Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Holy Spirit Did Preside

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Holy Spirit Did Preside

Article excerpt

A newly married layman and graduate student, I found myself in Rome in 1963 covering the second session of the Second Vatican Council, working as a freelance reporter for the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, and for any other publications that would run my work, while my wife, Karen, executed prints on Rome's famous presses.

I remember the burning chestnuts in the streets of Rome; the taste of sambuca after dinner with my wife; the excitement of the press conferences every early afternoon; the perfect October air in St. Peter's Square with the great dome glinting in the sunlight; the twenty-two hundred bishops of the world arriving in school buses every day for sessions in the bleachers set up in St. Peter's. It was a wonderful time to be alive.

I had been in love with Rome from the time I first arrived in 1956 to study at the Gregorian University as I neared (I then hoped) my ordination to the priesthood. Being chosen to attend "the Greg" was a very lucky break. I am grateful that I had as my teachers such world-famous younger leaders of the reform in the Church as Bernard Lonergan - who had the most accomplished philosophical mind I have ever met, deeper by far than those of the men and women with whom I later studied at Harvard - and I was also privileged to be in the last classes taught by the giants of an older era.

Now almost completely forgotten, men such as Fathers Tromp, Zapelena, and Hiirth had lectured there since the 1920s (since the 140Os, it sometimes seemed), through financial crises, world wars, the Cold War. They had been the ghostwriters (so it was said) of many a papal encyclical or proclamation, and were certainly the weightiest experts to be consulted in Rome. The structure in their theology, roughly put, was an unchanging, eternal logic (impervious to contingent history). I invented a name for it, "nonhistorical orthodoxy." In England, France, and Germany, this was known as "Roman Theology," and inspired no emulation. The Romans, in turn, alluded to "theology over the mountains" as fickle and unreliable.

Studying those living monuments and also under men such as Lonergan and Josef Fuchs and (across town) Bernhard Häring, my classmates and I experienced in the classroom what the whole Church was to experience four years later at the Council. We had had to think it through in our own minds before it happened publicly. Some of us even held a miniature Vatican Council just for international seminarians in 1958.

The era before the Council was in some ways like living behind thick walls and in other ways more like a Golden Age in Catholic history than the Dark Age described to this day by the postconciliar "progressives." There were many glaring deficiencies in it, which I described with some vividness in The Open Church the next year, and yet it was in many respects healthier and more faithful to the gospel than much that came later in the name of "progress" and "openness." Progress in history seems to come by rushing from one extreme to the other.

For young Catholics in the 1950s, a "Catholic Renascence" was occurring among such theologians as Guéranger, de Lubac, Daniélou, Rahner, and Guardini. There were also playwrights, poets, and major historians such as Bloy, Péguy, Claudel, Greene, Waugh, Mauriac, Boll, Gironella, Silone, Christopher Dawson, and Friedrich Heer. Among philosophers there were Marcel, Maritain, Gilson, and Pieper. In America, J. F. Powers, Edwin O'Connor, and Flannery O'Connor were enjoying national success.

Catholic parishes were alive with novenas, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, and Forty Hours devotions; parish missions preached with such visions of hell and heaven, sin and grace, as the New York Times doesn't dream of. We learned all about the saints in those days, too.

Bishop Sheen's was the most watched show on Sunday-night prime-time television, and Walter Kerr was the best drama critic around. At the better universities, scholasticism and the Middle Ages generally were commanding a new respect, and even political commentators like Walter Lippmann began writing about the West's "perennial philosophy. …

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