A Lenten Bible Story for Catholics: April 13, 2003. Palm Sunday

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Even bishops have to go to school! That is one way to appreciate what took place during the Second Vatican Council in Rome, Italy from 1962 until 1965 when Pope John XIII called Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops from all over the world to breathe a sense of theological renewal into Catholic Church. Less known is that the Pope also appointed an expert or peritus whose job was to prepare the bishops for their various responsibilities during the Council debates. Usually, a peritus did his work behind the scenes. We might say it was the peritus who was the teacher to bishops. In his book American Participation in the Second Vatican Council (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967) Monsignor Vincent A. Yzermans wrote that “no individual, perhaps, did more to promote biblical scholarship among the American hierarchy than Father Barnabas Ahern.”

Two weeks ago we read how in 1945 Father Ahern, then a young Passionist priest, had written an important article about the new 1943 Scripture encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. Now we find that almost twenty years later, he was a peritus at Vatican II assigned to teach the United States bishops. Father Ahern knew the importance of this “class.” In one talk he had to make sense of how much the Catholic understanding of the Bible had progressed since 1943. This was a challenge because most United States bishops still believed, quite simply, that the Mass and devotions were the heartbeat of Catholicism and the Bible was Protestant.

On November 19, 1962 Passionist Father Ahern gave his presentation to the bishops in order to teach them about an upcoming vote on the Vatican II Scripture document Dei Verbum. Clearly, Ahern looked to the future when he told the bishops that if they voted for this new Vatican II document on the Bible, which was based upon sound modern Catholic biblical scholarship and rooted in the encyclicals of 1893 and 1943, it would result in everyday Catholics becoming more familiar with the Bible.

However, such an idea was too much for the conservative Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi. Based on my original research into archives and interviews with people who were at the November 1962 event the following took place. Vagnozzi was sitting in the conference hall next to Bishop Charles A. Buswell of Pueblo, Colorado. In a 1996 letter, Bishop Buswell wrote me how Archbishop Vagnozzi “appeared to be uncomfortable and apparently thought Barnabas was denying the historicity of the Bible. He [Vagnozzi] rose to say: ‘Father Ahern, I prefer to think that when the Bible quotes Jesus, it quotes his exact words.’ Barnabas was most gracious, saying that he appreciated the archbishop’s question since probably the same question was in the mind of others. He then explained that, if there were any place in the New Testament that the exact words of Jesus would be quoted, it would be in the words of the Institution of the Eucharist on the night before he died; yet in each account the words of Jesus are different. He then made the point that the Infancy Narratives are important revelation, but everything is not to be taken literally. All of us,” wrote Bishop Buswell, “appreciated Barnabas very much.”

Father Ahern’s friend, Father Eugene Maly of Cincinnati, Ohio described the incident with greater candor. Ahern, penned Father Maly, did an “[e]xcellent job – pulled no punches, tho[ugh] he oozed unction and charity. Some poor questions [were] asked afterwards, which were a pretty fair indication of the intellectual ability of the American hierarchy. (Many were disgusted w[ith] the questions, of course, but that they were the men who asked them shows the level somewhat). Anyway, Ah[ern was] asked, if the Infancy Narratives are midrash, then was Matthew lying? Vagnozzi gave a sour note to the whole by asking Ahern rather senseless questions at [the] end of the whole thing. Rambled quite a bit before coming to the point, hard to follow him. He thinks the works and deeds of our Lord were handed on down just as were done and said. Barnabas handled him w[ith] great unction: ‘You have put it beautifully, Your Excellency, I would just add this…’ ” In effect, Ahern had put Vagnozzi gracefully but forcefully in his ideological and theological place.

Sharing his account of the incident in 1984, Father Ahern said that he tried to remain respectful as he fielded Vagnozzi’s questions, which were not “difficult to answer.” Still, when all was done Father Ahern found himself overwhelmed by the confrontation. He walked, in the rain, back to the Passionist monastery “wondering whether he had answered correctly… or damaged the Church?”

Because that first draft of Dei Verbum was voted down we might think Father Ahern had failed. Yet Pope John XXIII knew that the time had come for an increased Catholic understanding of the Bible. So he asked the now aging Jesuit, Cardinal Augustin Bea to make Dei Verbum acceptable to both the conservatives and progressives. In November 1965 the Vatican II bishops voted for the document. At last the class of Father Ahern made sense to the bishops. Next week, our last Lenten essay will summarize Dei Verbum since it anchors how we understand the Bible. today.

by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Historian and Director of The Passionist Historical Archives.