On Oct. 28, 1414 Pope John XXIII came riding on a white horse beneath a golden canopy into Constance, a town of several thousand on what is now the border between Germany and Switzerland. This was not the John XXIII everyone knows from Vatican II but the first John XXIII. His name was Balthazar Cosa, and he was attired in gold-encrusted Mass vestments. A long retinue of his cardinals and chancery officials came behind.
This pope had come to oversee an ecumenical council that aimed to end a 36-year schism during which two competing lines of popes had claimed the See of Peter. Just five years before, an attempt to solve the problem failed miserably, resulting in not only two but three competing papal lines, one based in Rome, one in Avignon, France, and one in Pisa, Italy. This three-pope fiasco, perhaps the most scandalous situation to hit the church up to that time, threatened to tear Christendom apart permanently. Few had confidence that John XXIII (the Pisa pope) was the man to solve the problem; it was said that he was "great in temporal things and a zero in spiritual matters."
Meanwhile Christians of the 15th century had become angry and were determined that the schism be healed there and then in humble Constance. And so they poured into town in extraordinary numbers--by carriages and wagons and donkey carts, by horseback, and on foot. By the time the council got underway, according to reliable reports, the town held five patriarchs, 30 cardinals, 533 bishops, 119 abbots, 335 theologians, 200 university and town officials, 18,000 priests, and a great cloud of laity beyond numbering. It was necessary to bring 36,000 beds into Constance to accommodate the visitors--two to a bed.
Many stayed to look over the shoulders of the prelates and clergy so that no one could mistake their wishes. In the end all three popes were ousted (John slipping away disguised as a groom when he saw the handwriting on the wall). A new pope, Martin V, was duly elected and the schism was finally over.
The Council of Constance, recognized as one of the 21 ecumenical councils by the Roman Catholic Church, went far in its determination to make its resolutions stick; it declared that ecumenical councils have jurisdiction over every member of the church, including the pope--a decision that remains problematic for some papal boosters even to this day.
Volumes have been written about the Council of Constance, what led up to it, and what happened after. Always noted by scholars is the amazing turnout of people, but few ask why.
What drove these Christians, many of them illiterate, to leave their families and fields for this meeting at Constance? Perhaps the answer is too obvious. This was their church, and it was in peril. They wanted to be involved, to participate in some way, to have a voice, however minimal, in what their church should decide.
The Constance experience exemplifies the determination of Catholics to "own" their church. It is a perennial democratic drive, which manifested itself from the beginning of Christianity, continued through the centuries despite roadblocks, and is alive and well in our own time.
Two sweeping points can be made regarding Constance: First, active participation at every level is so basic to the faith that it could almost be considered one of the five marks of the Catholic Church: one, holy, catholic, apostolic--and participative. This is not to deny the Catholic hierarchy, only to say that the church by its very nature leans toward a unique, participative model of hierarchy.
Second and more important, contrary to a pervasive sense of gloom about the prospects for more openness, the church is in fact on the verge of a new age of democratization not seen in the past. The elements are in place for such an historic development.
A democratic church?
When suggestions of lay involvement in church decisions are mentioned, the most common retort is "The church is not a democracy. …