Lay auditors at the Second Vatican Council

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"...Work opened each day with the celebration of Mass. The presence of a handful of lay peo­ple among the hundreds of bishops was a re­minder of the People of God in all parts of the world..."

The Holy Father Benedict XVI called the Church to celebrate the Year of Faith in order to emphasise his desire to com­memorate the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. He wanted to demonstrate that the aim of the Council “ was to show … the truth and beauty of the faith in today’s world without sac­rificing today’s demands nor keeping it chained to the past ” (Benedict XVI, homily for the opening of the Year of Faith, 11 October 2012). The Pope hopes that this important anniversary will serve “ to revitalize and renew throughout the Church that positive tension and yearning to announce Christ to modern man ” (Ibid). This is the link which unites the Year of Faith with the recent Synod on the new evangelization. Both these events are closely connected to the Second Vatican Council, the compass which must guide the Church in the twenty­first centu­ry of its journey, “ to navigate securely and achieve its goal ” (Benedict VI, General Audi­ence, 10 October 2012). Furthermore, the Pope used the occasion to remind us that the authen­tic spirit of the Council is to be found in the correct understanding of it. In other words, in the documents which express its authentic spirit and heritage.

One of the most significant aspects of the Council’s heritage is undoubtedly the renewed awareness of the vocation and mission of the laity in the Church. The very existence of the Pontifical Council for the Laity is an expression of this renewal. This renewed understanding is one of the most important fruits of the Council which even today – fifty years on – we must continue to develop and experience.

Returning once more to the teaching of the Council, it is clear that reflection on the laity must be viewed within this context: a renewed awareness of the Church of the People of God, which in the words of Lumen Gentium, is sacrament, sign and instrument of God’s com­munion with humankind and of human beings’ communion with each other. (cf. Lumen Gen­tium, 1). The Council taught that the Church, the Body of Christ, is made up of different members, closely united by their common iden­tity as God’s children. They share the same mission to work together, each person wherever he or she may be, to bring holiness to the world and to proclaim the Word of Truth and Life. All the members of the one Body share the call to holiness which comes to them at Baptism. Bap­tism and Confirmation call all the faithful to the apostolate. The laity, by their very vocation as lay people, must proclaim the Lord to the world “ in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their ex­istence is woven ” (Lumen Gentium, 31).

Much has been written and is still being written as part of the commemoration of the Council, its history and its development. An important but perhaps less known aspect con­cerns the experience of the lay auditors/guests. Their presence was something new: for the first time, laity were summoned to the Council as christifideles. Although lay people sometimes participated in previous Councils, it was always as representatives of civic power.

So what do we know about this? The histor­ical archives of the Pontifical Council for the Laity contain documents which clarify some as­pects of the lay presence. Without claiming to offer exhaustive information, it is interesting to look again at some of the testimonies of that history which bore such fruit and continues to do so today.

It should perhaps be remembered that dur­ing the first half of the 20th century, there was a growing awareness of the vocation and mission of the laity. The organised forms of lay aposto­late and the world congresses of lay Catholics which began in the Fifties, were a sign of this awareness. They were “ signs of the times ”; they responded to the need for an incisive and clear ecclesial response to the rapid social and cultural changes of the 20th century.

During the first session of the Council, the only one presided over by Blessed John XXIII, there was a lay delegation at the opening session but there were no lay auditors at the discussions: the only invited guest was Jean Guitton, the fa­mous French Catholic intellectual, along with the ecumenical delegates. Lay auditors started being invited at the second session presided over by Paul VI. In the initial stages, there were twelve invited guests, all male. Apart from Guit­ton, these included Silvio Golzio (Italy), Mieczyslaw de Habicht (Poland), who was dele­gate for the auditors and Vittorino Veronese (Italy), president of the first two world congress­es of lay Catholics.

One should note that the auditors were cho­sen ad personam and not as representatives of the association or organization to which they belonged. One can see from the documents that they were fully aware that their nomination was not “ representational ”; they were there at the Pope’s personal invitation to present and offer their own personal contribution. They were “ mere ” auditors when attending the Main Ses­sion, but within the groups and working com­missions they were locutores. The Council is an ecclesial assembly of individuals. It is far from being a “ representational assembly ” of the Church. It is an episcopal gathering where the entire Church is present in the person of the bishops, the pastors. Nevertheless, given the pastoral nature of the Second Vatican Council, the decision was taken to invite experts and au­ditors to create opportunities for dialogue and study which could be useful to the Council Fa­thers. An understanding of the nature of their participation is important in order to avoid any misunderstandings.

The auditors took their places in the Basili­ca in a special tribune near the statue of Saint Andrew, to the right of the presidential table. There were no specially assigned places. They had their own secretariat in Borgo Santo Spiri­to, near Saint Peter’s. This was run by a number of women who were engaged in the Lay Apos­tolate and who took turns in offering their serv­ices. This is the reason why some people main­tained that during the second session women were “ on the threshold ” of the Council. During the third and fourth sessions, the group of audi­tors was extended to include both religious and lay women. There were forty auditors at the third session of whom 17 were women while their number increased in the forth session. We will devote an article to these women auditors in the near future.

The following were among the auditors present at the third and fourth sessions: Eusèbe Adjakpley (Togo), José Alvarez Icaza (Mexico) with his wife Luz, Frank Duff (Ireland) Josè Maria Herandez (Philippines), Rosemary Goldie (Australia), Patrick Keegan (Great Britain), Marie­Louise Monnet (France), Mar­garita Moyano Llerena (Argentina), Gladys Parentelli (Uruguay), Bartolo Peres (Brazil), Anne­Marie Roeloffzen (Holland), Joan Vasquez (Argentina).

Work opened each day with the celebration of Mass. The presence of a handful of lay peo­ple among the hundreds of bishops was a re­minder of the People of God in all parts of the world; the same People of God who were cen­tral to the prayers, reflections and work of the pastors. The auditors were aware that their presence at prayer and their witness were an important aspect of their function.

Another important contribution was the au­ditors work in the commissions and sub­com­missions which drafted the documents to be voted by the council fathers in the main Coun­cil Hall. Alongside the work of the experts, the contribution of the auditors was particularly useful in the commission which prepared the draft on the lay apostolate which eventually became the decree Apostolicam Actuositatem, as well as in the commission which prepared the draft on the Church in the modern world, the future Gaudium et Spes.

On a number of occasions, the auditors were also invited to speak during the conciliar assembly. During the second session, they in­tervened merely to express their gratitude for having been invited. During the third session, there was a first intervention on the lay aposto­late given in English on their behalf by Patrick Keegan, the English auditor. Later, Jean Guit­ton spoke at the end of the intervention on ecu­menism, Juan Vasquez on the draft on the Church in the modern world while James Nor­ris spoke in Latin on poverty in the world. Dur­ing the fourth session, interventions were given by Eusèbe Adjakpley on missions and Vittorino Veronese at the closing of the Council, to thank the Council fathers. The texts of the interven­tions were agreed on by all the auditors. The wealth and depth of these testimonies can be measured first from the archival documents, which show their work and experience and from the documents themselves, which in their final version contained the entire experience of the Second Vatican Council.

Benedict XVI observed that their teaching is the authentic expression of the spirit of the Council and an infallible guide to today’s eccle­sial work. Our task is to assimilate the extraor­dinary inheritance of the Council, particularly the prophetic nature of its intuitions on the mis­sion and vocation of the laity. In our ever changing world without points of reference, values and guidance, what impact has a lay per­son imbued with Christ and with a clear under­standing of their own mission? How much can a lay person, aware of being an envoy, an apos­tle of Christ, offer this world in their everyday environment? What riches for today’s Church are to be found in the laity’s vocation to spread the Gospel! Let us respond to such an over­whelming call by renewing in this special year, our commitment to bear the faith to all parts of the world, to the women and men who are searching for the Lord of Life.

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