Seeking His Presence
by Robert Moynihan
"The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this,
that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be
guarded and taught more efficaciously." ()
"The de-Christianization of the twentieth century is not
only much more serious than anything that has previously
beset Christians; it is something uniquely sinister."
The central fact of Christianity is Jesus Christ.
Christians use the present tense--"is" Jesus Christ--not
the past tense--"was" Jesus Christ-- because Christians
believe Jesus "is": that he lives. Christians believe
modern men and women, like those who lived and walked with
Jesus on the dusty roads of Palestine 2,000 years ago, can
him, can be , can really and truly
him, can be, here and now, because Jesus is not an idea or a theory or an
ideology, but . And where can this
encounter occur? In many places, in the gathering of the
"two or three" who believe in him, in the giving of a cup
of water to someone who is thirsty, in hearing the words of
Scripture which are replete with references to him, but
preeminently in "the breaking of the bread"-- in the
Eucharist. Christians have always believed that bread,
consecrated, Jesus, that he is in the bread,
and that this is the "great mystery" which is at the center
of the Church's liturgical life, this "making present" of
the Lord of History here and now. Now, if, as Charles Peguy
suggested in 1907, the 20th century is marked above all by
its "deChristianization," this "uniquely sinister" trial in
the history of the Church, what does this mean about
Christ's presence? It means Christ is somehow less present.
He is in the councils of government, less
present in the laws of legislatures, less present in
literature and art, less present--and one would hesitate to
say this were it not demonstrable that many Catholics no
longer believe in Christ's presence in the consecrated
host--in the Eucharist.
It is the absence of Christ which marks our time. And it is
this absence which makes our age a chill and dark one, and
the scene of unprecedented crimes. And this is not (it must
be made clear) because of any desire or decision on
Christ's part to abandon humanity, but because humanity has
once again, as in the garden of Gethsemane, abandoned him.
When polls show that no longer
believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we
realize that, unlike on the road to Emmaus, his disciples
in the breaking of the bread.
How did this occur, and how can it be remedied? That is the
challenge facing the Church as it enters the Third
Millennium of Christianity: to once again seek the Lord's
presence, and to recognize him when he comes among us.
A World to Flee From, A World to Embrace
BOTH JOHN XXIII and Paul VI often spoke of "modernity" when
speaking of the Second Vatican Council. They spoke of the
need to "update" the Church to enable her to take a more
active role in "the modern world." They were aware of the
evils often associated with the term "modernism," but were
equally aware of the benefits that came from advances in
scientific and medical knowledge and the freedoms enjoyed
by citizens of democratic countries. It was these
beneficial by-products of the 20th century they had in mind
when they called upon the Council to "modernize the
Yet, for many Catholics--secure in their received faith,
appalled by the dominant culture--it was folly to "open"
the Church "to the world." While Pope John, Giovanni
Battista Cardinal Montini (then Archbishop of Milan), and
other liberal Fathers were calling for openness to modern
ways, others, headed by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, were
associating contemporary culture with that deadly spiritual
virus Pius X condemned as "modernism." Call it by any of
its many names--modernism, secularism, atheism,
rationalism, materialism or individualism--this way of
thinking and being has almost always been seen as something
for Christians to flee from, not embrace. From the
beginning of this century to the present time, this
cultural force has been described with frightening clarity
as deadly to all revealed religions, particularly to
Catholicism, and even to all individual rights and
freedoms. Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyev (1853-
1900), for example, projected the 21st century as a time
when Christianity would all but disappear in the face of a
vapid spiritualism, a humanistic religion overseen by an
anti-Christ. Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), son of an
Archbishop of Canterbury and a convert to Catholicism,
likewise foresaw a world where science and materialism
would eliminate the Church and usher in "the end times."
And French poet Charles Peguy (1873-1914) struck a note in
1907 that has been echoed over and over: "The de-
Christianization of the 20th century is not only much more
serious than anything that has previously beset Christians;
it is something uniquely sinister."
Even a self-declared agnostic, French President Francois
Mitterand, was moved to comment on the spiritual nihilism
of present-day Western culture. Shortly before his death
last month (a death long meditated on because of a slow
growing cancer), the President wrote: "Never before has our
relationship with death been so impoverished as in these
times of spiritual aridity, when men are so eager to exist
that they evade the mystery of death."
This culture that can no longer conceive of death as part
of a mysterious passage to eternity has been powerfully and
succinctly defined in John Paul II's startling phrase, "the
culture of death."
Council conservatives, acutely aware of this sinister
modern spirit, saw themselves not only as protectors of
Church traditions, but also as realists. They considered
liberals unreliable optimists. For these conservatives,
modernization did not mean reform or renewal but
capitulation to a frightening , what Christ
refers to as "the world" which kills belief and saints--
which kills him and eliminates his presence.
When liberals cited ("The
Church is always in need of reform") to justify their
actions, conservatives would point out that the expression
means spiritual renewal, not modern corruption.
John saw his irrepressible and inspiring optimism as the
only way to respond effectively to the deChristianizing of
the Western world. By not criticizing or condemning the
world, but rather by preaching and witnessing love, he felt
that the Church could best face this meretricious century.
For John, "The Council is an act of faith in God, of
obedience to His laws, of sincere effort to correspond with
the plan of redemption according to which the Word has
Paul VI's Experience
BOTH JOHN XXIII and Paul VI were convinced the Church was
being relegated to the margins of contemporary life, where
it could no longer have significant impact, and would
quickly become less and less relevant. Neither ever wavered
in their conviction that the Council was inspired by the
Holy Spirit, and that the Church had to learn from the
contemporary world and become more open, more democratic,
more engaged with the world.
Yet Paul would become more and more conscious that some
dangerous steps were being taken, that some "unCatholic"
elements or something evil had entered the Church. Paul, in
his prayerful devotions, said that he was most attracted to
the first of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary-- the
Agony in the Garden. The last years of his pontificate were
one extended agony as he tried to restore order to a Church
that entered a period of unabated and continuing turmoil
following the end of the Council.
John XXIII died a blessed death, extremely hopeful,
extremely optimistic. To a nephew who came to see him on
his deathbed he called out: "Look, you arrive here, and
find me in bed! The doctors say I am suffering from a
stomach malady. But let us hope that everything will turn
out well, and that very soon I will again be able to devote
myself to the Council and to the Church."
In five days he would be dead. Up until he breathed his
last breath he was still speaking of the Council, longing
optimistically to return to it: "I have opened the
smallness of my soul to the greatness of this inspiration.
Will he allow me to finish it? Should he do so, may he be
blessed. And if he does not allow me to finish it?... I
will watch its joyful conclusion from heaven, where I hope,
rather, where I am certain the Divine Mercy will draw me."
John XXIII died June 3, 1963, and after a difficult
consistory, Paul VI was chosen to succeed him. John's
unrealized dream for Christianizing a deChristianized world
became Paul's dream, then his burden, then his cross.
After four years of exhausting study, debate, and
compromise, all the documents of the Council were accepted
with nearly unanimous votes. When the Council ended on
December 8, 1965, the great majority of the Fathers were
persuaded that a blueprint had been prepared for renewing
the Church and evangelizing the world.
Renewing is a feeble word for describing what has happened
to Catholicism in the last 30 years. Statistics do not come
close to telling the whole story, but they may serve as
shorthand for outlining this brief period in the Church's
Between 1965 and the present time, especially between 1965
and 1985, tens of thousands of priests and religious left
their orders, convents, and rectories. About half the
priests were laicized, the rest just walked away, some
without leaving any forwarding address. Many of those who
left began careers in criticizing and attacking upon the
doctrines, policies and practices of Catholicism.
During the same period there was a precipitous decline in
vocations and an exodus of laity, which may involve
millions. Among those who remained in the Church,
attendance has fallen steadily. Figures in a recent US
survey show church-going down from 75% in 1965 to as low as
25% in 1995.
Citing such negative statistics can be misleading, however.
Many claim that some of these estimates are wrong, that
some of the laity who left may have already returned, and
that there has been a qualitative growth that no statistics
can ever measure. New religious movements and Lay
Institutes are revitalizing the Church and may--in the next
30 years--truly renew the Church.
This is devoutly to be wished. But surveys on what today's
Catholics actually believe (again only statistical
evidence) are dismal. Average Catholics apparently have
little knowledge or interest in what the Church's teachings
are on subjects such as abortion, penance, or Mary. And
concerning the Eucharist, a majority of those queried
stated that they believed in the Eucharist only as a symbol
Some might ask, is it possible that Pope John called the
Council because he had some inner intuition, some mystical
insight in 1959 that the Church was crumbling from the
inside out? That he called the Council to make changes to
head off a disaster?
Few conservatives saw any immediate need for a Council.
Pius XII had spoken of a Council, but thought it would
require years to prepare, and long years to carry it out.
Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, a man whom many had expected to be
Pius XII's successor, said the Church was never more
vigorous and respected than at the end of Pius XII's
pontificate. For him the Council brought chaos to the
Church and John's powerful vision was foolhardy.
Was the Council really the cause of the discord that has
descended on the Church, or would an even greater confusion
have afflicted Catholicism if the Council had not been
called? The Catholic Church is not the only religious body
to have experienced difficulties in recent years, nor even
the only government or institution. One suspects that
strife would have occurred even without the Council.
Paul and Liturgy
THE FIRST TIME Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Paul
VI) was accused by of being a dangerous liberal was in 1933
when he recommended an innovative liturgy to a group of
college students for Lent. His intentions were noble. He
was looking for a way to attract students. The 36-year-old
monsignor suggested New Testament readings above all
others, with concentration on personal prayer, rather than
conventionally pious candles and flowers, like "pious old
ladies." He advised saying the Our Father in public and the
Rosary in private.
These suggestions cost him his student chaplaincy, a burden
he had assumed in addition to secretarial duties to the
Pope. Nor did his proposed reforms arouse any enthusiasm
from his boss, Pius XII. Cardinal Ottaviani, however, found
nothing to get excited about; he called the episode "much
ado about nothing."
Paul's basic convictions about liturgical reform can be
briefly set down: it should be devout and simple, and
ordinary people should be able to understand it. This
principle of meaningfulness moved him to endorse the
vernacular, although he wanted to retain Latin in the canon
of the Mass. Left to his own preferences, it seems quite
certain that he would have continued to say Mass in Latin.
On October 22, 1962, the first day of debates on the
Constitution on the Liturgy, the heavy hitters were sent up
to bat. Joseph Cardinal Frings, leader of the European
Alliance, led off with a series of demands for changes in
the proposed agenda. Then came Bishop Franz Zauner of
Austria, a liturgist with incredibly wide support. He asked
that national bishops' conferences make the decision
whether a vernacular language was to be used. Rome, of
course, could still exercise veto power.
Cardinal Montini, Archbishop Milan and future Pope, also
spoke. It has been assumed by most that he had cleared his
statement with Pope John. They worked closely at every
stage. Ever the centrist, Paul did not side with Zauner and
Frings, but sought a middle course. He praised the Curia-
prepared outline for its pastoral qualities. He noted that
the plan before the Fathers was balanced. It did not allow
alterations in ageless rites, which had been derived from
both human and divine sources, for insubstantial and
subjective reasons. A great merit of the plan was that it
would protect the Church's most ancient heritage.
Montini, however, did not rule out all changes. Without
specifying, he was clearly leaving room for his principles
of simplicity and intelligibility to have some sway. He
endorsed the reduction of ceremonies "to more simple
forms." He cautioned against harming the ancient liturgy's
symbolic power, but elevated brevity to a principle
alongside simplicity, urging that any unnecessary
repetitions be cut to bring ceremonies more in accord with
the sensibilities of the age. He wanted a liturgy that was
"more understandable and more useful to men of our day."
As for Latin, he would retain it in the Roman Catholic
Church "in those parts of the rite which are sacramental
and, in the true sense of the word, priestly." For other
parts of the Mass, especially the readings from Scripture,
he advocated the removal of any obstacles to clear
A scholar himself, Montini put in a plug for a scholarly
approach to renewal, recommending that the implementation
committee make clear that changes did not constitute a
break with past Catholic worship. Liturgical scholars, he
said, should make "more evident" the liturgical inheritance
from the past.
Montini summed up his position admirably with a metaphor.
He described the liturgy as a garment which adorned the
divine mysteries. Provided changes are "carried out
prudently and wisely," it is right to make them. The
garment could be reworked so long as the divine essence
remained inviolate. Critics of reform today say that is
precisely what has not happened. Instead, the divine
essence--the Eucharist--has suffered at the hands of the
The words of the Cardinal from Milan were not the most
powerful of that day, but they would assume increasing
importance one year later, when he became Pope. Many of his
phrases would be invoked in the complicated and intensely
debated procedures that would lead to changes, many of his
words would be recalled by those who were actually working
to circumvent his moderate approach and bring about radical
The Blind Cardinal
ONE OF THE MOST passionate speeches and blatantly partisan
moments of the Council occurred just eight days after
Montini spoke. On October 30, 1962, during further debate
on liturgy, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy
Office and president of the Council's Theological
Commission, who had just observed his 72 birthday the
previous day, rose to express shock at the many changes
being sought in the Mass.
Nearly blind, he could not read an intervention, so he
spoke in perfect Latin. He asked if the
speakers were planning a revolution instead of a reform.
"Are we seeking to shock people, or perhaps cause scandal
among Christian people, by introducing changes in so
venerable a rite, a rite hallowed by so many centuries of
use?" Then in an obvious rebuke to Montini's comparison of
the liturgy to a garment, he went on: "The rite of Holy
Mass should not be treated as if it were a piece of cloth
to be refashioned according to the whim of each
Not having a written text, it was difficult for the
Cardinal to know if he was keeping within the Council's
time limit for statements. Caught up in his passionate
indignation, Ottaviani had not heard the bell warning him
that his time was almost up. He tried several times to go
on; no sound came from the microphone. Cardinal Bernard
Alfrink had ordered the microphone switched off. Ottaviani
could not see signals being made to him. He tapped the
microphone; it was dead. Then he realized. He had been made
an example of, he had been humiliated. Bishops began
laughing. Guiding himself by touch, the humiliated, half-
blind Cardinal stumbled back to his seat. In the nave of
St. Peter's there was clapping. The liturgical reformers
had shown their power. They would show it many more times
in the next decade.
Implementation: Annibale Bugnini
FATHER ANNIBALE Bugnini, C.M., wore two hats: he was a
liturgy expert and he was the quintessential committee
insider, the perennial chairman. Editor of an important
liturgy journal, , he was in touch
with many of the leading liturgists around the world, and
knew all the important people in and around the Vatican.
Always orderly, always prepared, always pushing toward
completion, he was the perennial secretary, the "clerk of
the works" of Vatican liturgical projects from 1948 until
suddenly, in July 1975, he was "bumped upstairs" and out of
Rome to become Nuncio in Iran. His abrupt departure seemed
to most a sign that he was in disgrace. What had happened?
Bugnini's skill at steering between the rocks in the stormy
seas of post-Vatican II Rome, had obviously deserted him.
His detractors would say his scheming and secret loyalties
had finally caught up with him. There was a public
accusation that he was "a secret member" of the powerful
Masonic Brotherhood in Rome. The unproved allegation was
generally dismissed in a city where unproved allegations
are not uncommon. But his dismissal was real. His friend
and collaborator, Gottardo Pasqualletti, wrote: "Archbishop
Bugnini retired on tiptoe, as it were, to his modest rooms
at San Silvestro al Quirinale. His service to the liturgy
came to a sudden and dramatic end, without any plausible
explanation being given to him. Months of utter silence
followed during which no one but a few faithful friends
caught so much as a glimpse of him."
The most acceptable general explanation seems to be that
Paul had grown progressively unhappy with the course
liturgical reform had followed under Bugnini's management.
First to go was liberal reformer Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro,
in 1968, who had been in charge of Bugnini. Pope Paul's
biographer, Peter Hebblethwaite, names Bugnini as "the
architect of the whole process of liturgical reform." Paul
had evidently come to the same conclusion, and being a
gracious father, simply promoted him and packed him off to
one of the Church's least dynamic posts--Teheran.
Ironically one of Rome's most active reformers arrived just
in time to observe one of Islam's most vehement "reformers"
in full stride--the Ayatollah Khomenei.
Why did Paul appoint Lercaro and Bugnini, men more extreme
than himself, to put the reforms into effect? Because he
was determined that the views of all should be represented.
Likewise he was determined not to exercise his veto power
over the implementors. He met with Bugnini over and over,
raising questions and making suggestions. Bugnini would go
back to his experts and they would raise objections. Back
to Paul Bugnini would go. There were few options for the
egalitarian, scholarly Paul. Either he would have to say,
No!--which he did not want to do. Or he would have to make
further suggestions, or yield completely. He did all three.
Paul did not encourage the wholesale shift, but he bowed
before it. He would write to Julien Green, the French
writer, that he too grieved at the loss of Latin. He tried
to assuage Green's pain by quoting St. Augustine: "I prefer
to speak ungrammatically and be understood by the people,
rather than appear learned and not be understood." He wrote
in much the same vein to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre,
lamenting the disappearance of Latin, but insisting that
the great tradition received from the past had been
retained intact: "Not only have we maintained everything of
the past but we have rediscovered the most ancient and
primitive tradition, the one closest to the origins."
Perhaps the state of Paul's mind during his long and
wearing negotiations with Bugnini's committee is best
conveyed in a handwritten note he wrote to Cardinal Benno
Gut, prefect for Divine Worship, in 1969 approving the new
lectionary: "In the very limited time allowed me, I have
not been able to get a complete and detailed grasp of this
new and extensive But because of
the confidence I have in the skilled and devout individuals
who spent a long time compiling it, and because of the
trust I owe to the Congregation for Divine Worship, which
has examined and corrected it with such expert care, I
gladly approve it in the name of the Lord."
(to be continued)
The Elimination of Latin
The Council's was adopted by
a vote of 2,147 to 4 on November 18, 1963. Regarding Latin
When Paul promulgated the Constitution he said: "No attempt
should be made to insert into the official prayer of the
Church private changes..." The admonition went unheeded.
Informal word went out that vernacular languages had been
approved. In 1964, especially in northern Europe, priests
began saying Mass in their native languages. There must
have been coordination of these "spontaneous" efforts: the
same changes were made in different countries (the "Lavabo"
(Psalm 42) and "the Last Gospel" (the Prologue of John)
Bugnini's Concilium immediately took the Constitution's
grant (article 54) of "a suitable place" to vernacular
languages as a mandate for gradually eliminating Latin.
While arguing that the Council's "wording was vague," and
that the movement to eliminate Latin was "in accord with
the spirit of the Council," Bugnini, nevertheless, admitted
that he and his associates had given the Constitution "a
broad interpretation." They had to, he felt, because of
"pastoral reasons." That phrase was a reference to the
widespread use of the vernacular languages without Vatican
permission. Latin lasted only two years under these
This article was taken from the February 1996 issue of
"Inside the Vatican."
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