The first session of the Second Vatican Council in the fall of 1962 had opened a deep fissure between the Vatican's Italian-dominated Curia and the bishops and council fathers who had come from around the world.
History often has winners and losers and the Curia was clearly on the losing side of the first part of Vatican II. Moreover, some fathers were now intent on putting curial reform on the agenda of the council's second session.
To further the anxiety and feeling of humiliation on the part of the leading curialists, the new pope was a man who had been squeezed out of Rome to his own dismay by some leading curialists nine years previously. Would Pope Paul VI now try to even some old scores?
On Sept. 21, 1963, eight days before the council was to return to session, the new pope spoke to the Curia. Those gathered for the occasion were not only the high-ranking bishops and monsignors, but everyone who worked in the Vatican bureaucracy – 800 people in all.
Pope Paul gave a speech which both consoled and challenged the Curia. He made people happy by giving everyone a pay raise due to the rapid rise in Roman rents over the summer. He recalled the 30 years he had spent in the Curia where he had met "wonderful superiors and teachers, excellent colleagues, co-workers and unforgettable friends."
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One of Pope Paul VI's first tasks as pope was to convince the Curia to support the council.
When it came to matters of substance, the pope made it abundantly clear, in his diplomatic Montini way, that he wanted the Curia to accept the council and its decisions. He even paid tribute to the Curia for grasping the extraordinary importance of Vatican II and noted the Curia's apprehension of the gravity of the problems the council would raise.
The Curia, he insisted, owed its complete allegiance to the pope, something no one needed to mention that it had not always given to Pope John XXIII. The Curia has no reason to exist other than to serve the pope. It could not become a faction or a power bloc within the Church. Moreover, it must be ready to accept fraternal correction.
The pope went on to say that in the future, diocesan bishops would have a role in overseeing the work of Vatican congregations. The congregations could not live an isolated existence.
Finally, he said, shortcutting any move from the floor of the council, the Curia would have to be reformed. Its structure and its way of operating would have to change. But if that seemed threatening to the Curia, it could be assured that the Curia itself, not the Vatican Council, would be the ones to plan, approve and implement the reform.
The announcement of curial reform was greeted with some trepidation in the Vatican and with enthusiasm among at least a few of the council fathers who were pressing for changes.
The pope, however, had guaranteed that the changes would not be drastic. The question had been taken away from the council and handed to the Curia to reform itself. As long as the Curia cooperated with the decisions and thrust of the council and as long as it worked cooperatively with the diocesan bishops who would be appointed to the congregations, the changes would not cause too much pain.
By no means was Paul VI a radical. We will see that in spades during the last three sessions of Vatican II. But he did painlessly engineer significant changes in how the Church's central bodies operate. The Vatican became less of a closed shop than it was before his time.
Paul VI appointed diocesan bishops to the various Vatican congregations. He also internationalized the Curia itself. Where previously the main players had virtually all been Italian, now a majority come from outside Italy, including several from developing nations.
Pope Paul also instituted the world Synod of Bishops, a consultative body that meets every two or three years to discuss major topics put forward by the pope. The synod is a far cry from what some bishops had envisaged when the Constitution on the Church spoke about collegiality. But it is a major advance in global consultation that was not even dreamt of prior to Vatican II.
Before the council, the Vatican and the rest of the Church were like two solitudes. But in his own way – sometimes by diplomacy and sometimes by making structural changes - Paul VI built bridges that have led to a different way of administering the Church. His gradual approach continues to bear fruit today.