restricted access The U.S. Bishops' Press Panel at the Second Vatican Council
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The U.S. Bishops' Press Panel at the Second Vatican Council

The American bishops who went to Rome in answer to Pope John XXIII's summons came to realize the importance of public relations soon after the Second Vatican Council opened on October 11, 1962. A week later, at their first meeting, responding to a request of several journalists, they agreed that an information service was needed to assist representatives of the secular press. They appointed a committee with Bishop Albert R. Zuroweste of Belleville (Illinois) as chairman and five other bishops as members that would organize a panel of experts to explain matters treated in the Council and answer reporters' questions. Zuroweste was chosen because he chaired the Press Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (N.C.W.C.). Accordingly, on October 19 a meeting was held in the reception room of the Rome Office of the N.C.W.C., located on the Via della Conciliazione (not far from St. Peter's Basilica). Bishop Zuroweste presided, and present were Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan of Atlanta and Bishops Thomas K. Gorman of Dallas-Fort Worth, John J. Wright of Pittsburgh, James H. Griffiths, auxiliary of New York, and Philip M. Hannan, auxiliary of Washington. Eight priests accepted invitations to serve on the panel, namely, Francis J. Connell, C.Ss.R., of the Catholic University of America for moral theology; Francis J. McCool, S.J., of the Pontifical Biblical Institute for Sacred Scripture; Eugene H. Maly of Mount St. Mary of the West Seminary of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati also for Sacred Scripture; John B. Sheerin, C.S.P., Catholic World editor, for ecumenical affairs; Edward L. Heston, C.S.C., procurator general of his congregation, resident in Rome, for canon law; Frederick R. McManus of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Catholic University of America for liturgy and canon law; William H. Keeler of the diocesan tribunal of Harrisburg also for canon law; and the author of this article, of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Catholic University of America for church history. Since all but Fathers McCool and Sheerin were periti of the Council,1 we had access to the documents provided to the conciliar fathers and attended the general congregations [End Page 1] (working sessions held in St. Peter's normally every morning from Monday to Friday). Bishop Zuroweste explained that our duty would be to furnish background material for and elucidations of the press releases issued by the Press Office of the General Secretariat of the Council. The reporters were invited to come and to learn what would help them to write more competent reports. The meetings, to be held on days on which general congregations convened, took place at the U.S.O. (United Service Organization) quarters on the Via della Conciliazione, for which the N.C.C.S. (National Catholic Community Service) paid the rent.

The Secretary of the Press Office of the Council mentioned above, Monsignor Fausto Vallainc, established seven language sections. The English-language section was entrusted to Monsignor James Tucek (of the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth), director of the N.C.W.C. news bureau in Rome. He was responsible for briefing reporters about what had happened each morning in the general congregation; he was free in deciding what to present, but the English-language bulletin had to be a translation of the official Italian one.2 The rules of secrecy, promulgated by John XXIII, were restrictive; the fathers and periti could disclose the topics discussed, opinions expressed, and which fathers spoke, but to reveal who said what was forbidden. Reporters naturally found this practice unsatisfactory and tried to use the press panel as a source of further information.

The first meeting of the press panel was held on October 20. At the beginning about twenty reporters were present, and later ten more arrived. William H. Fanning of the Catholic News of New York presided, introducing the panelists and accepting questions.3 Since the schema of a liturgy decree was the first item on the Council's agenda, Frederick McManus was asked to comment on the Liturgical Commission's members; he gave a few details about...