Archbishop Agostino Marchetto

Vatican II Confidential — Cardinal Felici’s diary of the the council

Archbishop Marchetto, whom Pope Francis himself considers “the best interpreter of the Second Vatican Council” talks about his recent book on the diary that Cardinal Pericle Felici wrote during the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Felici was the general secretary of Vatican II, so his diary is a kind of inside story of the Council.

Aurelio Porfiri

I would like you to imagine this scene with me. I was around 14 and at that time I was a regular attendant in a church at the center of Rome called Saint Apollinare. This is really a beautiful church, which today is in the care of Opus Dei and of the Holy Cross University that also uses the building connected to the Church for its academic activities. But I was there in the pre-Opus Dei era, in a certain way I started there my pilgrimage in the world of liturgical music. So, let us return to that distant day.

I have some memories of me serving Mass, kneeling at the altar for a special feast that was celebrated that day in that church and I remember looking at the celebrant, who was an old Cardinal. This prelate was Pericle Felici (1911-1982), titular of Saint Apollinare and leading Cardinal in the Roman curia. I remember he was introduced to me as a great Latinist. Indeed I have one of his books, Vere Sereno (Felici, 1980), where he collected his verses: “Sis prudens: tantum et mundanis utere rebus,/ Aeternas quantum forte iuvare scias” (“be prudent: of the things of the world use only what can be useful for reaching eternity”).

Cardinal Felici has to be remembered for several things, but one in particular is relevant to Church history: he was the general secretary of Vatican II, an event that has changed many things in the life of the Catholic Church. In that capacity he had to deal with all the troubles and issues arising from the event, having a special connection with the two Popes of the Council, John XXIII and Paul VI. I was thinking of all of this, putting together personal memories and historical recollection, during the presentation of a new book edited by Archbishop Agostino Marchetto: Il “diario” conciliare di Monsignor Pericle Felici (Marchetto, 2015). The presentation (November 18, 2015 – Pietro da Cortona Hall in the Campidoglio in Rome) brought together some important figures of the Roman curia, including the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Why so much interest? One reason is that Vatican II is a fundamental moment to understand the way the Church is today and the conflicts among different hermeneutics of the Council is a daily issue in theological and liturgical debates. Another reason is that Archbishop Marchetto is not an exegete like others: Pope Francis himself considers him “the best interpreter of the Second Vatican Council.” Archbishop Marchetto is secretary emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants People. I met Archbishop Marchetto in the Domus Sacerdotalis Paul VI, a few meters from that Saint Apollinare that was mentioned previously. Archbishop Marchetto was so kind to give me some of his time to answer my questions.

Your Excellency, you have recently edited the private journal of Cardinal Pericle Felici. I would like to know what you remember of him, if you ever met him personally.
No, I have never met him personally.

What you can say about your new book?
As you have said, I am not the author of the book but the editor. These materials were given to Monsignor Vincenzo Carbone (1920-2014) by Cardinal Felici. Monsignor Carbone was a collaborator of Cardinal Felici and responsible for the archives of Vatican II. So, in a certain way, I met Cardinal Felici indirectly through his writings and through Monsignor Carbone who recently passed away and whom I knew well.

So, even if you never met Cardinal Felici personally, what impression do you get from his writings?
My impression of Cardinal Felici is that he was a holy man. Reading his journal – it is divided into two parts, his spiritual journal and 8 agendas that account for the development of his activity during Vatican II – I can see he really was a holy man, a holy priest. Cardinal Felici has shown that he was able to put all the difficulties, the challenges, oppositions and health troubles in a spiritual perspective. This part of Cardinal Felici’s personality was emphasized during the presentation of this book in the Pietro da Cortona hall (at the Campidoglio of Rome) by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, together with the other illustrious speakers. Cardinal Felici was able to bear the cross also thanks to his devotion to the Madonna della Fiducia (Our Lady of Confidence). [The book] also reveals his great qualities, not least the one of being a great Latinist, a great spiritual director for priests, great Prefect for the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature. In this capacity he was the first one to consider also causes of psychological nature when dealing with problems related with married life at the Sacred Roman Rota.

He was also a great organizer, had great abilities in using written Italian language and was also very capable in dealing with the two Pope of the Council, John XXIII and Paul VI, to whom he was a devoted son of the Church but also very direct in dealing with the problems of the Council. So, after 50 years we have this journal. And it is not a coincidence that also the memories of Cardinal Suenens – they have a different orientation toward the Council compared to Cardinal Felici – were published the past year. With the publication of my book I think we have a more balanced view of what has happened during the Council.

So what does this book add to our understanding of the Council?
I want to answer using a juridical formula. In a trial, after that one of the parts has done his or her deposition, we say audiatur et altera pars, let the other side be heard. Until now we were under the interpretation of what can be called the Bologna school, that sees the Council as a rupture from the way of being of the Church before Vatican II. This interpretation of the Bologna school is also based on several memories published from leading figures of the Vatican II.

But now we have also the other side with Cardinal Felici’s journal, a side that shows us more the “genius of Catholicism” (as I remember this expression from Cullmann); this is the ability to put together the two souls of Catholicism: one is the fidelity to the depositum fidei – and Tradition, Holy Scripture and Magisterium (Dei Verbum, 10) and the other one that is the openness to modern world, being able to read the sign of the times. The two things have to go together and cannot be separated.

How did you come to be interested in Vatican II?
Indeed I was before mainly a medievalist. I always like the Middle Ages and I did research about this topic until the 90s. At that time my history professor – with whom I have collaborated for the journal of Church history in Italy – said to me, “Enough with the Middle Ages!” and asked me to study contemporary Church history. I think I was quite obedient to him and I can see now that it was really necessary to study contemporary Church history, with special attention to the one of Vatican II. I think Vatican II was the great ecclesiastical event of the 20th century. I do not want to say as Charles de Gaulle did that it was the most important historical event of the history tout court, but certainly the reality of the Council was a compass (as John Paul II said), a reference point for all that has come thereafter.

But things seem to have taken a strange turn…
The fundamental problem is the exegesis, the hermeneutic of the Council. There are three steps, if I can put it that way: we have the history of the Council (and now we have also this book), the hermeneutic of the Council that has to take into account the Church as a reality (the genius I was referring before) – so there has to be a reform in the continuity of the same Church, not a rupture as if there is the birth of a new Church – and finally the reception of the Council, the way the Council was received and we should see if this reception really corresponded to the teachings of the Council or not.

My conversation with Archbishop Marchetto was frank and direct and I may say that he was always ready to answer all of my questions. Archbishop Marchetto’s works and books should be investigated with care and attention to understand what has gone wrong with the interpretation of Vatican II, why we are living in a Church atmosphere that does not encourage a serious consideration of what the Council has really said. I think that it is important to remember some of the leading figures of this event, as Cardinal Pericle Felici surely was. I was lucky enough to have met some people that were part of Vatican II, and in most of them I could see their disappointment at the way the Church documents were going to be interpreted in mainstream Church debates. And the words of Benedict XVI during the famous speech to the Roman Curia (December 22, 2005) seems to endorse Bishop Marchetto’s views: “the Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, journeying on through time; she continues ‘her pilgrimage amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God,’ proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes (cf Lumen Gentium, no 8). Those who expected that with this fundamental ‘yes’ to the modern era all tensions would be dispelled and that the ‘openness towards the world’ accordingly achieved would transform everything into pure harmony, had underestimated the inner tensions as well as the contradictions inherent in the modern epoch. They had underestimated the perilous frailty of human nature which has been a threat to human progress in all the periods of history and in every historical constellation. These dangers, with the new possibilities and new power of man over matter and over himself, did not disappear but instead acquired new dimensions: a look at the history of the present day shows this clearly. In our time too, the Church remains a ‘sign that will be opposed’ (Lk 2:34) – not without reason did Pope John Paul II, then still a Cardinal, give this title to the theme for the Spiritual Exercises he preached in 1976 to Pope Paul VI and the Roman Curia. The Council could not have intended to abolish the Gospel’s opposition to human dangers and errors.” Let us hope that soon we will be more and more enlightened from the real genius of Catholicism in our perilous earthly pilgrimage.

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