“Vatican II: 50 years ago today” is a step back in time to the daily activities of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII called for an ecumenical council in 1959, the first to be held since 1870. After more than two years of preparatory work, the council convened in its first session, Oct. 11-Dec. 8, 1962. After the pope’s death the following year, Pope Paul VI reconvened the council for three others sessions. These ran Sept. 29-Dec. 4, 1963; Sept. 14-Nov. 21, 1964; and Sept. 14-Dec. 8, 1965.
A total of 2,860 bishops, referred to as council fathers, participated in one or more of the sessions. The council produced 16 documents — two dogmatic and two pastoral constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations. The documents address everything from liturgy to Scripture, missionary activity to ecumenism and interfaith relationships, and the functions of clergy and laity to religious freedom.
During the four years of the council, Catholic News Service, then known as News Service of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the predecessor of today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or in shorthand, “NC,” provided some of the most comprehensive English-language coverage of the sessions, the council fathers and those who assisted in the work. In 1965, it published a compilation of its reporting, the working documents and proceedings of the council in a remarkable three-volume set known simply as the Council Daybook. It was edited by then NC director and editor-in-chief Floyd Anderson, and was mainly the work of Msgr. James I. Tucek, a priest of the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth who was NC Rome bureau chief from 1956 to 1964.
Writing in the preface of the first volume of the Council Daybook, Bishop Albert R. Zuroweste, of Belleville, Ill., said, “The first session of the Vatican Council II created more ‘firsts’ than any previous ecumenical council. Among these ‘firsts’ and one of the most important was the establishment of the United States press panel as a source of daily news releases that gave to the session the greatest news coverage ever accorded a religious convention, meeting or council. The world today is linked by a vast network of communications media, and the press panel made the daily events of the council available to all.”
The bishop said that as the council’s first session began, journalists and writers were told that no prior texts would be made available and pre-written stories — the practice in those days since texts usually were handed out ahead — would be inaccurate. Those covering the council could only get texts at the end of the day, if available. “The rule of secrecy, more often violated than observed, added to the confusion,” he wrote. There was near revolt by the press corps.
The U.S. bishops acted quickly to create a daily press panel composed of specialists in Scripture, canon law, dogmatic and moral theology, and church history and social sciences. It was an immediate hit.
“The panel assisted and guided the [newspersons] in interpreting the daily proceedings of the council and furnished valuable background information,” Bishop Zuroweste wrote.
“It also established good will and corrected the dissatisfaction that was general in the first days of the council sessions. The satisfaction with the panel as a source of reliable information grew with each meeting, and before the first session was completed, the attitude and morale of the correspondents were excellent,” he wrote. “At the last session of the panel, the press corps publicly expressed its thanks to the United States bishops for establishing this source of accurate information.”
In this section, CNS will present the fruits of that vast labor of the bishops, panels of experts and NC editors and correspondents.
Each day CNS will post the entry from the Council Daybook, just as it was reported on the corresponding day at the council 50 years ago. The entries are unaltered from the reporting styles of those times. CNS will often include important addresses of the popes and council fathers or interventions of experts. We also will identify some of the people or issues in the dispatches when the references may not be clear to today’s reader. However, for the most part this will be a page of history as it was reported then.
CNS is grateful to the past U.S. bishops and the U.S. council fathers still with us today, the press panel experts, Floyd Anderson, other former NC editors, especially NC assistant director Burke Walsh, and to all of the past NC correspondents — James C. O’Neill, Patrick Riley and Benedictine Father Placid Jordan, who covered the council and whose contributions appear in the Council Daybook. It is an astonishing and important legacy of Catholic journalism for the church.