Cathedral rector recalls heady days of Vatican II
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - In 1962, Msgr. Ernest J. Fiedler was the young pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Warrensburg when he heard the news that Pope John XXIII was convening the Second Vatican Council.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Msgr. Ernest J. Fiedler speaks with Ryan Thorp, one of the workmen on the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception renovation project.
Ordained only 10 years earlier, the then-37-year-old priest had served as personal secretary to former Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop John P. Cody. He had already developed a reputation as a scholar of Scripture and church history. Educated in Rome, the young priest was fluent in Italian.
Not long after the news broke, then-Father Fiedler received a telephone call from New Orleans. It was his former boss and mentor, Archbishop John P. Cody, the recently installed leader of Archdiocese of New Orleans.
"Did you read about the council?" the archbishop asked him.
"I answered, 'Yes, I did,'" Msgr. Fiedler recalled.
"Each bishop gets to take a personal theologian," Archbishop Cody told him. "I'd like you to go with me."
To this day, Msgr. Fiedler doesn't know exactly why the archbishop of New Orleans would choose him. But he was "thrilled" to accept.
"I guess he trusted me," Msgr. Fiedler said. "I was always very honest with him. If I had a different opinion about something, I would speak my mind."
The invitation to watch church history as a "peritus" or theologian to a bishop was only the first of the Vatican II thrills Msgr. Fielder would have.
"A bishop could talk to his peritus about anything, but the peritus to a bishop could not go into the council," he said.
A "peritus" to the entire council did have the privilege of attending council sessions. That was the young priest's "biggest surprise."
"One day in Rome, there was a knock on my door. A guy in full Vatican livery was standing there with a package in his hand. Inside was a black leather passport and a document signed by John XXIII making me a peritus of the council."
It was hard work, he said. But he wouldn't trade a second of it.
"I was running around a lot," he said. "One night, Bishop (Victor) Reed of Oklahoma City called. He said a number of the (U.S.) bishops were concerned about the document on liturgy, and asked if I could meet with a group of them to talk about it. You were willing to work through the night without sleep, anything to get your work done.
Those were heady days, Msgr. Fiedler recalled. Fresh ideas and thinking were as welcomed as the fresh air Pope John had wanted to bring into the church with the council.
Now 77 years old and celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest, Msgr. Fiedler said the opportunity to work with the fathers of the Second Vatican Council is "the highlight of my career."
It isn't that there haven't been other high moments.
"Ministry to different people in different parishes has been wonderful," he said.
And as rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, he is a guiding force as the historic landmark church is reborn through an extensive renovation project now underway.
"It's the focal point of the whole local church," Msgr. Fiedler said. "We have a real responsibility here to be a help and a model for all other churches in the diocese.
He couldn't be more excited to shepherd the cathedral's historic renovation, he said. But not only watching, but participating, in the process as the universal church renewed itself at the Second Vatican Council was a feeling he knew he would experience only once in his lifetime.
"There was a feeling that the church was making enormous strides forward in the collegiality of bishops and in the recognition of local pastoral situations," he said.
That was a sea change, he said.
"The Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy) was so entrenched and so strong," he said. "They were not in favor of change."
So much so, he added, that the Curia had prepared a set of documents, or "schemata" before the first session. But as the bishops arrived from around the world, they brought new ideas.
"You know how long the first session of the council lasted?" Msgr. Fiedler asked. "Fifteen minutes. They (the world's bishops) were dissatisfied with the schemata, and they asked that they be recast. They took a vote and it all had to go back to committee."
The council underscored a sharp difference between the Curia and the bishops working in dioceses around the globe.
"The bishops were with the people," he said. "It was really the arrival of the bishops that began to have an impact on the council."
Bishops began arriving, with their periti, months in advance. That gave them time to talk and to plan, and soon various camps were being formed. The wild card, he said, was the U.S. bishops.
"We knew the Germans were going to be progressive. We knew the Spanish were going to be cautious and the French were going to be mixed. The American bishops were in disarray when they got to Rome."
But by meeting together and listening to advice from all corners, the U.S. bishops made their presence felt, Msgr. Fiedler said.
Their work, and the work of the entire council, was a manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit, he said.
Forty years later, "the documents of the council have been implemented to a degree, but the full impact of the Second Vatican Council has yet to be felt," he said.
Even the council fathers could not predict what that impact would be, he said. But they all knew that the Holy Spirit was guiding them.
The feeling was palpable, Msgr. Fiedler said. "I just had such a strong faith that this was the Holy Spirit manifesting himself that I had no doubts, no question, not for a minute," he said.
An example was the landmark document, "Gaudium et Spes," the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which set the foundation for a new era of the church engaged in and serving the world, rather holding itself as a refuge from it.
"That was one document that wasn't sent to us by mail in advance," he said. "It came from the floor of the council. It was a child born of the council itself. We are just now beginning to realize the full ramifications of it today."
Msgr. Fiedler said he knew that the Spirit was working as the council gathered for its opening Mass.
"October is a wonderful month in Rome. It is freshly brisk, and the sky is an unbelievable blue," he said.
"The morning of the opening Mass, it was raining, and some of the wags said it was an omen," Msgr. Fiedler recalled.
"We had to be there two hours early to get a place in St. Peter's. From where I was sitting on the side, I heard applause beginning to build from the back as the pope entered," he said.
"All of the sudden, an enormous ray of sunshine burst through the clouds and came smack down on the altar," Msgr. Fielder said. "I said, 'There's the real omen.'"
It was a few weeks earlier that the young priest received his biggest thrill.
"A month before the council opened, Pope John cancelled all his audiences until the council convened. He wanted to prepare himself," Msgr. Fielder said.
"One day, I got a call in my room. It was Archbishop Cody. He said, 'I am going to have an audience with John. Do you want to come?'"
Msgr. Fiedler didn't hesitate. As he and Archbishop Cody arrived at the papal palace, they were led by a lone priest through the vacant halls into a room where Pope John XIII was waiting only for them.
"Archbishop Cody got down on his knees and kissed the pope's ring," he recalled. "I was getting down on my knees and he (Pope John) stopped me."
The pontiff and the young priest spoke in Italian, Msgr. Fiedler recalled.
"'Don't get on your knees,' he told me. I asked, 'Why?'
"He said, 'Are you his secretary?' I said that I was.
"'Oh, be careful, be careful, be careful,' he said to me. Again, I asked, 'Why?'
"'Because I was once a bishop's secretary, and look what has happened to me.'"