Vol. XIX, No. 10
The Pope Meets ICEL — A Personal Reflection
by Bishop Arthur Serratelli
Undoubtedly, the Second Vatican Council still remains the most significant Church event in modern times, not just for Catholics, but for all people of good will. In the entire history of the Church, there have only been 20 other such ecumenical councils. More than 2,000 bishops from around the world gathered together in Rome. They met from 1962 until 1965, first with the soon-to-be canonized Blessed Pope John XXIII, and then with his successor the Servant of God Pope Paul VI.
On December 8, 1965, the Council formally closed. Three months before, I had just arrived as a young seminarian to begin my theological formation in Rome. The enthusiasm for the work of the Council was palpable. The atmosphere, exciting. News media. Daily reports. The eyes of the world fixed on the heart of the Church. Our separated brothers and sisters of other faiths shared in the eager reception of what the Council fathers had to say. It was a great time for a young seminarian to study theology.
These were the days of aggiornamento. In a speech on January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII had coined this word aggiornamento (updating or bringing into the present day) to describe his entire ministry. The pope was widely rumored to have been chosen as a caretaker pope, serving in the interim between two more energetic papacies. But he was intent to help the Church reach the modern world with renewed vigor. On January 25, 1959, in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, he announced his plans to convoke the Second Vatican Council. He caught everyone by surprise. On October 11, 1962, he opened the Council. He died soon afterward on June 3, 1963. The work of Vatican II had only begun.
When the great prophet Elijah was taken up into heaven, his mantle fell upon the shoulder of Elisha to continue his work. Likewise, when good Pope John XXIII died, the work of continuing the Council fell upon the shoulders of his successor, Pope Paul VI. With great respect for his predecessor and with an earnest desire to show the continuity of the Petrine ministry itself, Pope Paul VI not only made Pope John’s motto his own, but he also affirmed it as the reason for the Council. He said, “We cannot forget Pope John XXIII’s word aggiornamento which we have adopted as expressing the aim and object of our own pontificate … ratifying it and confirming it as the guiding principle of the Ecumenical Council” (Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, n. 50).
Arriving in Rome as the Council was drawing to an end, I took in every sight and sound with the eagerness of a novice. Unforgettable is my memory of the bishops leaving the last sessions. Prelates dressed in pontifical garb spewed out from St. Peter’s Square and crowded into public buses to get to their residences. As seminarians, we waited each evening to hear the reports of the latest deliberations of the Council fathers. Personally, I had the privilege of being present when Pope Paul VI gave his closing remarks at the last public session of the Council. He spoke powerfully in Latin of the Church’s vitality. He said, “She believes. She hopes. She loves. The Church is alive!”
“The Church is alive!” Most recently, I had the experience of the Church’s vitality and continual “aggiornamento.” As chairman of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), I returned to Rome with other bishop members and experts to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of our commission. The commission was conceived and born in Rome during the Council.
During the working sessions of the Council, the bishops, periti (experts), and observers would take breaks at coffee bars set up in St. Peter’s Basilica. They would go either to Bar-Jonah or Bar-Abbas. It was in the informal discussions among English-speaking bishops at Bar-Jonah that the idea was conceived to form a commission to translate liturgical texts from Latin into English for the entire English-speaking world. The first formal meeting of ICEL took place on October 17, 1963. It included representatives of 10 of the English-speaking national conferences of bishops.
Never would I have imagined that a half century later, I would be returning to Rome as a member and present chair of this commission to celebrate its work over the last 50 years. Working with fellow bishops from Canada, Ireland, England and Wales, Scotland, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia has widened my own understanding of our sacramental and liturgical prayer tradition. It has vastly enriched my own understanding of the life of the Church.
At the conclusion of our working week in Rome, on October 19, our Holy Father Pope Francis received the commission in a private audience. His words were inspiring and encouraging. He recognized our work as “one of the signs of the spirit of episcopal collegiality which found expression in the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, 22-25).” “By enabling the vast numbers of the Catholic faithful throughout the world to pray in a common language,” Pope Francis told us, “[our] commission has helped to foster the Church’s unity in faith and sacramental communion.”
Leaving Rome 45 years after my own priestly ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica, I have come home renewed by our visit with the Holy Father. The audience ended. But Pope Francis’s personal warmth to each of us and his respect for our common work remain to inspire us to help the faithful in the English-speaking world appreciate our rich liturgical tradition. The Church lives and, in every age, she renews her youth in each of us!
Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, New Jersey is chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship and president of ICEL. This article, originally published in The Beacon, Paterson’s diocesan newspaper, appears here with the bishop’s kind permission; as does the photo of the meeting with Pope Francis on the 50th anniversary of ICEL’s founding.
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