And the church becomes "news" for the world
Jubilee 2000 Search



Vittorio Citterich

The Second Ecumenical Vatican Council was the "ecclesial" event that has had the most worldwide informative repercussions in this century now coming to a close. Naturally through the rapid development of communication techniques, starting with the spread of the television age. But someone who lived through those extraordinary years as a reporter, from its announcement by Pope John to its conclusion by Paul VI, while not transgressing the limits and criteria of his profession, cannot attribute the great historical influence of that event merely to external technical reasons. In their first reflections the Council Fathers already discussed what should be "ad intra" and what should be "ad extra" in their undertaking. Only to realize later that the distinction was not an easy one to make. In John XXIII''s Instinct (the "instinct" of the Holy Spirit, it was said), the Council was placed in a period of total and dramatic epochal change that concerned the common destiny of the "human family". The nuclear age - as it was called briefly - conditioned and threatened by balances of terror and dialectics of ideological stereotypes which did not look sufficiently into the future, to the meaning of history, to plan a future of "peace on earth".

It is within this context that the Council, an ecclesial event, is placed. It cannot, however, be confined exclusively within an ecclesiastical boundary, at the disposal of "specialists", because its message was addressed to everyone. It was as if the Church were making the Gospel more acute in its universal outlook, in comparison with the dominant cultures that had lost it. On 4 September 1962, even before the Assembly began, a contemplative in political activity like Giorgio La Pira ("the charismatic Mayor of Florence", John Paul II defines him in his great prayer for Italy) almost sensed its potential impact on the future: "How does the Council fit into the great perspective of the Church and the nations? In this technical, scientific and space age which marks an unprecedented turning-point in the history of the world? An age in which war is disappearing, peace flourishes, the world is becoming united, idealogies are crumbling and the Church is emerging more and more every day, almost to enlighten it...".

Lumen Gentium (Christ, the light of humanity) will be the fundamental document of Vatican II. The Council with a task of enlightenment in a decisive historical moment. If this was the overall meaning of the conciliar Assembly, there then arose the task of making it known, without apologetic forcing but also without falling into the likely temptation of inserting the novelties of the Council into the patterns and stereotypes of the dominant journalistic information that placed the events of the Church's life among the leftovers, though at times suggestive ones, of an illustrious "religious" past, now and for ever surpassed by the triumphant secularism of modernity. It was Romano Guardini who had pointed out, with far-sighted cultural vigilance, that historical developments were leading more likely towards the "end of the modern age", and so towards a religious revival whose symptoms were felt, disposed towards a new harvest, towards a new presentation. The initial difficulty in gathering news of the Council, apart from the suggestiveness of the rites and of plenary assemblies of more than two thousand Bishops in St. Peter's Basilica transformed into a conciliar hall, could not however be attributed entirely to the journalistic setting of that time, to its limits and its prejudicial hostilities. Especially in the first session there was even a frightened defensive movement among those who had to "communicate" from the outside the developments of a reflection of "up-dating" which, before the great themes under discussion, openly adopted the criterion "of unity in diversity" instead of that of an unfruitful, yet disciplined laudatory repetitiveness. On the other hand, on the evening of the inauguration of the Council, Eastertide, we had assisted at an event that anticipated the future of the world of communications in a horizon as a "global village". Pope John appeared at his lighted window to bestow an unexpected blessing. After calling on the Moon to bear witness to the brotherhood deriving from a great Christian event like the Council ("we seek what unites us, let us leave aside, if there is anything... what divides us"), he ended with an embrace for children ("when you arrive home, you will find your children there, embrace your children and tell them that it is the Pope's embrace...").

To some extent it can be said that, among many turning-points, that extraordinary moment, broadcast live by the RAI television cameras, also marked a turning-point in the relationship between the Church gathered in Council and the world television image. It may be curious to remember (but it is not only curiosity) that in those years at the beginning of the sixties, in a world that was divided as far as television was concerned by an incommunicability no less impenetrable than the "iron curtain", the stern and ideologically autarchic Soviet television asked the Italian television if it could transmit the image and voice of that old Pope blessing the people on the evening of the inauguration of the Council.

However rapid the advance of television and it repercussions among the means of social communication may have been, the sought-after priority for making known the daily course of Vatican II naturally remained that of the written press, which had its headquarters in the Council's Press Office at the end of Via della Conciliazione, close to St. Peter's Square (later it would become the Holy See's Press Office. Joaquin Navarro Valls, the present director, was at the time among us reporters eager to know and understand in order to give out the news correctly). A humanly as well as professionally extraordinary experience which formed, in constant confrontation with the event to be understood and retransmitted ("l'événement notre maître", Emmanuel Mounier said), a unique community made up of roles, competences, and experiences all different from each other but in some way complementary and convergent. Thirty-five years later the happy memory of this may diminish marginal details, episodic tensions between some reporters' haste in their profession and others' desire for caution, the sum total of which may have produced, here and there, leakages of misleading sensationalism or, on the contrary, occlusions of truthful transmissions. It is, however, certain that, thirty-five years later, it can be recognized that the Council summoned by Pope John and brought to its conclusion by Paul VI, was also a great turning-point for the Church in the global village of the world of communications and, at the same time, the occasion for a total maturation of the international journalistic ambient before the thematic specificities of so-called "religious information" and the universal extension of its spiritual themes.

Those who were fortunate enough to be present in the Council's Press Office will always remember vividly Pope Paul VI's farewell to the journalists who had reported on Vatican II. Paul VI's kindness: "If, as never before in the course of her two thousand year history, the Church has become aware of millions and millions of people interested in the Assembly of Bishops from all over the world, undoubtedly, dear sirs, this is fully due to you...". And his methodological recommendation: "You have assisted at a Council, at a decisive moment in the history of the Church, but remember that the history of the Church is like life, which imperceptibly throbs in many places...".

The Council - John Paul II writes in Tertio Millennio Adveniente - was a "preparation for that new springtime of Christian life which will be revealed by the Great Jubilee" of the Year 2000. There arises again the relationship of a "decisive moment" in the history of the Church, as a Jubilee is, and the imperceptible influence of her life in consciences, in prayer and in many places, to the far ends of the earth; which though they are not easy to measure ("it's not news", in journalistic jargon) are, however, the wide and fertile ground from which the new springtime comes.