no. 3 july - september 2007
Presence at the Second Vatican Council
former Prior General and member of the Second Vatican Council
When the Second Vatican Council was called, what were your expectations of it?
Well, we (the religious Orders) were all asked to make suggestions for the Vatican Council. One of the suggestions that we had, probably the most important, was that there should be a definite document on the nature of Jesus Christ—that it should be clarified that he was human and divine—divine and human. There was a controversy at that time among theologians about the right way to present the incarnation of Jesus. The different theological and philosophical explanations were not always clear. Some seemed in a way to lessen the divinity of Christ.
Fr. (Servant of God Bartholomew) Xiberta was at the Curia at that time. He was probably one of the outstanding theologians of the last century and no doubt the outstanding Carmelite theologian. Fr. Xiberta suggested that we ask for a clear presentation of the nature of Jesus Christ.
We had other suggestions, none of which I remember at the moment, but none of them were of great importance. We did not talk about the liturgy that seemed to preoccupy the Council and some of the other problems like religious freedom— we did not go into the question of religious liberty or anything like that.
But unfortunately the Council did not even bring up that problem (nature of Jesus Christ) when we came to the Council. The big problem was the liturgy and it just took for granted that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and there was no problem. So the question was not distributed at all which is surprising in a way but also pleasant in a way because it didn’t seem to propose any problem for the Council Fathers.
Were you surprised at the changes brought about as a result of the Council’s documents?
The big surprise in the Council, of course, was the change of the liturgy, the leaving the Latin for the vernacular. I never expected that and even as the Council progressed, I thought some vernacular would be permitted in the liturgy but I never thought, I never dreamt, that Latin would simply be more or less forgotten. Of course, I don’t think the Council Fathers really meant to forget it and leave it out completely. But that is the result and for me, that is the big surprise.
Another big surprise was the religious liberty controversy. Every person has a right to his own faith and it would never be imposed upon another person. People have a right to practice their own faith—privately and even publicly as long as they don’t interfere with social order of the country.
How did that idea gain momentum at the Council?
That, of course, was the big contribution of John Courtney Murray, the American theologian, who fought for religious liberty. During the Council I talked to him once or twice about this matter. He told me he had been forbidden to come to Rome by some of the Curia and that his presence would not be welcome. So he stayed away. But Cardinal Spellman intervened for him and he finally did come to Rome.
He publicly celebrated Mass at one of the sessions with the Holy Father showing that Pope Paul VI welcomed him. And of course the document he fought for so successfully was accepted and it is part of the Church’s teaching today.
I remember being at one of the theological conventions in America and I was sitting beside some of the more famous theologians in America whose names I don’t want to mention but they were very much opposed to everything he was saying about religious liberty.
This one priest said to me, "Error has no rights. People want rights for preaching false doctrine and there is no such thing. Error has no rights. Falsehoods have no rights."
I can remember that! The men who were speaking and thought that way were some of the better known theologians of the day. But they were completely appalled when the Council brought out this doctrine of religious liberty. But (after the Council approved it) they remained quiet.
But that was a big surprise to me when religious liberty was proposed for all people. However, it was another good thing, an excellent thing.
How about the Council’s push for ecumenism?
Then ecumenism was brought out in the Council. To me that was marvelous too, that the Council reached out to other faiths and prayed and asked for the unity of all Christians, that there be unity of faith and unity of love.
I have thought about it since and I am convinced that before we ever have unity of faith, we need unity of love. We have to love one another and show that love in our daily lives with those who are not united to us. The first thing is unity of love. We have to show love and respect for them. Once there is love and respect, then you can sit down and you can talk.You have to be able to sit down and talk.
What was it like representing the Order in those years?
Well … I was part of the Council and I was completely … well I was … what should I say … I was stunned by the whole thing. I was silent. I felt very unworthy and wondered what I was doing in the Council. I felt very unequal to some of the great Cardinals and bishops at the Council. I just felt overwhelmed by the whole thing. I would not call it humility as much as being overwhelmed that I was there with these very, very important people. It probably silenced me to a great deal and (chuckles) kept me in my place probably.
You of course never planned to be part of such a momentous event in the life of the Church. What was it like for you personally?
No. When I was elected General in 1959, the Council had not started. It was that same year that Pope John XXIII was elected and then shortly after his election, he declared that there would be a Council in the 60’s. So then I knew I would be part of the Council.
I don’t know how I could have been better prepared but as a General I had to continue to watch over the Order and visit all the Provinces and take part in all the Chapters … which I did. I couldn’t give complete attention to the Council by any means. But I gave as much attention as I could to it.
There were several Carmelites at the Council. Who had some impact?
There is one Carmelite in the Council who to my mind played an outstanding part. That was Bishop Lamont, the bishop in Umtali, Rhodesia which is now Zimbabwe and the diocese is now called Mutare. When the question of Ad Gentes, the document on missionary life came up, he took an active part and spoke eloquently about the importance of it. When the first document came out, he complained that it was very inadequate—that it was like bones without any flesh (and he quoted Ezechial, the prophet, very strongly).
The document was sent back and was reexamined. The result was a very, very good doctrine on the missions of the Church. I think Bishop Lamont had an active part in producing a better document.
What other Carmelites were present at the Council?
Fr. (Servant of God Bartholomew) Xiberta was on the theological commission. As a member of that commission, he had a role in presenting the original document. How great a role he had, I don’t know. He never said himself. But he did take part in the first two sessions, then he got sick, he suffered a stroke, and, of course, he wasn’t there for the last two sessions of the Council. He is the only Carmelite who was on the Theological Commission.
What is your favorite memory of the Council?
(Long pause) I don’t really have any one memory of the Council.
There was no disappointment. I was happy with the place that the Council gave the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Council.
You had no big disappointments though?
No. I had no disappointments. My biggest surprise was the vernacular in the liturgy. I think many others were surprised too that that was the final result. I think it was a very good thing.
And of course the documents on religious liberty and ecumenism— they pleased me very, very much.
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, site of the Second Vatican Council held 1962-1965.
Kilian Healy, as Prior General, at Aylesford.
Scene from a session of the Second Vatican Council.
The Carmelite Participants at the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Church, the Second Vatican Council, pictured on October 23, 1962, 12 days after the Council’s opening. Back row (left to right): Bartholomaeus M. Xiberta (Cat), Bishop Redemptus Gauci (Mel), Bishop Raymond Lui (Flum), Bishop Nevin Hayes (PCM). Front row: (left to right): Bishop Gabriel Bueno Couto (Flum), Bishop Avertanus Albers (Indo), Kilian Healy (Prior General), Bishop Telesphorus Cioli (Ita), Bishop Donal Lamont (Hib-Z).
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