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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.