Bishop William McNaughton
VATICAN CITY – It was Oct. 11, 1962, and the bishop of Inchon, Korea, was walking in a procession of more than 2,200 other bishops into St. Peter's Basilica on the opening day of the Second Vatican Council.
"Every light was on in the basilica because of television," said the bishop, ordained for the Maryknoll order. "Literally, my mouth dropped as I walked in and looked up. Because I was used to little tiny chapels, small churches in Korea. This was unbelievable.
"I thought I was at the gate of heaven," said Bishop William McNaughton, speaking about his first visit to Rome.
Fifty years later to the day, the U.S.-born bishop was back, one of 15 council fathers – out of the 70 still alive – who made it to an outdoor Mass in St. Peter's Square marking the golden anniversary of that momentous event.
McNaughton, 85, attended all four sessions of Vatican II from 1962 to 1965.
He said the council's "greatest highlight" was the approval of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, "a magnificent document" that dedicates an entire chapter to the subject of the "people of God."
That term has sometimes been interpreted as a reference to the laity, the bishop said, but a reading of the constitution should make it clear that it refers to everyone in the Church, including the pope and the bishops.
McNaughton speaks with regret of other instances of ignorance or misunderstanding of the council documents.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy authorized moving the tabernacle that houses the Eucharist to a separate devotional chapel, he said, but many pastors simply shunted it off to the side of the main sanctuary.
"I thought that was a big mistake," the bishop said. "People today do not have a full understanding of what the tabernacle means, and it's that Christ is present in the Eucharist in the tabernacle."
The Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life, directed religious women to modify their habits according to the "circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved."
"It didn't say that the habits would be removed, and I think that was a big mistake," the bishop said.
To correct and prevent such misunderstandings, the bishop enthusiastically endorses Pope Benedict's call for Catholics to reread the council documents as part of their observance of the Year of Faith.
He also rejects arguments that the council was to blame for the decline in Catholic observance and the rise of secularism over the past half century.
However unpromising the political landscape may appear for that project, McNaughton is ultimately hopeful.
"It's the grace of God that's going to do it, we're just instruments," he said. "It's through prayer and sacrifices, hidden penances, that we will help to bring many back to the faith."
(A CNS interview with Bishop McNaughton can be seen online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=90uKf6tr9AA.)