Council fathers reflect on Vatican II's impact

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VATICAN CITY - A pivotal moment in the modern history of the Catholic Church came to life on screen with a new documentary about the Second Vatican Council.

With archival footage and exclusive interviews with prelates who attended the council sessions between its opening in 1962 and closing in 1965, the film pieces together firsthand accounts of that historic era and its impact on the church today.

"It's a sort of oral history featuring only the voices of people who were at the council and involved in the creation of the council documents," said Robert Duncan, multimedia journalist with Catholic News Service and the film's co-director.

The entire narration is supplied by 12 bishops and priests who took part in the council, including Pope Benedict XVI, who gave an unscripted talk about the council to Rome's clergy in 2013.

The idea of putting today's still-living council fathers onscreen to share their vivid memories was meant as a way to "go to the source and have them tell the story, and that lends a kind of authority an authenticity," said Francis X. Rocca, CNS Rome bureau chief and the film's director.

Titled "Voices of Vatican II: Participants Recall the Council," the 50-minute documentary represents the news service's first foray into longer-form film production as part of its expanding multimedia operation.

"Catholic News Service is first and foremost a news service," said Tony Spence, editor-in-chief of CNS. The new documentary, however, represents "the perfect example" of "taking news from the past and putting it together in a new and dazzling way for the people now and for posterity to use," he said.

The film had its Rome premiere in the heart of the Vatican in a rarely-used 60-seat movie theater managed by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

It was appropriate to have the showing in the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica, where thousands of cardinals and bishops from around the world convened so long ago, Rocca said. "Here we are watching a film about the Second Vatican Council on the soil of Vatican City; you feel a little bit of a shiver really."

The invitation-only event included one of the men featured in the film, French Cardinal Paul Poupard, who served as an expert theological adviser at the council, as well as other cardinals, bishops and religious whose lives and vocations were forever marked by the council.

U.S. Sister Judith Zoebelein, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist who works at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said the council opened while she was in high school. She said she saw that the church in society "had sort of led the way by being open, being alive and being new."

But by the late '60s and early '70s, the world "went into turmoil," so her experience was like having "one foot in a very solid, new, alive church and another in a culture that was going crazy."

U.S. Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, retired head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, said he was an assistant pastor in a large parish in Baltimore right before the council and he remembers everyone praying for a new Pentecost to come.

As the council and its impact began to unfold, there was "immense enthusiasm" on all levels of the church, he said. "I hope we can recapture that, that great sense of hope," he said.

Many council fathers, even the film's star narrator, Pope Benedict, have said much more needs to be done in implementing Vatican II and seeing its vision truly blossom.

There's been a renewed push to highlight the council in this period of 50th anniversary commemorations and the CNS documentary aimed to play a part.

Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said the film is "a great teaching asset" and would have helped when he was teaching theology to seminarians in Dublin.

Even just a few decades after the end of the council, the monsignor said, "for the students I was teaching, suddenly Vatican II was ancient history," and it wasn't easy to get them to read the documents, which were written in language of the time that can seem "dated or antiquated."

But rereading the documents and reliving that era are important to remind Catholics of the "positivity of the vision that gave life, gave enthusiasm," he said.

"It's important to have a visual experience of the council," said Sister Zoebelein, who founded the Vatican's web site in the 1990s.

"We've all tried to read the documents and we've lived with them" in the life of the church, "but to visually see it has a great impact and an emotion, and a certain concreteness that gets you to understand the council better," the process and atmosphere that underlined it, she said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015