"Letter from Vatican City" is the ninth chapter of Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies.
The evolution of Saint Fidgeta – that is, from Bellairs’s first stories told in Chicago to the article in the Critic – ran concurrently with an once-in-a-lifetime event occurring overseas - mainly the Second Vatican Council.
To appreciate this event that became known as Vatican II, one must take a step back to October 1958. As 21-year-old Bellairs began his third year at Notre Dame, news reached South Bend, as it did to the rest of the world, that Pope Pius XII had died in Italy. Per tradition, a Papal Conclave was assembled and later that month elected an obscure 78-year old cardinal who would go on to became John XXIII. Less than three months into his pontificate, "he surprised the world and maybe even himself" by calling for a Second Vatican Council.
The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican opened in 1962 and came to a close under Pope Paul VI in 1965. When asked why such a council was needed, Pope John XXIII said he wanted “to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.”
As Vatican II opened, there appeared in The New Yorker a "Letter from Vatican City," the first of thirteen sensational and revealing articles, or letters, on the inner-workings of the Council. Because the Council's deliberations were supposed to be secret, these behind-the-scenes letters – written by the mysterious Xavier Rynne – aroused interest in the proceedings for Americans:
"They put a very human face on a process supposedly guided by the Holy Ghost and a complete mystery to both the laity and much of the Church hierarchy. Rynne's letters made him a hero to at least the 'liberal' wing of the Catholic Church, but it should be remembered that 'liberal' and 'conservative' are terms of only approximate value when applied to the workings of the Church. I and millions of other Catholics, and also many non-Catholics I presume, avidly read these articles. One item that I remember was that the arriving Cardinals were bemused to discover that each of them was to be quartered in his own private apartment containing a separate throne room with a real throne (not of the flushable variety) due to their rank as Princes of the Church."Rynne also covered the papal election that resulted in the accession of Pope Paul VI as well. "Not that he was privy to the actual balloting itself but he had access to all the administrative assistants, secretaries, and general spear carriers who were around at the time, and he was hooked into all the gossip and conjecture that such an event inevitably generated." Myers notes that, just as with the Council, his account of the election was fascinating and put a human face on the election.
"It also, evidently quite accurately, described the real divisions and differences that existed in the College of Cardinals. For some reason his revelations absolutely infuriated Paul VI, who was otherwise rather mild-mannered. He threatened excommunication to anyone who tried to do the same thing for future elections citing the 'inalienable right of humans or organizations to harbor secrets.' This of course was absurd on any number of points, not the least of which was, what is so wrong about the natural curiosity of the faithful over the selection process of a leader who will have such a profound effect on their lives? Anyway, it reinforced the opinion that Father Rynne had gotten his facts right."As such, the letters prompted the oft-asked question, “Who the hell is Xavier Rynne?” It was the pseudonym of Francis X. Murphy (1915-2002), an American priest/professor in Rome during the Second Vatican Council; the name was a combination of Murphy's middle name (Xavier) and his mother's maiden name (Rynne).
Because Vatican II was so revolutionary and far-reaching, Bellairs decided to poke some fun at both the event and Rynne’s gossipy news. Bellairs introduces the Third Vatican Council, written in the form of a letter by author Nepomuk Prynne. Prynne describes the fourth session in a letter dated September 14, 1985. Incidentally, the fourth and final session of Vatican II began September 14, 1965, twenty years prior to Bellairs' fictional Vatican III.
Not only did it mock the divulging of too much personal details about some of the wilder activities, Vatican III assumes the outcome of its predecessor was so radical that everyone went back to the drawing board to try again a mere two decades later. Just keep in mind there was a span of over 90 years between the First and Second Vatican Councils.
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