U.S. well represented among experts at Second Vatican Council

Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962. We thought it would be a good opportunity to look back for the next year or so on some of the coverage of the council by Catholic News Service. CNS was known at the time as National Catholic Welfare Conference News Service, NC for shorthand.

Today’s blog is about the American experts who were appointed to assist the council fathers. Originally, the Pope John XXIII named 10 people, all priests, from the U.S. among the 195 experts from around the world. During the next three years of the council, almost a dozen more were added.

According to the NC report of Oct. 1, 1962, the experts “are specialists in fields such as theology, canon law and social action. They will be able to attend general sessions of the council, but may not speak unless called upon.”

The experts’ principal duty was “to collaborate with the members of the various council commissions — at the invitation of the presiding officers — to help compile and correct texts and to prepare them for publication.

The initial 195 experts were appointed in their own right. Later appointees first arrived at the council as personal experts or advisers to bishop members and were later appointed as experts to the full council. It was difficult throughout the council for NC — or any news organization — to get a handle on who had been appointed in later years, since the Vatican did not always announce the appointments in its public statements.

Here is the list of the initial American experts appointed, all giants in their field:

– Msgr. Francis J. Brennan, of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, dean of the Sacred Roman Rota.

– Msgr. William J. Doheny, of the Diocese of Superior, Wis., a Rota judge.

– Msgr. John Steinmueller, a Scripture scholar from the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.

– Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton, editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review at The Catholic University of America. (The AER ceased publication in 1975.)

– Msgr. Rudoph G. Bandas, an educator and theologian from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

– Msgr. George G. Higgins, the legendary director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington, forerunner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

– Father Fredrick McManus, member (and later dean) of the canon law faculty at The Catholic University of America and former president of the North American Liturgical Conference as well as head of the postconciliar USCCB liturgy office. (He was one of the architects of the council’s document on the liturgy.)

– Benedictine Father Ulric Beste, a priest of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., who was a professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of St. Anselm in Rome.

– Holy Cross Father Edward Heston, procurator in Rome for the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

– Assumptionist Father Georges Tavard, chairman of the theology department of Mount Mercy College in Pittsburgh. The priest, a noted ecumenist, was a native of France but spent most of his 60 years as a priest in the United States.

– Passionist Father Barnabas Mary Ahern, who served on the council’s theological commission. A top U.S. biblical scholar, he was a leader of the movement in the 1950s and ’60s to popularize the use and understanding of the Bible among Catholics.

– Jesuit Father Gustave Weigel, a theologian who was a major influence on the document on ecumenism.

By the end of 1962, the pope named 10 more priests. They were:

– Vincentian Father Nichale E. Persich, rector of Kenrick Seminary in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

– Father Joseph Baker, of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, a canon lawyer and Latinist.

– Msgr. William W. Baum, vice chancellor of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. (He was later bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., archbishop of Washington, and cardinal prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican.)

–Msgr. Ernest J. Fiedler, Kansas City- St. Joseph diocesan director of vocations and of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

– Msgr. Mark J. Hurley, chancellor of the Diocese of Stockton, Calif. (He was later auxiliary bishop of San Francisco and bishop of Santa Rosa, Calif.)

– Msgr. Andrew P. Landi, of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., director in Italy for Catholic Relief Services-NCWC.

– Msgr. George W. Shea, a Marian scholar and rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.

– Oblate Father John J. King, professor of dogmatic theology at the seminary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Washington.

The next year John XXIII appointed five more Americans, including one of the most famous in the council’s history. They were:

– Msgr. Manuel J. Rodriguez, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M.

– Father Vincent A. Yzermans, former editor of the St. Cloud Visitor, newspaper of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., who was director of the NCWC Information Office and compiler of the NC Council Daybook. (He was later head of the National Association of Religious Broadcasters.)

– Msgr. William J. McDonald, rector of Catholic University and a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

– Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, professor of theology at Woodstock College in Maryland and editor of the magazine Theological Studies. He became one of the chief architects of  the council’s 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom (“Dignitatis Humanae”), which redefined church-state relations and said religious freedom is a human right the state is required to protect.

– Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher, a convert to Catholicism from Judasim, who was a top theologian and leading advocate of Jewish-Catholic reconciliation. He was one of the architects of the council document “Nostra Aetate,” which among other things called for an end to anti-Semitism.

– Dominican Father John A. Driscoll, a native of St. Paul, Minn., the American assistant general of the Order of Preachers.

Other experts from around the world were named at the start and during the council sessions, but widely lost in the council’s history is the fact John XXIII also named two Italian princes as “custodians” of the council: Prince Aspreno Colonna and Prince Allesandro Torlonia, referred to as “prince assistants to the papal throne.”

According to the NC report, “The title of prince assistant has been held by the heads of the Colonna and Orsini families since the 16th century. The present Prince Orsini, however, was relieved of the title several years ago because of scandal.” Ouch.

“The duties of the custodians have not been announced publicly,” the report said. “The office — today more or less honorary — derives from earlier and stormier councils when military protection was sometimes needed to assure peace.”

Later NC dispatches noted heated disagreements during the council’s years, but as yet we haven’t come across any reports of sabers being drawn. At least literally.

4 Responses

  1. Actually a correction: Father Nicholas Persich, C.M., was a Vincentian, not a Marist, priest. Yes, he was Rector of Kenrick Seminary in Saint Louis. Father Joseph Baker, now Msgr. Joseph Baker, is also from the Archdiocese of Saint Louis.

  2. Thank you, Father Weber. The post is now updated.

    For those interested in the history of the council, Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis was one of the most influential American council fathers. He attended all four council sessions and was widely considered one of the leading voices of reforming church institutions and practices to face the challenges of the modern world.

    Cardinal Ritter was a dynamic leader of the St. Louis archdiocese and Indianapolis before that. He was a great supporter of Catholic education, racial integration of Catholic institutions and greater participation by the laity in all aspects of church life.

  3. Were there no lay experts, say on the sacrament of matrimony, or were only clergy deemed expert?

  4. The experts, or periti, were all priests at the beginning of the council. However, even at the beginning there were lay observers, both women and men, named. While neither experts nor observers had the right to speak or even be questioned in council sessions, there was ample opportunity to make their positions known and influence — in a proper way — the work of the council fathers.

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