On the laywomen auditors at the Council


Ana Cristina Villa B

Spending a few days exploring historical archives is like leaning out of a window which lets us peep into another time, giving us access to history in a different way from looking at books or articles. Archives, in a certain sense, allow us to “meet” the protagonists through their papers, letters, souvenirs… which they themselves considered worth keeping for the person who would “peep” into their experiences years later.

That was my experience this summer when I dedicated some time to exploring the archives of the lay auditors of Vatican Council II which are conserved in the Pontifical Council for the Laity. It was extremely interesting and enriching to be able to see at first hand so many documents which record an historical event which has marked the last fifty years of the life of the Church and, in particular, the work of a handful of men and women who were invited to be a part of it. These documents deal with a little known chapter of the Council’s history.

It was wonderful to discover that the documents, in different ways, note the clear historical awareness among the Auditors. Well they knew that it was the first time which lay people had been invited to a Council in this capacity (there have been laypeople in previous councils but as representatives of the civil power, not as Christifideles in their own right) so among them was a sense of astonishment and gratitude, a need to take seriously the responsibility which the Pope had entrusted to them. Initially there was a group of thirteen men, in the second session of the Council, a group which was expanded in the third and fourth sessions, and eventually included twenty-three women.

The news of these women making their formal entrance into the Conciliar Hall in September 1964 was accompanied by a plethora of newspaper articles (not just Italian), press photos and even jokes about those they solemnly and amusingly called Council “Mothers” or addressed as carissimae sorores… But the journalistic novelty soon wore off and their presence became normal in the work of the Council; the auditors - religious and lay - were integrated into the commissions in which they participated, working actively.

Perhaps some of the things that happened at the time seem strange to us and in the context of the commemoration of fifty years since the Council’s opening, some have wanted to recall such facts, seeking material to vindicate certain positions or to argue about the role of women in the Church and find alleged discrimination. One example is that of the separate coffee bar for female auditors during breaks in the Council’s work. Or the fact that the time was not considered ripe for a woman to speak to the whole Conciliar Hall in the name of all the auditors. But they were other times, and we do no good by rushing to interpret them from vindicationist angles. These are things that would not happen today as, in fact, they have not happened since. Today hardly any notice is taken of the fact that the recent Synod on the New Evangelisation had nearly the same number of female auditors as male, and a considerable number of female experts. They spoke, participated, worked, compiled, intervened...and their coffee bar wasn’t separate.

Another important point in remembering the history of the Council, and the presence of women auditors, is to take care that our urge to discover novelties and revolutions makes us lose sight of the true renewal brought by the Council on this subject. The renewed awareness of the universal call to holiness and the vocation and mission of the laity within the Church are, without doubt, among the Council’s most precious fruits, fruit which, fifty years on, we have still not fully understood and made to bear fruit. Not long before the Council, definitions of the laity like this one were heard: “the layperson is a secondary cause, instrumental to the apostolate exercised by the hierarchy”. During the second session of the Council an auditor, French intellectual Jean Guitton, said, “For the first time in history, an Ecumenical Council has raised the question of the laity in all its depth. They [the laity] seek their place in the bosom of the pilgrim People of God. Thanks to this, all our participation in the life of the Church will therefore, little by little, be transformed. It will be perceived to the ends of the earth, in every community and even in the smallest of parishes.”

Sure enough, the awareness that the Church is a sacrament of communion has grown; first and foremost of the communion between God and man and then, as a consequence, that among men: we are a people constituted as a body whose head is Christ. Lumen gentium says: “in the building up of Christ's Body various members and functions have their part to play. There is only one Spirit who, according to His own richness…gives His different gifts for the welfare of the Church” (LG, 7). The same Dogmatic Constitution further speaks beautifully on the subject of the complementarity of vocations, saying: “Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teachers. Thus in their diversity all bear witness to the wonderful unity in the Body of Christ” (LG, 32). And it speaks on the apostolate of the laity, saying that it is, “a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself… Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth” (LG, 33). It is not an exaggeration to say that the renewal of awareness of the vocation and mission of the layperson within the Church is due, in part, to the work of the auditors.

A great deal has been written and said in the fifty years since the Council on the role of women in the Church, some even speak of doors which were opened in order to be closed again. However, this is not what is found on reading the Conciliar documents. The renewal which has taken place through the greater presence of the laity and a fuller awareness of their vocation and mission (and that includes us women!) is not always taken account of sufficiently. It does not cease to be a paradox that the greatest women in the history of the Church, holy mystics, founders, saints of charity, doctors… did not sit around waiting until they were given a role, nor did they postpone their labours until a ministry was instituted for them. They knew their place: together with Christ, children of the Father, daughters of the Church, full members of the Church, capable of enriching her with their gifts. And they set to work responding to the urgent needs of their times. Should we not also give ourselves and strive, each in the place to which God has called her, to carry forward that New Evangelisation to which Benedict XVI untiringly exhorts us?

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