Fifty years ago, when the Second Vatican Council was getting under way in Rome, the Rome office of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (predecessor of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference, now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) set up briefings for American reporters covering the conference.
Among the priest-experts on the daily panel to brief the journalists was none other than a future cardinal-archbishop of Baltimore, Father William H. Keeler, who at the time was working in the tribunal in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. Father Keeler, in his early 30s during the period of the council (1962-1965) was already an expert in theology and canon law. He had studied in Rome, receiving a doctorate in canon law in 1961. As secretary to Harrisburg Bishop George L. Leech, Father Keeler was appointed by Pope John XXIII as a “peritus,” or expert special adviser, during the council.
He also served on the staff of the Council Digest, a daily communication service sponsored by the United States bishops.
According to an “NC Daybook” report from Burke Walsh, assistant director of National Catholic News Service (predecessor to today’s Catholic News Service), the briefing panel included:
Fathers Francis J. Connell, C.Ss.R., of The Catholic University of America, whose field is theology; Francis J. McCool, S.J., of New York, professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Rome, sacred Scripture; John B. Sheerin, C.S.P., of New York, editor of the Catholic World, ecumenical activity; Edward L. Heston, C.S.C., procurator general of the Holy Cross Fathers, canon law; William H. Keeler of the Harrisburg diocesan tribunal, theology and canon law; Frederick R. McManus of Boston and CUA, liturgy; Eugene H. Maly of Mount St. Mary Seminary of West Norwood, Ohio, sacred Scripture; Robert F. Trisco of Chicago and Catholic University, church history; and John P. McCormick, S.S., rector of the Sulpician seminary in Washington, dogmatic theology and liturgy.
The nine priests providing background to the reporters each day the council was in session answered questions and helped explain points about church terminology and practices, especially after the daily press bulletins were issued.
Canon law was not an immediate concern at the beginning of the council, then-Father Keeler may not have had as many questions to answer at the early briefings. According to the “NC Daybook” report from Rome about the institution of the daily briefings, “Since the first topic being considered by the council is the liturgy, newsmen centered on this subject at the meeting. Questions were directed chiefly at Fathers McManus, Connell, Heston and Sheerin.”
Among those priests, one other became a bishop, as Cardinal Keeler did. Father Heston eventually became an archbishop and president of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications.
Nowadays, Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B, of Salt and Light Television in Canada, is coordinating news briefings for the English-speaking media covering the World Synod of Bishops meeting now in Rome to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II and to discuss the New Evangelism. Often, those providing the briefing are cardinals and bishops who are attending the synod. Additionally, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., is writing a blog about the daily activities of the synod, providing immediate background information.
It’s good to know that while information from the synod in Rome comes much more immediately now, even 50 years ago, there were ways to find out what was happening behind the headlines.