I want to introduce a new line of conversation here—and it reflects a topic that I have been hearing with increasing frequency over the past ten or more years, becoming so frequent that now not a week goes by that I don’t hear it discussed—“What’s going on with Vatican II? Are we going backwards?” Last week I had an opportunity to give a lecture I entitled “Is Vatican II in Danger?” To be honest, I had made a commitment for a talk in a parish and not given sufficient thought to a topic, so I pulled out a paper I had prepared for a more academic lecture last October and trimmed it down to a more popular audience. Both times I gave the talk the reaction from those present was: “I’ve seen things change over the past few years and I was wondering what was happening to the Church?” People had seen the same signs I referred to—signs that the Council was being “reinterpreted” or more bluntly was being dismantled under the guise of a more “authentic” interpretation.
One of the people I have been privileged to know in my lifetime was Archbishop Denis Hurley OMI, Archbishop emeritus of Durban, South Africa. I had met this feisty old gentleman at an annual conference we each attended in Rome and would look for him there each year. I would offer to carry his briefcase and vestment bag and help set him up for the concelebrated mass each day of the Conference. He was an incurable extrovert and recognizing that he had a fascinated audience in me, stuck by my side during these conferences, so that we often took our meals together and sat with each other for the talks. I was only too willing to run and get him a cup of tea and some biscuits at the breaks because the reward was some of the most fascinating stories about the life of a phenomenal man in the midst of the very controversial society (South Africa during and after Apartheid) and a Church that was at times supportive and at times resistant. The Archbishop told me stories about his conflicts with the white regime, about his participation the Second Vatican Council, and his relationships with a wide variety of people from Archbishop Tutu to the then Cardinal Ratzinger. The last time I saw the Archbishop was the end of January 2004 just two weeks before his death. His Grace was a feisty personality and not hesitant to speak his mind. That Tuesday morning when I came into the conference hall and sat next to him, without even saying “hello” he began—“well, I had a meeting with the Holy Father.” (This was just over a year before Pope John Paul II died.) “I said to him: Holy Father, I am an old man and we old men—you understand this, you’re only a few years younger than me—we old men sometimes have problems with our memory. But I distinctly remember: we had a Council. What did you do with it?” The Archbishop was concerned—I won’t say angry, that might be an interpretation—but concerned over issues such as the revision of the work of ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a commission which he had chaired for many years.) He rarely criticized directly, most often using humor and incomplete sentences with significant glances to get his point across. I wish now that I had been a more conversant respondent, evoking more explicit statements from him, but if I had fished more eagerly for specifics he may not have been as free-spoken. As I said, I tended to listen and to laugh at his anecdotes, but up to his death he remained not only sharp but slightly acidic when he talked about—not the Church, but the ecclesial bureaucracy.
Let me share a letter that points out some of the reason that the late Archbishop may have been concerned. It is all over the internet and it is from Father Anthony Ruff, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville. Dom Anthony was very involved with the re-constituted ICEL and the production of the “new missal” that will be introduced this autumn. Read his explanation of why he is distancing himself from the missal. You will see another voice that is concerned that we are sliding back down the mountain from the goals that the Popes and Bishops of Vatican II set for us. This is an open letter to the American Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals. The fact that it is “open” means that Father wanted to share it with the whole Church and that is perhaps his principal point—the Church is not a body of bishops, it is the whole People of God and there must be mutual respect and accountability.
Your Eminences, Your Excellencies,
With a heavy heart, I have recently made a difficult decision concerning the new English missal. I have decided to withdraw from all my upcoming speaking engagements on the Roman Missal in dioceses across the United States. After talking with my confessor and much prayer, I have concluded that I cannot promote the new missal translation with integrity. I’m sure bishops want a speaker who can put the new missal in a positive light, and that would require me to say things I do not believe.
I love the Church, I love the sacred liturgy, I love chant in Latin and English, and I treasure being involved with all these as a monk and priest. It has been an honor to serve until recently as chairman of the music committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) that prepared all the chants for the new missal. But my involvement in that process, as well as my observation of the Holy See’s handling of scandal, has gradually opened my eyes to the deep problems in the structures of authority of our church.
The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process—and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity…I weep.
I see a good deal of disillusionment with the Catholic Church among my friends and acquaintances. Some leave the Catholic Church out of conviction, some gradually drift away, some join other denominations, some remain Catholic with difficulty. My response is to stay in this church for life and do my best to serve her. This I hope to do by stating the truth as I see it, with charity and respect. I would be ready to participate in future liturgical projects under more favorable conditions.
I am sorry for the difficulties I am causing others by withdrawing, but I know this is the right thing to do. I will be praying for you and all leaders in our church.
Pax in Christo
“handling of the scandal” “secretive…process” “little consultation” “allowed a small group to hijack” “unsatisfactory” “was imposed” “violation of their legitimate episcopal authority” “deception and mischief” I am sure Dom Anthony is going to get nine kinds of hell—not from his Abbot or community—but from the very people he had served in his work on the liturgy for his frankness. Here we have someone saying “The emperor has no clothes!” This is the role of the Religious priest, brother or sister—to be prophetic, to raise their voice and start leaping around and pointing like a mad person announcing that the Emperor is walking down the street—thinking himself clad in magnificent cope and miter—but in fact quite nude.
History is not about the past. Those who study the past for its own sake are not historians, they are antiquarians. Antiquarianism is fun. You get to play dress up and pretend you live in some sanitized version of the days of Yore. History is using the past as a means of talking about the present and the future. It requires thought and analysis. In looking at “What is happening to Vatican II” we get to see history as it unfolds—a rare opportunity. I won’t be doing a steady diet of it. I have a lot more to say about the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States as well as the role of Religious Women—both in the Civil War and in the life of the Church in the States. I am anxious to get back and look at the development and construction of St Peter’s Basilica and I am trying to figure out how to approach a history of the Liturgy in the West. So this episode on Vatican II and whether or not it is in danger is only one topic but I think it will be an interesting one and probably take about a dozen postings over the next month. It is not as interesting as Whispers in the Loggia, but I bet it gets me “reported” to somebody or other. There is more than one wicked witch of the west and each has her flying monkeys.
The image today is the dome of St. Peter's taken from the Apostolic Palace