As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
Among the countless lessons I’ve learned from Thomas F. Stransky, CSP—who at age 87 is living in a retirement home in New Jersey—here’s the top: If we expect the church to be perfect and find out, as we must, that it isn’t, we may lash out at it as having let us down. A certain lightheartedness about the church is healthy. “The sense of common humanity,” Tom said in my hearing, “leads me not to expect too much of authority. I believe in it, but my lower expectations mean that I do not have to get up every morning and ask, ‘Whom am I going to get mad at today?’ Is this cynicism? No. It is a matter-of-factness.”
Stransky’s influence on the Collegeville Institute is immense. He brought to us wisdom, savvy, and nuance grounded in his decade as an official of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (SPCU), founded in 1960 by Pope Saint John XXIII. Tom was chiefly responsible for organizing, welcoming, and consulting with the many Orthodox and Protestant Observers to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Tom bequeathed to the Collegeville Institute something that the dynamics of the Council taught him. “I did first learn a few primary lessons in ecumenical dialogue from sharing the Observers’ experiences as Vatican II co-participants. … For me, as for most Christians, the most difficult step in dialogue is the first one: understand others as they understand themselves to be, enter the ‘insides’ of other Churches, those ‘spiritual worlds other Christians inhabit’ [in the words of Yves Congar, OP], so that these others recognize themselves in my description of them. Only then do I have the right to the second step: evaluation according to the Catholic tradition. And to the third step: openness to those truths which the Church needs for its own reformation.”
The Collegeville Institute’s first-person method, its insistence that people speak from their experience, can be traced right back to Tom’s commitment to “understanding others as they understand themselves to be.” From the first Collegeville Institute consultation, “Confessing Faith in God Today,” which he and I co-chaired, through many other such gatherings and his membership on the Board of Directors (1975-89), Tom’s knowledge, vision, and humor shaped who we are, what we do, and how we do it.
This multilingual world traveler and organizational wizard (president of the Paulists 1970-78; rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem 1987-99; co-editor of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement) never abandoned his roots as a plain-spoken Wisconsin farm boy. When asked to explain ecumenism at a Board meeting, he famously responded:“Ecumenism is what we’d have a lot more of if we had a better name for.”
***[Excerpted from Thomas F. Stransky, CSP, “The Foundation of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity,” in Alberic Stacpoole, ed., Vatican II Revisited by those who were there (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1986), 62-87.]
Origins of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity
The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (SPCU) ushered in the official entrance of the Roman Catholic Church into the one ecumenical movement. Twenty-five years later I risk to judge that the period from 1 January 1960 to the opening of Vatican II on 11 October 1962 was far more critical than the Council itself for the future official modus operandi of the Church in that movement.
Two of us Paulists participated in the Pentecost Vespers at St Peter’s Basilica (5 June). Pope John was presiding. To my surprise, at the end of the service he read his Superno Dei Nutu (his motu proprio establishing the Secretariat): the preliminary (ante-preparatorial) stage of the Council is over; the preparation of drafts (schemata) shall begin in the autumn through ten drafting commissions and three secretariats; among these organs is a secretariat which would enable “those who bear the name of Christians but are separated from this Apostolic See … to follow the work of the Council and to find more easily that path by which they may arrive at the unity Jesus Christ sought from his Heavenly Father with fervent prayers.”
Nothing, nothing ever flitted across my imagination that I, a thirty-year old priest, could or would ever be directly involved in that startling, active symbol of Pope John’s loving concern to promote Christian unity.
It seems my primitive ecumenical knowledge, my enthusiastic commitment to the movement, my youthful energy, and my mother tongue, along with abilities in German, French and Italian, were sufficient assets. …
Until then I had never met a bishop (except my confirming and ordaining ones), let alone a cardinal. In his [Cardinal Augustin Bea, the SPCU president] most simple quarters at the Brazilian College, I now saw in that seventy-nine year old, with hooded eyes and bent shoulders, the mark of one long huddled over a desk, his slender back like a “frail tree exposed to a constant gale of scholarship.” We talked at length, in the hope, I guess, that first impressions would be accurate, needing later confirmation by day-to-day experience. I judged immediately that Cardinal Bea lived by his borrowed principle, which he later called “the ecumenical motto”: “Do the truth in charity” (Ephesians 4:15).
What I did not perceive then would be revealed in those next eight years with him: a churchman who never lost his nerve or his calmness — an obvious charismatic quality in those first SPCU years of understandable jitters. To this often impatient American, Bea possessed an extraordinary sense of timing: when to push whom for what, when to lie back and wait (and this quality I appreciated more after the fact). In his judgments one saw dove-like simplicity and serpentine wisdom. As the Cardinal wryly remarked in that initial chat, “No one will tell us, ‘This is the way we did it last year.’”
The first minor headache was office space. The SPCU was a local name without a habitation. The Vatican administration had designated rooms of the second floor of an old and large palazzo on the Via dei Corridori, two blocks from Piazza San Pietro. But we were to wait until the former occupants, a Vatican employee’s family, had moved out and the painters and masons had done their frescos. Weeks went by while in often bizarre ways of efficient team-work, we four were preparing for the first plenary meeting of the SPCU’s members and consultors, papally convoked for 14-15 November 1960. Only on 21 October did [we] walk into the completed office. In that space were cramped a midget entrance parlor, three small rooms, and by a still inexplicable shift of interior walls, four bathrooms. No lightbulbs or stationery or soap, no filing cabinets were in evidence; only two desks with chairs. Our sole typewriter I borrowed from Santa Susanna, and for two years bathtubs served as holy archives.
Visits of Christian Leaders with the Pope
The visit [of Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher] was also my first experience of the scrupulosity of Vatican protocol, especially “compromise-protocol” if some wanted to display official coolness and to cut the visit’s import down to size. The historical break-through was to be called a mere “courtesy visit.” The only title to be used throughout was Dottore Fisher (we had even to struggle to have approved for the Osservatore Romano‘s official notice of the cold fact, “Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury”). Archbishop Fisher was most hospitably received in residence at the Venerable English College, but the limousine which would bring him to and from the Vatican should have no Vatican license plates (so [we] rented a car from a nearby agency). Bea was not allowed to be present at any stage of the audience. No photographs of the Pope and Archbishop together were taken, and Cardinal Tardini [Vatican Secretary of State] forbade even private cameras at the post-audience, afternoon lawn-tea at Cardinal Bea’s residence in the Brazilian College.
What most struck me before, during and after the entire event was the humble calmness of Pope John and Cardinal Bea. They realized that the visit was cracking the rock of previously negative Roman Catholic/Anglican relations at the highest levels in England and in Rome. For the two the visit was a bold success, despite the humiliating compromises accepted to satisfy the hesitant. The precedent had been set for what have since become normal acts of Christian courtesy among Churchmen and women: doing the truth in charity. As Cardinal Bea reflected, “With a meeting between heads of Christian Communions … we must realize that we are treading on most holy ground.”
The most public symbol of Rome’s deliberate distance from the World Council of Churches had been the Holy Office’s refusal to have Roman Catholics present in any role, no matter how “unofficial,” at the first two General Assemblies — Amsterdam (1948) and Evanston, Illinois (1954). But now John XXIII was Pope, Vatican II was on the horizon, the SPCU was the WCC’s “address in Rome,” and already the SPCU and WCC officers were in direct if unofficial contact. Visser ‘t Hooft [WCC general secretary] invited the SPCU to delegate Observers to the Third General Assembly, convoked for 18 November — 5 December 1961, in New Delhi.[Despite initial opposition from the Holy Office, it was decided to send five delegated Observers to New Delhi.] This was a most critical decision. If the Catholic Church had not sent official observers to this jealously cherished meeting of Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox Churches, then in understandable reciprocity those Churches would not even have considered the possibility of their similar participation in Vatican II a year later.
Pope John, in his allocution Humanae Salutis (25 December 1961), which formally convoked Vatican II, [said this]: many other Christians “happily hope to be able to send to the Council, in the name of their Communities (Coetuum), their own representatives who will make it possible for them to follow the Council proceedings more closely. This is a great hope and consolation to us. And precisely in order to facilitate these contacts, we have already instituted a Secretariat for this specific purpose.”
Although in no way foreseen in 1962, these contacts with other Christian Communions had initiated the personal and organizational relations which in the post-Vatican II years led to the active presence of SPCU-delegated Observers at confessional and inter-confessional gatherings, to a variegated series of international and national bilateral dialogues with Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants, and to ongoing collaboration with the World Council of Churches and with the world confessional bodies, such as the Lutheran World Federation, the first to have with the SPCU a joint dialogue commission (1966).
Filling the bathtubs
In our offices we were filling the bathtubs, like Cana jugs, with articles, memoranda, books and lengthy letters, from both Catholics and other Christian sources, on their ecumenical vota et desideria [wishes and desires]. But our primary responsibility was to condense and channel all this raw data as servants to the members and consultors as they proceeded with drafting schemata… [Meetings took place between 14 November 1960 and August 1961.]
Cardinal Bea presided over each session. He allowed “the utmost freedom of discussion, gently keeping it to the point.” With twenty-five years of all sorts of meetings now on my roster, I do not recall any SPCU work session as a disaster of aimless repetition, spinning theological wheels, and long ego-centered speeches. Chairmanship is indeed an art. …
As the drafting proceeded, all themes were whittled down to five schemata. Cardinal Bea presented these to the [Council’s] Central Preparatory Commission which, in turn, had eventually to settle for seventy projects within 119 booklets from all the commissions. The SPCU’s five themes were these: the Word of God; the need for prayer for the unity of Christians; ecumenism; relations with the Jews; religious freedom. The complex itineraries of these themes through the Council, outside or inside the SPCU ambit, have seen detailed descriptions and commentaries in later books and encyclopedias.
But my outline here of the SPCU’s first two years remains, I repeat, the far less known and the far more critical for the determination of the Church’s ecumenical journey, insofar as the SPCU has been one of its primary institutional pilgrims.
On 13 October 1962, the assembled delegated Observers, SPCU members and consultors, language interpreters, Bea and his small, haggard staff met with Pope John XXIII. The Pope ended his almost off-the-cuff, familial talk à la Newman: “Blessed be God for each day, each day is enough for us.” That day was certainly enough for Cardinal Bea. Usually so cautious with superlatives and with more in mind, I then judged, than our presence together, the first SPCU president exclaimed, “A miracle, a miracle!”