Since 1984, Archbishop John P.
Foley has been the president of
the Pontifical Council for Social
Communications, the only new
office created by a Vatican II document.
It helps the Church make better use of
the mass media to spread the gospel.
In the United States he’s probably
best known as the “voice” behind the
television commentary for the pope’s
Christmas Mass, and recently for the
funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II and
the installation Mass of Pope Benedict
XVI. Often interviewed when the
Church is in the news, he travels the
globe to support Catholic communications
A native of Philadelphia, he was
ordained in 1962. After earning a Ph.D.
in philosophy from the University of St.
Thomas (the Angelicum) in Rome in
1965, he got an M.S. in journalism from
Columbia University in New York the
following year. Then he went to work as
editor of The Catholic Standard and
Times, Philadelphia’s archdiocesan newspaper.
From there, he was summoned to
Rome for his current appointment.
In this interview conducted mostly
by e-mail, Archbishop Foley recalls
what it was like being in
Rome during the Council.
He arrived in the Eternal
City in September 1963
with two jobs: graduate
student in philosophy and
Rome correspondent for his
hometown Catholic newspaper.
During the Council, he
wrote about six articles a
week and sent home pictures
(purchased at 50 cents
each) taken by the Vatican
photographers. He attended
the daily English-language
briefings and the weekly
press panel sponsored by
the U.S. bishops.
Q. At the time, did Vatican II seem
like a turning point?
A. Vatican II was considered then and
remains now an extraordinary event
in the history of the Church. It was
physically inspiring to see 2,500 bishops
from around the world gathered in
St. Peter’s. It was
stimulating to follow
and to hear
comments of bishops and experts at
the sessions for journalists.
We Catholics considered it a “new
Pentecost,” and in many ways it was—in the declaration on religious freedom,
ecumenical and interfaith activity,
liturgy, the role of the laity, the statement
on the Jews. The Council set a
pastoral tone which still exercises a
profound influence in the Church and
indeed in the world.
Q. What was exciting about it?
A. You knew you were present for one
of the most important events in the
history of the Church. The excitement
was palpable. I have had many interesting
experiences in my life, but I still
treasure my memories of the two years
in which I was present for the second
and third sessions of the Council, especially
for the promulgation of the first
two documents of the Council: one on
liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and
one on mass communications, Inter
Q. What was the “buzz” in Rome
then? What did it feel like?
A. It was exhilarating, stimulating, challenging,
fascinating. The Second Vatican
Council was where “the action
was”—and we were there not only to
witness it but also in some ways to take
part in it. It was an unforgettable experience.
We felt that an updated Church
would have many new opportunities
for evangelization, for dispelling bigotry
and for stimulating not only missionary
activity but a new emphasis on
charity and social justice.
Q. Pope John XXIII decided that the
Council would issue no condemnations.
Did that influence the tone of
A. Pope John XXIII determined that
the Second Vatican Council would be
pastoral and not dogmatic. That in
itself established a more positive tone.
While reference was made to obvious
existing problems in the documents of
the Second Vatican Council, the
emphasis was not on identifying enemies
but on creating and taking advantage
of opportunities. We have seen
the effects of such an emphasis in the
policies of the late Pope John Paul II—seeking and granting forgiveness and
A Working Council
Q. Whom did you meet?
A. Two key contacts for me as a priest-journalist were Father Edward Heston, C.S.C., the English-language briefing officer during the Council, and Elmer von Feldt, news editor of then-NC News (now Catholic News Service). Von Feldt served as moderator of the U.S. Bishops’ Press Panel held every afternoon at 3 p.m. in the basement of the Rome USO, then at the end of the Via della Conciliazione, the wide street leading from the Vatican to the Tiber. Father Heston gave his briefings in what I believe is now the Ancora bookstore at about 1 p.m. every day.
By the time I arrived, Father Heston had discovered a rather simple way to circumvent the rule that what was said during the Council sessions could not be directly attributed. He would merely say, “The following persons spoke today: A) Bishop Smith; B) Bishop Jones, etc.” Then he’d say: “The following statements were made today: A, B, C, D.” It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out who said what!
The persons I met could, I guess, be considered a part of the “who’s who” of the Council: Cardinal Suenens of Brussels, Archbishop McGrath of Panama, Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, then-Bishop Wright of Pittsburgh, Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, Cardinal Frings of Cologne (whose priest-expert was Father Joseph Ratzinger), Cardinal Alfrink of the Netherlands, Cardinal Rugambwa of Tanzania, Cardinal Gracias of Bombayand then, of course, the experts: Fathers John Courtney Murray, Hans Küng, Bernard Häring, Gustav Weigel and William Keeler (now the cardinal of Baltimore).
Q. Who was most influential at the
A. Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne
had an obvious influence in the first
session in asking that a number of drafts
of the Council be reworked. As a young
priest covering the Council without
any previous experience in Rome and
with a very American way of looking at
things, I followed the Council discussions
very closely but was perhaps a
bit naïve in not recognizing that there
was a lot going on behind the scenes.
Q. What behind-the-scenes work can
A. I know with certainty only two items
of which I can speak with personal
In one case, the then-bishop of Baton
Rouge, Robert E. Tracy, wanted racism
condemned in one of the documents,
but he couldn’t find the right word in
Latin. An American priest suggested
the Latin word stirps [lineage], and that
was inserted in the text. I was delighted
with the insertion.
On a more personal note, Michael
Novak—who was then working with
Time magazine—tried to get me to sign
a petition against Inter Mirifica on the
grounds that it was not progressive
enough. I refused to sign the petition
because I thought it was almost a miracle
that a council of the Church was
considering a document on communications
While a greater number of Council
fathers (164) voted against Inter Mirifica than against any other document, I
think the negative votes came from
two directions: those who didn’t want
the Council to say anything about communications
and those who wanted it
to say much more. I was very pleased
that the Council considered and
approved the document—and that the
pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio (1971), called for by Inter Mirifica,
was such a masterpiece.
I was also very surprised just 20 years
later to find myself named president of
the department of the Holy See that
Inter Mirifica had prescribed.
Q. What does “ecumenical council” mean? Weren’t other councils ecumenical?
A. The word “ecumenical” means “representative of the entire inhabited world”and the Second Vatican Council was the 20th such council recognized by the Catholic Church as such. The Orthodox, I am led to believe, recognize only the first seven.
Councilstogether with the popehave the power to make definitive dogmatic declarations and to legislate for the entire Church.
But the Second Vatican Council was considered a “pastoral” Council and not dogmatic, in that it did not define any doctrine.
Q. Can you describe some of the personalities, the alliances, trivia like meals, etc.?
A. To my delight, the pastor from my first assignment as a priest, Father Thomas B. Falls, was named one of the four pastor-observers from the United States at the Council during my stay in Romeand, because he spoke Latin well, he was chosen by all the pastor-observers from around the world to speak to the Council on their behalf. What a proud day for me! But when he arrived, I had to arrange housing for him quicklyand I got him into a place where English was the primary language but whereunbeknownst to mesome of the most liberal experts and observers at the Council were staying. When I was walking with him one day, someone asked where he was staying and, when he responded, “Villanova House,” they said immediately, “Oh, rebels’ roost!” He looked at me rather plaintively, and we found him a new place to stay!
Q. Didn’t the bishops throw out the first drafts of documents prepared by the curia? Did that make people mad?
A. The decision to send a number of drafts back for reworking was made during the Council’s first session, before I arrived, so things were on the “upswing” when I got there.
Q. Pope John XXIII decided that the Council would issue no condemnations. Did that influence the tone of Vatican II?
A. As I already mentioned, Pope John XXIII had determined that the Second Vatican Council would be pastoral and not dogmatic. That in itself established a more positive tone.
While reference was made to obvious existing problems in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the emphasis was not on identifying enemies but on creating and taking advantage of opportunities. We have seen the effects of such an emphasis in the policies of the late Pope John Paul IIseeking and granting forgiveness and reconciliation.
Q. What was the role of the periti?
A. In the U.S. Congress, we know that
staff members prepare legislative proposals,
which are then introduced and
voted on by members of Congress. The
periti combined the roles of support
Q. Did the prelates and periti of certain
countries make more of an
A. Generally, the French and the Germans
had the most evident theological “firepower,” but the Americans played
a key role in the documents on religious
liberty, on the Church and the modern
world, on ecumenism and on the Jews.
Cardinal Francis Spellman was a
leader regarding the document on religious
liberty, but Jesuit Father John
Courtney Murray could, I think, be
considered a major architect of the document—together with a certain Bishop
Karol Wojtyla from Krakow [who
became Pope John Paul II], who emphasized
the right to public expression and
practice of one’s religious belief.
Jesuit Father Gustav Weigel was a
major influence in the document on
Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher of Seton
Hall University, who may not have
been formally an expert at the Council,
had a great influence on the development
of the document on the Jews. He
was himself a convert from Judaism.
Q. Can you describe the role of the
press back then? How does it differ
from synod or conclave coverage
now? Did Xavier Rynne’s (Francis X.
Murphy’s) reports in The New Yorker help or hurt?
A. In general, the press was ill-prepared
for a Council—and ill-informed, at least
at the beginning of the Council.
Xavier Rynne, of course, had fascinating
articles in The New Yorker, truly
insider articles—which turned out to be
right most but not all of the time. The
efforts of Father (later Archbishop)
Edward Heston, C.S.C., and the U.S.
bishops were all important in making
available ever more accurate and
authentic information about what was
going on in the Council.
There is much more information
available today about the Synods of
Bishops—although not about the voting
in a conclave (which is probably
Spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies
Q. What was it was like to be present
for the Council’s ceremonies and
A. While the public was allowed to
attend the opening and closing ceremonies
of the Council, there were
already about 3,000 bishops, experts
and clerical assistants at the Council, so
the number of available tickets was
greatly limited. But I got in for all the
Because then-Archbishop John Krol
of Philadelphia was one of the four
undersecretaries of the Council, I was
able to get a pass to get into a few of the
The daily gatherings were impressive
enough, with all the bishops in
choir robes in what looked like elegant
grandstands—with each bishop having
a little desk—on each side of the
nave in St. Peter’s Basilica. The cardinals’ “grandstand” was draped in scarlet,
the patriarchs’ table in green!
The solemn ceremonies of opening
and closing, however, were like a Hollywood
spectacular. All the bishops,
wearing copes and miters, went in procession
into the basilica, with the pope
carried on the sedia gestatoria. If there
was ever triumphalism, this was it—but it was spectacularly impressive!
Every day, when the bishops poured
out of St. Peter’s, it looked as if the
basilica was bleeding, as a wave of purple
descended down the steps and into
the waiting buses.
Q. Did you take bishops to lunch to
A. Most of the prelates went to their residences
in religious houses for lunch.
But some were entertained by journalists
or “lobbyists” and the restaurants
were filled with prelates in cassocks.
(We all had to wear cassocks in the city
of Rome in those days, and somewhere
I still have my round beaver hat!)
Since the newspaper was paying me
the princely sum of $10 a week for my
six articles, from which I had to deduct
the cost of photos and postage—and
even lunch—I was not treating any
“sources” to a meal. I regularly existed
on 50-cent plates of plain pasta. (In
those days, I was very thin!)
While mailing stories might seem to
be a primitive exercise today, I found
out that I could take packets of stories
and photos to the central post office
early on Saturday evening and put an
express label on them, which got them
into a bag that went directly to the airport.
And the editor in Philadelphia
would have the packet on Monday at
9 a.m.! It was better than you can do
now with Federal Express—and it only
cost 50 cents!
Q. What did you expect and what
A. I expected change and renewal—
and we got it! I can’t say that I was surprised,
Poor Preparation for the Mass Changes
Q. What did you think about the
changes in the liturgy?
A. I was all for them. I had been accustomed
to what we then called the “dialogue
Mass” [between the priest and
the server] in my parish, high school
and college. When I entered the seminary
in 1957, I was stunned because we
were not even responding to the prayers
at Mass in Latin—and sometimes we
were even reciting the Rosary aloud
while Mass was going on, pausing only
for the consecration!
In 1961-62, when several of us
formed a study group to review Pope
Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei on
the liturgy, the rector called me to his
office to forbid even discussing possible
changes in the liturgy—and to predict
that the vernacular would never be
used in the liturgy. I told him I thought
he was wrong, but I also told him we
would certainly obey his directive.
Just two years later, the Council had
mandated change. I remember the first
concelebration in St. Peter’s with cardinals
using golden straws to receive the
Precious Blood—and then at the Casa
Santa Maria, the graduate house of the
North American College, where we
drank from a common chalice.
In 1965, I was able to travel with
several other priests to Poland, Czechoslovakia,
Hungary and the Soviet
Union. I took with me copies of Vatican
Council documents—at some risk,
because bringing religious literature
into those countries was forbidden—and the priest in Leningrad (now St.
Petersburg) did not even know there
was a Second Vatican Council. In Eger,
Hungary, I was able to convince the
rector of the cathedral to have a concelebration—in Latin—on Easter Sunday,
the first concelebration ever in
that country, outside of ordinations.
One thing surprised me in the
changes: the fact that no Latin at all was
mandatory. I had thought that at least
the words of consecration and perhaps
the entire Eucharistic Prayer would
remain in Latin. Later, I was amazed
that other Eucharistic Prayers were
introduced to supplement the Roman
I also thought that the manner of
liturgical change was poor. Change followed
upon change with inadequate
preparation of the people—so that
many got the impression that, in a way, “nothing was sacred.” Some priests
then began changing things on their
own authority, even though the Council
specifically prohibited that, and for
a period of time there was at least liturgical
confusion, if not chaos!
Q. How did being at Vatican II change your life?
A. While I had been sent to Rome to do graduate study in philosophy (I received my doctorate in 1965 with a dissertation on “Natural Law, Natural Right and the Warren Court”written in English but defended in Latin), I also got a wonderful education in theology, ecclesiology, liturgy, ecumenism, etc., thanks to the Council, and a personal introduction to some of the greatest leaders and minds in the Catholic Churchand even in the Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches.
Q. Is there anything that happened at
Vatican II that could have spelled
disaster? What could have made
things easier afterward?
A. The death of Pope John XXIII in
1963 could have ended the Council.
Pope Paul VI decided to continue it—a heroic decision—and then he wisely
set a limit of four sessions, insisting it
would end in 1965.
A more orderly liturgical transition
would have been helpful—and perhaps
the Catechism of the Catholic Church should not have been delayed until 25
years after the Council!
Q. What Vatican II document do you
find yourself quoting most often
A. Obviously, I often have recourse to
Inter Mirifica, the Council's document
on communications. The documents
on the Church, the Church in the modern
world, religious liberty and the
liturgy are the ones I personally find
I often quote the document on the Church regarding the specifically secular
vocation of the laity, because I think
that, after the Council, too many in
the Church thought of laypeople as
new personnel for Church ministries
and too few people sought to challenge
laypeople to realize their vocation of
bringing the Gospel to the world of
work and professional life—and indeed
Missionary Challenge and Lay Vocation Forgotten
Q. Is it true that few countries have
implemented Vatican II as thoroughly
as the Church in the United
A. While I am edified and indeed
inspired by the quality of liturgical participation
in the United States, I have
seen equal—if not better—participation
in Africa and Asia.
The ecumenical and interreligious
effects of the Council have been particularly
gratifying in the United States.
The greater interest in Scripture is
inspiring, but, I think, there has been
a crisis in catechetics and religious
Q. We hear a lot about polarization—
left, right—in the Church today. Is it
still in reaction to Vatican II? How
significant is it?
A. On the right, you still have some followers
of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. On the left are perhaps many
persons and groups who invoke
the “spirit” of Vatican II to attempt to
justify doctrinal, moral and liturgical
aberrations. The great majority of American
Catholics seem, however, truly to
“think with the Church”—and it seems
to be getting better, although the sexual
abuse scandals of recent years caused a great deal of alienation.
As Pope Benedict XVI said in the
homily at the Mass for the inauguration
of his pastoral ministry, “The Church is
alive”—and that is certainly true in the
Q. In the United States after Vatican
II, many priests resigned and many
religious sisters left their communities.
Many people blame Vatican II.
What do you think?
A. I was, and I remain, deeply shocked
by the departure of so many from the
active priesthood and religious life. It is
hard for me to imagine how people
can walk away from freely assumed
permanent commitments. But we are
seeing that tendency even more in marriage.
In a very fast-changing world,
there seems to be an unwillingness
to say the word “always” and
Did Vatican II have some influence
in this by bringing changes
few expected? I think it probably
did, but the nature of the times
had more to do with it, I suspect,
because of the frequency and profundity
of change. People began
to think: “I am not the same person
who made the promise, and
the Church is not the same institution
in which I made that
promise.” God is the same God,
however, and Jesus is the same
“yesterday, today and forever”
I am fortunate in that I have
had a very happy and fulfilling
priesthood. Some people don’t
believe me when I say that I’ve
never had an unhappy day as a
Q. Karl Rahner suggested in the late 1970s in Theological Studies that Vatican II marked the real emergence of a world Church. Do you agree?
A. No. The Church has always been universal, and the missionary outreach of the Church has always been universal. Perhaps Vatican II allowed us to see the results in the presence of prelates of many colors and many culturesand, indeed, of many rites all together at one time.
I also disagree with Father Rahner who wrote that televising the Mass was wrong because it was a violation of the disciplina arcanithe “discipline of the secret” involved in the preparation of catechumens.
Karl Rahner had a great mind, but I suspect that he sometimes had a tendency to absolutize some of his own personal opinionsbut perhaps we all do that from time to time.
Q. As you've traveled, have you seen
how Vatican II has taken root in various
countries? Does the increasing
inculturation of the Church surprise
A. It has indeed been a great privilege
to travel throughout the world and to
see the Church at work in almost every
culture. It has also been an inspiration.
There had traditionally been such
cultural adaptation—as we can see in
the various Eastern rites of the Church
in Europe, Asia and Africa.
I always seek to quote St. Augustine: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful
things, liberty; in all things, charity.”
One of the Protestant observers at
the Second Vatican Council once said
to me: “The Catholic Church is already
the model for eventual Christian unity:
you have a variety of rites, you have a
variety of religious communities, you
have a variety of lay movements. You
already have unity with diversity.”
Q. Have parts of Vatican II not yet
influenced the Church’s life as the
A. I think that the missionary document—Ad Gentes—has not been fully
appreciated or implemented. In fact,
although the United States at one time
had many missionaries throughout the
world, their number has declined
greatly. While American Catholics
remain generous in responding to crises
in the world—through Catholic Relief
Services, for example—their interest in
evangelization at home and abroad
lessened, perhaps because of a misunderstanding
about the unique salvific
role of Jesus Christ. But it now seems to
be reviving, at least on the domestic
And I think that the specifically secular
vocation of the laity has not been
fully appreciated—the role of the laity
to transform their world of work
through their own personal integrity
and professional excellence, to make
the world better by a profound evangelization
of one’s workplace and home.
Q. How do you respond to people
who say that Vatican II betrayed the
A. I say that it was truly a work of the
Holy Spirit—and all the popes since
John XXIII have recognized that and
indeed have said it. Some individuals
may have betrayed the Council, but
the Council did not betray the Church.
Q. What do you say to people who
complain that Vatican II has
been rolled back in recent years?
A. The popes and bishops have
been committed to the implementation
of the Second Vatican
Council in authentic conformity
to the will of the Council fathers
and to the constant teaching of
the Catholic Church.
I was at the Council; the bishops
did not want a betrayal of
Church doctrinal or moral teaching
or abuses in liturgy or governance.
Q. What do you understand
about Vatican II now that you
did not realize when the Council
A. I was 30 years old then; I’m
almost 70 now. Then I was impatient
to see everything done
immediately; now I’m convinced
that not everything will happen in
my lifetime. I’ve learned patience—and I also realize that many people
today take for granted the immense
progress already made, also under the
guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Q. Will there be another Council in
our lifetime? What should be on the
agenda for the next Council?
A. There will certainly not be another
Council in my lifetime—and that is a
realistic assessment, not a reactionary
Regarding the agenda for the next
Council, I’m still trying to absorb the
richness of the Second Vatican Council,
whose documents I regularly use
for meditation. I’m trying to do what
those documents do in proclaiming
the message of Jesus Christ in season
and out of season—for the evangelization
of the world and for the salvation
of my own soul!
Vatican II Potpourri
by Michael J. Daley
The 1960s: What a Time!: Major world events that took
place during the Council include:
October 22-28, 1962—The Cuban Missile Crisis brings the
United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.
April 16, 1963—Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the civil-rights
movement, writes “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
November 22, 1963—President John F. Kennedy is assassinated
in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald.
August 7, 1964—The Gulf of Tonkin resolution passes in
Congress; American presence in Vietnam escalates.
October 4, 1965—Addressing the United Nations General
Assembly on its 20th anniversary, Pope Paul VI urges governments
to pursue peace and
solemnly pledge: “No more war.
War never again!”
Change Is Never Easy: A parish
bulletin in Darlington, Wisconsin,
humorously captured the significant
changes, particularly in
the area of liturgy, wrought by the
Council: “Latin’s gone, peace is,
too; singin’ and shoutin’ from
every pew. Altar’s turned around,
priest is too; commentator’s
yelling: ‘Page 22.’ Communion
rail’s gone, stand up straight!
Kneelin’ suddenly went outta
date....Rosary’s out, psalms are in,
hardly ever hear a word against sin. Listen to the lector, hear
how he reads; please stop rattlin’ them rosary beads....I
hope all changes are just about done; that they don’t drop
bingo, before I’ve won” (cited in “The Contested Legacy of
Vatican II,” by Scott Appleby, Notre Dame Magazine, Summer
1999, p. 26).
Vatican II and the World Church: Karl Rahner, S.J.,
wrote that because of Vatican II the Catholic Church now
saw itself more as a world Church, not simply a European
or North American expression of Christianity. While most
of the 2,500 bishops at Vatican II came from Europe and
North America, there were 489 bishops from South America,
374 from Asia, 296 from Africa and 75 from Oceania.
Catholic and Orthodox Relations: Prior to the close of
the Council’s last session, Pope Paul VI, representing the
Roman Catholic Church, and Patriarch Athenagoras I, representing
the Orthodox tradition, publicly lifted excommunications
imposed by their predecessors 900 years earlier.
Enter the Women: During the third and fourth sessions,
23 women (13 laywomen and 10
women religious) attended as official
observers, making their contributions
by working on documents
and through informal discussions
(story told in Carmel McEnroy’s
Guests in Their Own House: The
Women of Vatican II, Crossroad,
The Bars of Vatican II: During
Council sessions, at Bar-Jonah and
Bar-Abbas bishops and other men
could converse informally over
coffee, hot milk and baked goods.
When the women arrived for the
third session, their special but segregated
place was quickly nicknamed “Bar-None.”
Vatican II and Jewish Relations: Prior to the Council, the
Good Friday prayer for the Jewish people read: “Let us pray
for the faithless Jews, that our God and Lord would withdraw
the veil from their hearts that they may acknowledge our
Lord Jesus Christ.” By 1985, it read: “Let us pray for the Jewish
people, the first to hear the Word of God, that they
might continue to grow in the love of his name and in
faithfulness to his covenant.”
Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of this
publication. She was a high schooler during Vatican
II and her basic theology text at Marquette University
was The Documents of Vatican II.