Letter from Rome: Vatican II treasure hunt

Letter from Rome: Vatican II treasure hunt

A new committee is seeking memories of the famed council, writes Cindy Wooden

With a view toward the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, a pontifical committee has launched a worldwide treasure hunt.

Many of the more than 2,800 cardinals and bishops who participated in all or part of the 1962-65 council kept diaries, or at least notes; some wrote articles for their diocesan newspapers and most — in the days before emails and relatively cheap trans-Atlantic phone calls — wrote letters home.

The Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences is asking Church archivists, and even the family members of deceased council fathers, to look through their papers to find reflections that can add a personal touch to the historical research already conducted on the official acts of the council.

In planning a Vatican II anniversary conference, Norbertine Father Bernard Ardura, committee president, said he is well aware that the treasures unearthed can become the object of squabbles over whether they add to an authentic or fraudulent reading of the council.

The committee is promoting ”a balanced and scientifically grounded” historical study of the council, in line with the teaching of the Pope and ”devoid of any ideological inspiration”, he wrote in his project proposal.

Father Ardura said there are two extreme ”currents” in reference to the council:

”For some people it was a unique event that marked a rupture — there’s a ‘before’ and ‘after’ Vatican II; for others, it wasn’t even a real council because it did not formulate dogma, and no excommunications were issued.”

But for the committee, ”it’s important to work outside these currents and opinions and do work based on the documentation,” he said.

In an interview in late November, Father Ardura said the committee contacted archivists last spring and urged a careful search in the diocesan archives and personal papers of bishops who attended the council.

By March, they should have the beginnings of a decent catalogue of the material and its location.


In October, the committee will sponsor an international conference aimed at sharing progress in cataloguing the information and, especially, offering researchers ideas about areas ripe for further study given the availability of documentation.

(Pictured: Bishops fill St Peter’s Basilica during a meeting of the Second Vatican Council. Photo: CNS)

A conference for historians looking more at the substance of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching and at the various interpretations given those teachings is tentatively planned for 2015 – the 50th anniversary of the council’s closing, he said.

The 63-year-old French Norbertine has some personal recollections of his own. A student in the minor seminary in 1962, he remembers attending a huge, solemn Mass in Bordeaux celebrated by Cardinal Paul-Marie-Andre Richaud just before he left for the council. And, he said, he remembers the seminary rector renting a television so the students could watch the formal opening of the council: ”It was the first time a television entered the seminary.”

Father Ardura said the council fathers’ personal papers should give people an idea of what the bishops thought going into the council and whether, to what extent and why their attitudes changed as the council continued.

From research on the official published acts of the council and the published diaries of major personalities at the council, he said, it was clear many bishops thought they’d come to Rome and approve a few statements written by the pope and Vatican officials on the liturgy and on the mystery of the Church.

”But they ended up talking about everything,” he said. In four sessions, the council issued documents on Scripture, ecumenism, relations with other religions, communications, religious freedom, religious orders and other subjects.


”For many, they had never even been to a meeting of the bishops of their own country” – bishops’ conferences didn’t exist in most countries, he said. ”This was their first experience of collegiality.”

”But it’s also true that, little by little, different currents developed,” trying to draw the Church one way or another, he said. The personal letters, notes and diaries may shed more light on the personalities involved and how they tried to influence other council members.

Even setting aside the council’s discussions, Father Ardura also said he expects the research to underline big, even revolutionary changes, in the Church over the past 50 years.

For one thing, he said, while all the world’s bishops were invited to the council and many from Africa participated, in the 1960s most of the heads of African dioceses were missionaries from Europe. He said he suspects their personal papers are in the archives of their religious orders in Rome.

Another issue stems from the fact that, up until 1966, very few bishops retired; they tended to die in office, he said. After the council, Pope Paul VI asked bishops to voluntarily offer to resign at age 75 – which became a requirement with the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983.

What that has meant for archivists, Father Ardura said, was that even the personal papers of bishops who died in office tended to be filed in the diocesan archives. Bishops who retire at 75 obviously leave official papers with the diocese, but they tend to take their personal papers with them. That’s why family members of bishops at Vatican II are being asked to help, he said.