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Archbishop John Foley Recalls the Council
By Barbara Beckwith
A Vatican official remembers the exciting days of covering Vatican II as a young priest.


A Working Council
Spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies
Poor Preparation for the Mass Changes
Missionary Challenge and Lay Vocation Forgotten
Learning Patience
Vatican II Potpourri

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 efforts.

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 intellectually stimulating to follow the discussions and to hear the background 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 Mirifica.

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 Vatican II?

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 reconciliation.

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 Bombay—and 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 Council?

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 you describe?

A. I know with certainty only two items of which I can speak with personal knowledge.

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 at all.

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.

Councils—together with the pope—have 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 Rome—and, 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 quickly—and I got him into a place where English was the primary language but where—unbeknownst to me—some 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 II—seeking 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 staff and—sometimes—lobbyists!

Q. Did the prelates and periti of certain countries make more of an impact?

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 ecumenism.

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 better!).


Spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies

Q. What was it was like to be present for the Council’s ceremonies and deliberations?

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 public ceremonies.

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 closed meetings.

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 get stories?

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 surprised you?

A. I expected change and renewal— and we got it! I can’t say that I was surprised, just delighted!

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 Canon.

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 Church—and 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 today?

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 most useful.

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 family life.

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 States?

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 instruction.

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 United States.

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 mean it.

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” (Hebrews 13:8).

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 priest.

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 cultures—and, 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 arcani—the “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 opinions—but 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 you?

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 Council intended?

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 front.

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 Church?

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.

Learning Patience

Q. What do you understand about Vatican II now that you did not realize when the Council ended?

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 declaration. 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, 1996).

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.


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