Yves Congar, My Journal of the Council, Part I

Moderator’s note: Today we begin a new series, leading up to the 50th anniversary of the approval of the liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on December 4, with these excerpts from My Journal of the Council (Liturgical Press, 2012) by leading Dominican theologian Yves Congar. The excerpts at Pray Tell will be those portions of his diary concerning the liturgy. But this first post, which is longer than coming excerpts, comes from the beginning of the book and serves as an introduction to the series. It is slightly edited for blog appearance, with selected editorial footnotes included within the text in brackets.

This journal cannot begin here and now at the end of July 1960, which is when I learned of my appointment as Consultor to the Theological Commission. It must begin further back. I shall undoubtedly have subsequent impressions to record here later on. But I do not begin today from scratch, with a tabula rasa. The decision to hold a Council was announced a year and a half ago, and I have clearly had time to develop a certain number of ideas. …

A number of us at once saw in the Council an opening for the cause, not only of Unionism [This word (l’unionisme) was used before the last Council to indicate the activity of Catholics who were in favor of Christian unity: Vatican II came to prefer the term ‘ecumenism,’ specifying its meaning in the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio.], but also of ecclesiology. We saw in it an opportunity, which needed to be exploited to the maximum, of hastening the recovery of the values of episcopacy and Ecclesia [When Congar uses this Latin word, he is looking at the Church as an integral Christian community.] in ecclesiology, and of making substantial progress from the point of view of ecumenism. Personally, I have endeavored to urge public opinion to expect and to ask for a great deal. I have kept saying everywhere that it would pass perhaps no more than five per cent of what we wanted. All the more reason, therefore, to maximize our requests. Christian public opinion must force the Council to exist in fact, and to achieve something.

From the theological point of view, and above all from that of ecumenism, it would seem that the Council has come twenty-five years too soon. In fact, things have not been moving long enough. Quite a few ideas have already changed. But in twenty years time, we might have had an episcopate comprised of men who had grown up in ideas rooted in the Bible and in tradition, in a realistic pastoral and missionary outlook. We have not reached that point yet. However, a number of ideas have already come a long way, and the very announcement of the Council, with its long-term ecumenical aim, in the more humane and more Christian climate of the pontificate of John XXIII might well accelerate this process. A number of bishops, who up to then had been against it, would undoubtedly become open to the idea of ecumenism, because Rome was now in favor. In the space of two years, things have become ‘good ideas’ which had been barely tolerated for the previous twenty: except that nothing would now be in favor with the authorities that had not been struggled for and sown in tears.

The announcement of the Council aroused great interest and great hope. It seemed that, after the stifling regime of Pius XII, the windows were at last being opened; one could breathe. The Church was being given its chance. One was becoming open to dialogue.

Little by little, these hopes became shrouded in a fine film of dust. There was a long silence, a sort of blackout, interrupted only by this or that encouraging announcement from the Pope. But even these were rather vague, and they seemed to some extent to have gone backwards as compared with the original announcement. This impression came from a number of sources. The Pope himself declared publicly that he had not changed his mind. But in a conversation with Fr. Liégé, he admitted that his original idea had been a genuine conversation with the Others. [Congar’s way of referring to non-Catholic Christians.]

One had the impression—confirmed by people coming from Rome with the latest gossip from ‘that miserable court’—that in Rome a whole team of people was applying itself to sabotaging the Pope’s project. It was even being said that the Pope knew what was going on and had spoken about it in confidence (something which continues to surprise me and makes me rather skeptical: a pope does not divulge such confidences).

Personally, I very quickly and repeatedly felt deceived because, although Pope John XXIII spoke and acted extremely sympathetically, his decisions, his government, belied much of what had aroused hope. His human style was warm and friendly, Christian. Everything connected with him personally had rescued us from the horrible satrapism of Pius XII. However, he had retained almost all of his predecessor’s personnel: not the Jesuit brains trust which, however, had been remarkably effective; not Sr. Pasqualina; not all of the prelates. But all the others: Cardinals Tardini and Ottaviani were his close advisers. The Pope had recalled Msgr. Parente to Rome and had given him an important job at the ‘Holy Office’: Parente, the man who condemned P. Chenu, the fascist, the monophysite. I met Miss Christine Mohrmann on her return from a six-week stay in Rome, in April and May 1959. She goes to Rome fairly frequently, perhaps every year. She has a number of contacts and ‘antennae’ there. Her feminine and humanist finesse perceives many things. I told her how I felt, my astonishment and my fears.

She replied with an optimism which appeared to me to be excessive. According to her, the Pope knows very well what he is doing and where he is going. He is well aware that he is surrounded by men with a totally different outlook on things, even a totally contrary outlook. In time, he will neutralize them, but little by little. He does not want to rush things, but to proceed very gently, etc. It did not seem to me that these conclusions were borne out by the facts.

It seemed to me that the entire ‘old guard’ had remained in office. What difference would the resignation of Cardinal Tisserant in the autumn of 1959 [The Congar Archives contain notes of a conversation with Christine Mohrmann which took place on 22 April 1959, on her return from a stay in Rome. In particular, Congar recorded the following: ‘The Pope DOES NOT WANT to carry on like his predecessor. But he does not want to start revolutions. That is why he does not change the people in office all at once. Moreover, he wants to watch in order to avoid appointing people who might, in fact, try to counteract his policy . . . His plan for a Council is being resolutely fought against and sabotaged by those appointed during the previous regime who are still in office. The Pope seems to know this. He is very observant and is fully aware of what is going on.’] actually make? I asked several people about this and did not get a satisfactory answer; rather, a variety of differing, even divergent opinions. It doesn’t much matter. I never hoped for great things from that quarter. But one had a clear impression that in Rome, the ‘old guard’ in the Curia felt it was in danger and was doing all in its power to avoid it, while at the same time playing along with the new pontificate since a NEW pontificate was what they were faced with. The danger was that some of the reins of government were slipping away from them.

I am beginning to know the history of ecclesiology quite well. For more than fifteen centuries now, Rome has striven to monopolize—yes to monopolize—all the lines of direction and control. And has succeeded! One can say that by 1950, it was perfect. And now, here we have a pope who threatens to surrender some of these positions. The Church was going to have its say. There was some talk of the bishops being given more independence. Whereas before, the small team of coopted Roman theologians had imposed its ideas on the rest, there was talk now of giving that ‘rest’ its own opportunity. It seemed to me that what was happening was that the Curia of Pius XII was still in place; that it was well aware of the danger; that it would give way when necessary but would not break, would, in fact, do all in its power to minimize the damage being done to the system.

This had been my very clear impression since Easter 1959, and was confirmed by a conversation I had with Pastor Roger Schutz [Pastor Roger Schutz was the co-founder and Prior of the ecumenical community of Taizé; during the Council he was to be one of the guests of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. Congar had stayed in Taizé on 19 and 20 June 1959 (account in Congar Archives).] on 20 June 1960. Schutz told me, though with the greatest of discretion, about the audience, arranged for him by Cardinal Gerlier, that he had had with John XXIII on the evening of, or the morning after, his consecration. According to Schutz, the Pope had said some very incredible, even downright heretical, things to him, such as: the Catholic Church does not possess the whole truth; we should search together . . . I think that the leading members of the Curia very quickly realized that, with John XXIII and his plan for a Council, they might be in for a very strange adventure, that they needed to erect fences, regain control as far as possible, and limit any possible damage.

A number of indications, the internal logic of the reactions of the Curia as they appeared to me, very quickly made me think what I am going to write down here, in this month of July 1960, in order to keep a dated record, whatever happens: whether or not the future confirms or belies what I now think. I was afraid, it seemed to me, that the Curia would restrict the working of the actual Council as far as possible. The Council is an effective meeting of bishops, in which they discuss freely, and then come to a decision. My fear was that this effective meeting of bishops would be reduced to a final stage, and that the work would be done through texts fully elaborated by commissions controlled by Rome, if not actually composed in Rome, to which the bishops would be asked to give their reactions in writing. These reactions, if any, might or might not be taken into account in a final text which could not but be overwhelmingly approved in the course of the actual Council session, which would last only a few weeks.

This procedure, if it really is put into effect, can be justified from some points of view. It is certain that a discussion from A to Z has become virtually impossible. The work will have to be well advanced before the bishops actually assemble in Council. But what a risk! The great risk is that the Council will prove to have been prefabricated in Rome or under Roman direction. A great many of the bishops are incapable of having an overall view of things, particularly of their ideological or theological aspects. They are coping with their own immediate pastoral problems. Moreover, to a considerable extent, they have lost the habit of study and of deciding things for themselves! They have become accustomed to accepting decisions from Rome even when these suppress or overturn arrangements which they themselves thought good (cf. the worker priest movement, the Catechism). I am afraid that many of them, when they receive a document, will skim through it and will find only a few editorial details to comment on, and that is how the texts will be produced . . .

This would be a betrayal of the Council. Theology makes a careful distinction between the dispersed and assembled episcopate. Only the latter forms a Council. The idea and the expression ‘a kind of Council in writing’ which were used in connection with the barely half-real consultation of the episcopate that preceded the declarations of 1854 and 1950 were a betrayal of what a Council really is. This is because, in fact, there is no such thing as a Council in such a procedure. There is no Council except in the effective meeting of the bishops, involving free discussion and decision-making. Moreover, psychologically, morally, anthropologically, the episcopate when assembled is quite different from bishops on their own. Assembled, they become aware of their episcopacy and their right. As some of them speak, react, awaken echoes in others, they come to form a group which has its own density, which becomes a bloc. Dispersed, they hardly exist; they can only express isolated, unplanned reactions, which will be received and doctored by a Roman commission or one controlled by Rome, which will do what it likes with them. Being unaware of the reactions of others, the bishops will not even realize that they have been tricked.

This dispersion, this atomization, of the episcopate is the perfect example of ‘Divide ut imperes’ [divide and rule]. How can it be avoided?

Yves Congar, My Journal of the Council, pp. 3-8. The 1100-page book can be purchased from Liturgical Press here.


  1. Yves Congar’s Journal offers a perceptive insight to the Council, written by someone centrally involved. In his entry for July 10 , 1963 he writes this.
    “He did not operate by great exposition of ideas but by gestures and a certain personal style”.
    Congar was of course speaking of John XXIII who had died early in the previous month.
    Now fast-forward to our time, and realise just how those same words might be applied to Francis. Since March he has been recognised by many for his gestures, both simple and significant. His style is very much a personal affair, how he goes about his life as the Bishop of Rome, what he wears, what he does, his simple yet meaningful words. You have only to look at the improvised remarks that get included in his weekday sermons to see this individuality at work. Style and gesture mark us out. People recognise us through our style, be it in dress, our manner of speaking or expression of ideas. Gesture can be just as significant, if not more so. The hand stretched forth in greeting, the smile that accompanies it, the warm hug of friendship, the affectionate arms that reach out to show compassion in sorrow, all tell so much about who we are and where we come from. And such gestures often say so much more than many eloquent words.
    In that same Journal entry, Congar also notes that “…It has become clear that he has profoundly altered the religious map and even the human map of the world simply by being what he was.”
    That, without a doubt, Francis has done in a few short months, just as John did some fifty years ago.

  2. So many of Congar’s observations about JXXIII and the Curia he inherited seem equally applicable to Pope Francis and the Roman bureaucracy of today.

    Thanks for beginning this series. I look forward to thinking again about Congar’s journal, which I read a year ago.

  3. This would be a betrayal of the Council. Theology makes a careful distinction between the dispersed and assembled episcopate. Only the latter forms a Council.. The idea and the expression ‘a kind of Council in writing’ which were used in connection with the barely half-real consultation of the episcopate that preceded the declarations of 1854 and 1950 were a betrayal of what a Council really is. This is because, in fact, there is no such thing as a Council in such a procedure.

    What a succinct description of the central issue in making effective Synods happen! The current Synod of Bishops has been reduced to a synod in writing by the curia before and after, accompanied by a meeting at which there is little real discussion and movement toward deeper understanding and consensus. Francis declined to even publish a post document to the last one, saying that B16 letter on faith would suffice.

    It is interesting that Francis effectively started his Council of Cardinals by meeting with Oscar a few days after the conclave. Francis certainly understood that this globe- trotting, polyglot who helped organize his own election would not wait while Francis took upon himself the cumbersome and burdensome task of beginning to work with the people who are the problem!

    I love Francis description of problem of the curia : “No, there are sometimes courtiers in the curia, but the curia as a whole is another thing. It is what in an army is called the quartermaster’s office, it manages the services that serve the Holy See. But it has one defect: it is Vatican-centric. It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests. This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it.

    It is interesting that Francis did not sign the document establishing the Council of Cardinals until the day before its first meeting, I suspect at the insistence of someone in the quartermaster’s office who said that such a document was needed. This despite Francis belief in the importance of the Council of Cardinals:

    “I’m not Francis of Assisi and I do not have his strength and his holiness. But I am the Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic world. The first thing I decided was to appoint a group of eight cardinals to be my advisers. Not courtiers but wise people who share my own feelings. This is the beginning of a Church with an organization that is not just top-down but also horizontal. When Cardinal Martini talked about focusing on the councils and synods he knew how long and difficult it would be to go in that direction. Gently, but firmly and tenaciously.”

    Francis exists in a whole new world of communication from that of John XXIII, and has deliberately kept himself out of the “funnel of the Papal Palace” which would have put the quartermasters in charge of his communications. It must be terribly frustrating for the quartermasters to know that Oscar is going around the world organizing the Council of Cardinals with little involvement by them or that Francis is likely to give an interview to the Jesuits or an atheist and so curial policy making through the second hand gossip of Sandro or Vatican Insider has largely become irrelevant.

  4. This will be a terrific addition to Pray Tell!

    I was struck by Congar’s comments on Pope Pius XII. Whatever anyone thinks of Pius, he played an important role in liturgical reform. To be clear, Congar is speaking less of Pius himself than of the group with whom he surrounded himself — the “stifling regime”, the “horrible satrapism”. I wonder whether Pius’s curia opposed or supported his changes to the Holy Week liturgy, to the eucharistic fast, to some of the more reform-minded statements in Mediator Dei.

    Thanks to Anthony and Liturgical Press for launching what should be an exciting series here!

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #5:
      I suspect the bureaucracy under Pius was a mixed bag. What for example are we to make of the new Pian psalter?.

      It was the work of Cardinal Bea a noted biblical scholar who thought that the psalms needed a better Latin translation, but not only in terms of being more faithful to scripture but also in a more classical form of Latin. John XXIII hated it and refused to use it.

      Was the Pian psalter progress or not? Certainly not in terms of consultation with people around the world to determine if a new psalter was really needed, and how should it be revised.

  5. I was struck by Congar’s pre-Council pessimism, in ways that turned out to be both right and wrong:
    “From the theological point of view, and above all from that of ecumenism, it would seem that the Council has come twenty-five years too soon. In fact, things have not been moving long enough. Quite a few ideas have already changed. But in twenty years time, we might have had an episcopate comprised of men who had grown up in ideas rooted in the Bible and in tradition, in a realistic pastoral and missionary outlook.”

    Well, the Council Fathers must have surprised him (I haven’t read ahead) in their eventual embrace, not only of ecumenism, but of interreligious dialogue and of a different ecclesiology. On the other hand, he must have been sadly disappointed at the state of many of the bishops 25 years after the Council, not to mention their worse state at his death in 1995.

    It seems that the Holy Spirit knew what she was doing when she picked the time for Vatican II. And likely for Bergoglio, as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *