make it possible for many already existing ideas and developments to gain a freedom and currency which hitherto had been at least partially denied them.


Before concluding, I would like to raise and invite discussion on a question that arises periodically in discussions about Pope John’s Council and what this seminar calls its “unfinished business”. It is whether or not another Ecumenical Council is needed in the near future.

In personal opinion on this changes from time to time. At the moment my inclination is to support the call for another Council being made occasionally by some of the Church leaders and commentators whom I most admire. One of their arguments for a sequel to Vatican II and indeed for more frequent Councils is that change in the modern world is so rapid and far-reaching that the Church’s need for constant “aggiornamento” is far more urgent today than it ever was in the past. I believe it is a valid point.

If such a Council were to be convoked soon, presumably by the next Pope, I think it would have to be quite a different kind of event from Vatican II.

Much as I revelled in my unforgettable involvement in that great Council as an excited young priest who wrote, observed and kept a funny old diary, I recognise that the Church of the early 21st Century has new and very different characteristics, problems, needs and insights – and that all of this, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, would have to be reflected in a different conciliar model. What its characteristics should be is surely a legitimate subject for consideration by the People of God.

I invite this focus group to offer some thoughts on this and on any other issues related to the unfinished business of the Second Vatican Council.

(Michael Costigan has been Executive Secretary to the Bishop’s Committee for Justice, Development and Peace since 1987. His career includes 14 years as a Melbourne priest and 18 years as a journalist and senior public servant. He has held numerous journalistic and editorial positions, and written and spoken widely about Church affairs.)