Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review My Journal of the Council

I assume Yves Congar is not a household name among my Eastern Orthodox friends, although he should be. Congar was one of the most important theologians in the 20th century and his work and writing helped form and shape not only the agenda for the Vatican II council but also for Church reform and renewal. Congar was a Dominican friar and was born in France. After his priestly formation and training he taught in numerous colleges and seminaries. He wrote on many subjects including the vocation and ministry of both clergy and laity as well as ecumenism, ecclesiology, and doctrine. While Congar was a member of the Catholic Church his connections in both Protestant and Eastern Catholic and Orthodox circles was formidable. His journals also show that Congar met with the late Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schmemann in Oct. 1963 since Schmemann was an Observer at Vatican II. Congar also was acquainted with Patriarch Athenegoras as well as other Orthodox bishops and theologians.

Thankfully, after a long embargo, Congar's journal of the Vatican II council has finally reached English speaking readers. It was previously released in a French edition but only now has been translated into English and published by Liturgical Press. This journal is a must read for anyone interested not only in Vatican II but in ecclesiology and in modern Church history.

Congar's journal is not a deep introspective or reflective journal like that of the writings of Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day, but it is a real daily diary of the workings of Vatican II including people he met with, the various projects and writings he was working on, as well as the major themes of the council. Congar holds no punches either, he mentions people by name and also includes very personal anecdotal stories about them, bishops such as Pizzardo for example who had very little theological education but was put in charge of all the Catholic colleges and seminaries in Italy or the various "inner circle" of the Curia who protected the Pope's from the people.

I have read several overall accounts of Vatican II and some of the working documents which came out of the council such as Lumen Gentium as well as Sancrostanctum Concilium as well as others. However, Congar includes specific information on how these documents were created, the debates and dialogues that took place behind closed doors, and the infighting and arguing among bishops and theologians as well. I was intrigued that for every document the bishops had to vote on each section of these documents which also forced the theologians to return to their sub-groups and rewrite and rework the documents so that they could be accepted later on. This of course required much work, especially since Vatican II predated fax machines, email, and modern technology. Everything had to be typewritten and copies had to be made for all 3,000 bishops in attendance not including the priests, theologians, and other various people who attended the sessions of the council.

Congar had a rigorous daily schedule. He notes on many occasions rising before dawn and writing letters to friends and colleagues back in France, attending the morning Mass, meeting with bishops and theologians in the morning, having a working lunch with a friend or observer at the council, going back to work in the afternoon and then several times per week after dinner he was invited to speak or give a lecture at various colleges, seminaries, or episcopal gatherings in Rome. On several occasions these gatherings included several hundred people or more. On one particular occasion there were over 1,200 people in the audience.

This journal is also worth reading for the personal insight which Congar offers us. While he was a formidable theologian, Congar also suffered both physically and spiritually. He always had pains in his legs, he had difficultly having enough energy to get through the day, and his arms often ached. He also suffered personal attacks as well. Vatican II was split among the bishops, some wanted to maintain a more conservative and traditional route, barely making any changes in ecclesial life while others, inspired by the spirit and openess of Pope John XXIII wanted a more radical approach to reform.

Congar died in 1995 but his memory is very much alive. I found great consolation that while many things have changed they also are the same. Today there are still many people who want to return to a more authoritarian model of Church life, one that stifles and controls as well as others who want to see more openess, transparency, conciliarism, and freedom.

If you want to learn more about Vatican II and the writings of Yves Congar then go out and read My Journal of the Council, you won't be disappointed.