Viewpoint: The Pact of the Catacombs is Still Relevant Today

by M. Francis Mannion

On November 16, 1965, near the end of the Second Vatican Council, 42 bishops attending the Council met together in the catacombs of St. Domatilla in Rome, celebrated Mass, and signed a covenant committing themselves to lives of simplicity, frugality, and humility. The document is known as “The Pact of the Catacombs.”

Drawn up anonymously, so as to avoid the appearance of grandstanding on the part of the signatories, the Pact was circulated to all the bishops at the Council, and received about 500 co-signatories (where were the other 1,700 bishops?).  It was presented eventually to Pope Paul VI, who received it gratefully.

Here are the more notable “lifestyle” paragraphs of the document:

  1. Regarding housing, food, and means of transportation and everything concerning these things, we will seek to live in accordance with the common average level of our people.
  2. We renounce forever wealth and its appearance, especially in clothing (expensive materials and brilliant colors), and insignia of precious metals (such things should in effect be evangelical).
  3. We refuse to be called in speech or writing by names or titles that signify grandeur and power (Your Eminence, Your Excellency, Monsignor . . .). We prefer to be called by the evangelical name of Father.
  4. In our comportment and social relations, we will avoid everything that can appear to confer privileges, priorities (for example, banquets given or received, special places in religious services).
  5. We will not possess either movable or immobile properties or bank accounts in our names. If it is necessary to possess some property we will place it under the name of our diocese or other social or charitable works.
  6. Wherever it is possible we will place the financial and material administration of our diocese to a commission of competent laymen conscious of their apostolic vocation, given that we should be pastors and apostles rather than administrators.

Item 5 was generally found to be too difficult to actualize fully; and item 6 has been effected, at least in part, in perhaps most dioceses of the world.

Retired Bishop Luigi Bettazzi of Ivrea, Italy, now 92, and the last surviving member of  the group of bishops who devised the Pact (the names of all signatories eventually became known), said the commitments were personal and individual, not the start of an organized movement.

Bishop Bettazzi said he was “not as strong as Pope Francis” when it came to housing. (He was told by his vicar general that he had to live in the bishop’s residence, and he did so.) But he tried in most areas to follow the Pact successfully, adding that he did not wear the bishop’s ring that all bishops received from Pope Paul VI at the end of Vatican II because it was “ostentatious.”

Bishop Erwin Krautler, ordinary of the impoverished diocese of Xingu in the Amazon basin, and  legendary for his simple lifestyle for 35 years, credits the Pact of the Catacombs for the way he conducted his life and ministry.

The approach of the 50th anniversary of the Pact has led to new interest in it, not least because of the way Pope Francis lives so frugally and simply. Bishop Belazzi commented, “God with his grace gave us a pope like Francis, who without having signed the Pact, already led this kind of life and had experience of a simple church, a poor church, a church very close to the poor.”

The Pact of the Catacombs can today inspire clergy to adopt its spirit in ways that are feasible.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

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9 comments

  1. How did it happen that living and dressing like earthly monarchs came to be regarded as a right by those called to be servants in the pattern of Jesus? And how did the clergy come to think of themselves as privileged and powerful? Why should officials of the Roman curia and retired ecclesiastics think of themselves as entitled to premier living quarters? Where did they get the money to purchase or renovate princely quarters? Is not all of this is a scandalous betrayal of the gospel?

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      Some of it is simple economics: the Church came to own vast amounts of lands, which in the Middle ages was the chief form of wealth. So the resources were there. Because the bishops tended to come from the noble class, even when sincere in their vocations (as I will presume many were) they tended to think the spiritual power of the Church should be reflected in material splendor. If you think a bishops ultimately has more authority than a prince and you want to convey that to a fairly unsophisticated population, then out-dressing the prince is one way to do it.

      Not my cup of tea, and probably not a very effective means today, but not entirely incomprehensible either.

  2. For anyone who would like to read the full version, and not only the “lifestyle” portion of the pact, it can be found here in downloads in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian:

    http://www.sedosmission.org/web/en/news/137-the-pact-of-the-catacombs-domitilla

    By seeing the full statement, one can get a better idea of how the witness of lifestyle is connected to a commitment to social reconstruction and the mission of the Church.

    I have tried to find a list of the signatories. As Monsignor notes they are now known, I thought the list would be on the web somewhere. But I was unable to find it. If anyone knows where such a list can be obtained, I’d be interested to know this.

  3. As far as I can find out the list was mainly composed of Latin American bishops along with a French Cardinal and maybe a German or two as well as Bishop Bettazzi.

    I suspect that few North Americans, if any, were involved. A friend did joke that a quondam bishop of Providence was rudely ejected from the only catacomb that he cared about.

  4. I certainly acknowledge the historical circumstances which led in many places to clerical privilege. I guess my real question is how can it be justified in the present?

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      I guess my take is that some of the desiderata on that list come across more as gestural than substantive and not unequivocal*. A lot of substantive clerical privilege is written into canon law, and our culture is largely vertical (up and down). Catholics trying out more serious forms of community governance can readily fall back into habits formed by that vertical culture – and very blind to it and defensive if its identified..

      * For example, there’s a difference between a prelate’s personal and office attire on the one hand, and his liturgical attire. Adamantly eschewing good stewardship for beautiful old works of liturgical vestment artistry ould strike me, for example, as risking prideful simplicity and poor stewardship – more ego, rather than less. If your simplicity is ruddered by ego, ir’a nor better than if you wear a splendid vestment simply because you are given it to wear, for example.

      The opportunities for egoism are insidious and ever-present….

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        This is a tired argument. All human striving and hope is fueled by ego to some extent. The mindful are aware of this, as no doubt the signers were, and seek to surrender egoistic motivations more and more during the process of spiritual transformation. Only God can dismantle our egos, we simply cooperate by desiring it. Using your logic, we should resign ourselves to lives of pleasure and power, since to strive for another way is egoism.

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