You are probably expecting me to say that the NPC voted through a set of propositions along the lines mentioned in part one above which the Bishops then ratified: in fact the story gets even more complicated. The activist laity voted through a set of propositions too radical even for the Bishops, but the Bishops used what the laity asked for to create a set of structures which kept the Vatican from interfering in the Church in England and Wales for the rest of the Pontificate of John Paul II and which reinforced and solidified the hold of the activists on the whole of Catholic life.
Delegates were chosen by a complicated process, based on each diocese sending one delegate per 1000 of its normal Sunday Mass attendance, along with representatives of Catholic national organisations, HM Forces, universities, seminaries, religious orders, the commissions (?), the Prison Service, ethnic groups, and “a limited number of Catholics chosen because of their expertise, but whose national secular duties would normally exclude them from being chosen as members of diocesan delegations”. The main criterion, however, was people who were able to spend a period of Friday to Tuesday at the NPC: not the sort of thing your average Catholic would want to do, or would be able to do. The organisers prided themselves on choosing a bank holiday weekend, so those attending would only have to ask for two days off work: but how many people at that time had that degree of flexibility? And how many housewives (there were rather more of them then than now) would be able to leave husband and children for such an extended period? The activists, who would dominate anyway, would be predominantly middle class, articulate, and with agendas that reflected where they were in the world.
The Bishops were few in number, but the Council was not binding on them. They were being manoeuvred by Hume and Worlock (and their agents) into a position where the cost to them of rejecting the most extreme propositions the Congress would propose would be the acceptance of limitations to their autonomy by the creation of stronger structures within the Episcopal Conference and a greater role for lay activists within these structures.
The losers- the squeezed middle - were the priests. Both the Bishops and the lay members of the Congress treated them as though they were lay people with a special role something less than a Bishop's. The role of the priest was to be eclipsed by the role of the activist lay person, without the Bishops surrendering any of their authority and independence downward. The National Council of Priests, which would anyway be diminished by the shrinkage in the number of priests and the consequent need for more and more of them to have to be full time PPs rather than have the luxury of chaplaincies, special ministries and extended sabbaticals, gradually faded from the scene.
And so the Congress. Seven themes were chosen, and within each of those themes a series of topics.
The seven major themes for the agenda were: The People of God - Co-responsibility and Relationships; The People of God - Ministry, Vocation, Apostolate; Family and Society; Evangelisation; Christian Education and Formation; Christian Witness; Justice
Each theme was discussed in a separate sector of the Congress and in each sector there were approximately 300 delegates. But each item was itself divided into four or five topics or aspects: so for each topic group there were approximately 60 delegates. These 60 delegates were themselves to be divided into discussion groups of 12-15 delegates for preliminary work on each topic. The headings of the full agenda, with the topic titles, were as follows:
THEME A: PEOPLE OF GOD (i) Co -responsibility and Relationships
The Worshipping Community
The local Church: diocese, deanery, parish, basic communities, prayer groups
Co-responsibility and Consultation
Promotion of Christian Unity
Christian Stewardship and Church Finances
THEME B: PEOPLE OF GOD (ii) Ministry, Vocation, Apostolate
The Ordained Ministries: episcopate, priesthood, diaconate
The Community and Other Ministries
The Religious Life
The Apostolate of the Laity
The Role of Women
THEME C: FAMILY AND SOCIETY
Christian Marriage and the Family
Special Groups: disabled, immigrants, seafarers, non-Christians
THEME D: EVANGELISATION
At Home: the work of conversion
Missionary Activity Overseas
Funding and Sharing in Mission
THEME E: CHRISTIAN EDUCATION AND FORMATION
Schools (including school liturgy)
Tertiary Education and Academic Life
Adult Education and Sacramental Living
THEME F: CHRISTIAN WITNESS
World of Work
Urban and Rural Life
Public and Civic Life
THEME G: JUSTICE
The obvious problem was that the division of delegates into such small groups would lead to fragmentation, so members of the Congress committee were not boarded out with families, as the delegates were, but were housed separately in Christ College, specifically so that they could consult before and after each day’s work. Delegates were kept informed by means of a Congress newspaper. A complex procedural system of voting, reporting back, drafting, considering drafts and reporting to Congress ensured that the final papers presented accurately reflected the way in which the activists present had been able to gather support for their vision of a new sort of Catholic Church in England and Wales, and in which the committee chose to present it.
This story is long enough already: I am not going to go through the reports on each of the subjects under discussion: they are depressingly predictable. Much more interesting is the manner in which the Hierarchy used the results of the Congress, and how this played against a changing Church in which John Paul II was getting control in the Vatican, and the “spirit of Vatican II” was beginning to be reined in.
Key to understanding the sleight of hand that was to follow the NPC is the Cardinal’s Homily at the final Mass, which he preached at the Metropolitan Cathedral on 6 May 1980. I won’t reproduce the whole thing, just some key sections:
“So the pilgrim Church of England and Wales has paused for a moment on its journey through history, and assembled here. Our purpose has been to see whether or not we are on the right way, to discover, that is, whether we are truly disciples and followers of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Saviour. We felt, too, the need to examine many aspects of our Christian lives to ensure that we are in fact living in accordance with the truth that comes from the Gospel.
Indeed this Congress has been the prototype of what should take place in each of our parishes - it is the building of true community witnessing to the risen Christ always in our midst. Our problem is to know how we can communicate to our families and parishes the spirit and atmosphere of these days, and how to awaken in the Catholic community a concern for the issues which have formed our Congress agenda. Time for reflection and prayer are needed, but action cannot be delayed.
The Church is community; it is the people of God, the Body of Christ, the living Temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Within that community each one of us has a role to play and a contribution to make. Christ, our Lord, requires the laity to play an active and full part in the life of the Church under the leadership of their bishops, and this in virtue of the baptism they have received. You, the laity, must share your insights with us, your bishops and priests, and you must collaborate in the apostolate. And what riches you have brought to this Congress, and how much we, your pastors, need to listen to ‘the Spirit of truth, who directs the hearts of the faithful’, for this, the ‘sensus fidelium’, is necessary as we explore together the mystery of God and of his unfolding and developing plan for us, his sons and daughters.
We remind ourselves that we must all acknowledge the divine authority given by the Lord himself to him who is the successor of Peter. It was with joy that we received the messages from the Holy Father, and to know that he had welcomed and blessed our Congress. In loyalty and obedience we shall lay before him our hopes and anxieties.”
In his homily, Hume has turned the NPC from being the work of a few self-selecting people representative, not of the Church in England and Wales, but of a group of core activists, into the sensus fidelium: they have become the voice of the whole Church. Not only that, but, under the leadership of the bishops, the role of the laity is to do more. The final paragraph quoted here is important: we shall see why presently.
It is interesting to note that for a period Archbishop Heim was ill, and while he had been very supportive of the NPC, his deputy at the Apostolic Delegation in Wimbledon, Monsignor Mario Oliveri, was deeply suspicious. While Heim was away ill, he allowed himself to become a channel through which Catholics outside of the NPC fold could denounce the Congress to the Vatican. One paper he for¬warded was headed “REASONS WHY THE NATIONAL PASTORAI. CONGRESS OUGHT TO BE STOPPED”, and another complained that the Congress delegates “appeared to be drawn, on the whole, from either those holding progressive views or from amongst those who know little or nothing about the nature of the Church”.
Heim’s illness, though, was shortlived, and on his return to Wimbledon a process to reverse the damge began. Various Bishops organized a letter writing campaign in support of the Congress, asking the Nunciature to ensure that the letters were forwarded to the Holy See. By July 1980, Heim was apologizing to Worlock: “I am sorry about all this trouble which has arisen during my absence. I believe that Rome is now properly informed and that any damage has been undone.”
Worlock had a dual role after the Congress: he was responsible for writing its official report, and was also responsible for arranging the drafting of the Bishops’ response to it. (I write sentences, sometimes, and have to stop myself, reread what I have written, and confirm to myself that what I have written was really what happened.) It is probably no surprise that both the official report, and the draft response, which sailed through the Bishops’ Conference, with barely an amendment, and was published as The Easter People, accorded so well with Worlock’s vision.