Rorate Caeli

The Roman Synod of 1960

2010 is the fiftieth year since the Roman Synod of 1960, called by Pope John XXIII in anticipation of Vatican II. Romano Amerio speaks of this Synod as having fallen into the Erebus of oblivion, tanquam non fuerit, "as if it had never been", and indeed its 50th anniversary this year was scarcely marked or commemorated anywhere. In belated amends for this forgetfulness I would like to present the following passage (sans the footnotes) from Amerio's Iota Unum regarding this forgotten Synod, this foreshadowing of the Vatican II that had been hoped for.

...three principal facts make the paradoxical outcome of the council (Vatican II -- CAP) apparent: the falseness of the forecasts made by the Pope and others who prepared it; the fruitlessness of the Roman synod called by John XXIII as an anticipation of it; and the almost immediate nullification of the decree Veterum Sapientia, which was meant to foreshadow the cultural cast of the post-conciliar Church.

Pope John intended the council to be a great act of renewal and functional adaptation for the Church and thought he had adequately prepared for it to be such, but nonetheless chrerished the prospect that it would all be over within a few months ... In fact, the council opened on 11 October 1962 and closed on 8 December 1965, thus lasting intermittently for three years. All expectations were overthrown because of the aborting of the council which had been prepared, and the successive elaboration of another quite different council which generated itself.

The Roman synod was planned and summoned by John XXIII as a solemn forerunner of the larger gathering, which it was meant to prefigure and anticipate. The Pope himself said precisely that, to the clergy and faithful of Rome in an allocution of 29 June 1960. Because of that intention, the synod's importance was universally recognized as extending beyond the diocese of Rome to the whole Catholic world. Its importance was compared to that which the provincial synods held by St. Charles Borromeo had had with respect to the Council of Trent. New life was given to the old saying that the whole Catholic world should wish to model itself on the Church of Rome. The fact that the Pope immediately ordered the texts of the Roman synod to be translated into Italian and all the principal languags, also makes it clear that in his mind it was intended to play an important exemplary role.

The texts of the Roman synod promulgated on 25, 26 and 27 January 1960 constitute a complete reversion of the Church to its proper nature; we mean not merely to its supernatural essence (that can never be lost) but to its historical nature, a returning of the institution to its principles, as Machiavelli put it.

The synod in fact proposed a vigorous restoration at every level of ecclesial life. The discipline of the clergy was modeled on the traditional pattern formulated at the Council of Trent, and based on two principles which had always been accepted and practiced. The first is that of the peculiar character of the person consecrated to God, supernaturally enabled to do Christ's work, and thus clearly separated from the laity (sacred means separate). The second, which follows from the first, is that of an ascetical education and a sacrificial life, which is the differentiating mark of the clergy as a body, though individuals can take up an ascetical life in the lay state. The synod therefore prescribed for the clergy a whole style of behavior quite distinct from that of laymen. That style demands ecclesiastical dress, sobriety in diet, the avoiding of public entertainments and a flight from profane things. The distinct character of the clergy's cultural formation was also reaffirmed, and the outlines were given of the system which the Pope solemnly sanctioned the year after in Veterum Sapientia. The Pope also ordered that the Catechism of the Council of Trent should be republished, but the order was ignored. It was not until 1981 that, by private initiative, a translation was published in Italy.

The liturgical legislation of the synod is no less significant: the use of Latin is solemnly confirmed, all attempts at creativity on the part of the celebrant, which would reduce the liturgical action of the Church to the level of a simple exercise of private piety, are condemned. (A very good point that needs to be stressed in our time! CAP) The need to baptize infants as soon as possible is emphasized, a tabernacle in the traditional form and position is prescribed, Gregorian Chant is ordered, newly composed popular songs are submitted to the approval of the bishop, all appearance of worldliness is forbidden in churches by a general prohibition of such things as the giving of concerts and performances, the selling of pictures or printed matter, the giving of free rein to photographers and the lighting of candles by all and sundry (one ought to get the priest to do it). The ancient sacred rigor is re-established regarding sacred spaces, forbidding women entry to the altar area. Lastly, altars facing the congregation (which had been slowly but steadily growing in popularity since the 1950's, see  this article -- CAP) are to be allowed only by way of an xception, which it is up to the diocesan bishop to make.

Anybody can see that this massive reaffirmation of traditional discipline, which the synod wanted, was contradicted and negated in almost every detail by the effects of the council. And so the Roman synod, which was to have been an exemplary foreshadowing of the council, fell within a few years into the Erebus of oblivion, and is indeed tanquam non fuerit. As an instance of this nullification I may say that having searched for the texts of the Roman synod in diocesan curias and archives, I could not find them there and had to get them from secular public libraries.

-- Romano Amerio. Iota Unum. A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the 20th Century (Sarto House, Kansas City 1996), pp. 54-56.  

The canonist Edward Peters, in his brief online commentary to Sacrae disciplinae leges, also notes that the Roman Synod "had virtually no impact on either the Council or the Code (of Canon Law)."