"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Deliciously Dishy Diaries of Yves Congar

As I have noted before, I am an inveterate and unapologetic reader of diaries--the more indiscreet, the more "incorrect" in this stifling age of ideological conformity and shrieking demands for "apologies" at bogus offenses, the better. Evelyn Waugh's are immensely satisfying in this regard, as are Alan Clark's. For the theologian or liturgist, Alexander Schmemann's journals are fascinating and revealing in equal measure, though, as Michael Plekon has so helpfully noted, what we currently have in English is a heavily edited and truncated rescension of a much fuller French original.

Some may find all this "salacious" or whatever, but such objections are hard to regard as anything other than pious guff. We should be thankful for these records reveal to us the humanity of people whom some may be inclined to romanticize, lionize, or mythologize--and that is an effort greatly to be resisted. For those who may be, or more likely claim earnestly and piously to be, "scandalized" by the full humanity of a Waugh, Clark, Schmemann, or Congar, we must respond that God did not come to save plastic people or the plaster saints so often on offer in official hagiographies: He came to save us in our full humanity, "warts" and all. We must continually reject, as Newman aptly put it, the portrayal of Christian and holy living as merely a "clothes-rack of virtues." God saves real human beings as they really are: not as we wish or imagine them to be.

It is, then, an immensely happy development to have in English at long last the diaries of Yves Congar, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century who did so much to advance the cause of Orthodox-Catholic unity. One leisurely day when I was wasting time in the library not working on my dissertation, I read parts of these journals in the French original to great enjoyment. And now here, thankfully, splendidly, they are available in English: Yves Congar, My Journal of the Council, trans. Mary John Ronayne and Mary Cecily Boulding, ed. Denis Minns (Liturgical Press, 2012), xlvi+979pp.

If you have any interest in, inter alia: Congar's life, the developments in the Catholic Church during the twentieth century, the Second Vatican Council, Protestant-Catholic relations, Orthodox-Catholic relations, the ongoing deliberations between the Society of St. Pius X (whose founder, Marcel Lefebvre recurs in this narrative, and is a far more complex personality than the portrait of him as some lone little Dutch boy holding his finger in the dike against some imagined tide of Vatican II-sponsored "modernism" or whatever) and Rome today, the early thought and career of Joseph Ratzinger, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, and much else besides, then you simply must buy this book. It is an absolute goldmine of insights into all the foregoing persons, events, and institutions, and into Congar himself, of course--and much, much else besides. It ranges from soaring insights--especially into ecclesiology, which was Congar's speciality--to such mundane comments after an overlong meeting of conciliar officials in Rome in September 1964 as "Afterwards, I went out for a pee."  

He records the most hilariously but soberly apt description of Pope Paul VI I have ever read: his tortured personality was a perfect combination of "Paul outside the walls, and Peter in chains." 

He records the searing, startling chauvinism of many Roman curialists, and there are many instances of cringe-making incidents of Catholics approaching their Orthodox brethren with good intentions but incredibly clumsy, if not outright offensive, ideas and gestures. He does not hesitate to denounce the interference of nuncios in the life of local churches, calling their actions "cretinous" and "STUPID" [sic]. He savages those whom he regards as odious: e.g., Giuseppe Cardinal Pizzardo, prefect of the dicastery for seminaries and Catholic universities, calling him "an imbecile, a sub-human...this wretched freak, this sub-mediocrity with no culture, no horizon, no humanity." Other people who really arouse his ire include fanatical Mariologists who want to argue that the Theotokos was virtually on a par with the Trinity: these ideas he denounces, inter alia, as "crack-brained" and the product of people like the Franciscan theologian Carlo Balić, of whom Congar says "What a clown!!!" 

He is even more incredulous and incendiary in recording the ludicrous ideas of some people who exalt the pope to a level not merely on a par with, but in fact a part of, the Trinity. Some of these ideas are thinly disguised idolatry (papolatry indeed!) and so absurd I am astonished anyone could hold them, let alone advance them with a straight face.  Such a lot of nonsense.  

He gives us especially interesting reflections on how the work of the council is often undermined by its liturgies: all the talk about communion, ecumenism, and collegiality is often undone, or at least severely undermined, by liturgies in which the pope is carried in like some potentate on a litter and the entire focus is not on Christ, or the gospels, but the pope with "his sedia and his flabella." Again and again Congar makes clear his contempt for what he calls sixteenth-century court ritual totally at odds with the spirit of the gospel and true nature of the Church.

For all his openness to the East, and for all the work he so helpfully did to lay the groundwork for an East-West rapprochement, Congar records a consistent complaint about the various Eastern liturgies--Melkite, Ukrainian, Ethiopian--celebrated during the council, complaining that (horrors!) they all went over an hour, "wearing everybody out" (Ukrainian), often involved "strange bawling" and "terribly painful" chant that "put me in mind of the ravings of drunkards" (Ethiopian), or otherwise made Congar, who was very sick and incredibly overworked during the council, rather impatient to get on with whatever of the myriad tasks were at hand. Still, at points (e.g., 16 October 1964, after a Melkite liturgy) he does say that the 75 minutes it took were an "object lesson. The East speaks through liturgical action."  

Anyway, I'll have more to post as I make my way through this delightful but massive tome. Buy it, read it, and be astonished by the details, awed by this man's bluntness (so much so that publication was embargoed until the year 2000), convulsed with laughter at some of his acerbic but accurate comments, bored by some of the tedious details of endless meetings, but delighted for hours on end with this delicious vin extraordinaire


  1. Gee, Adam, as if I didn't have enough books to buy already! Thanks for the heads up.

    Regarding Fr Schmemann's journals, except for a few entries, I believe their original language is Russian. The published Russian text of the journals is available online here:


    Even a cursory comparison of the published English text with the Russian will reveal not only a large number of omitted entries, but also names, locations, sentences, and even entire paragraphs silently excised from existing entries. It's really a shame, and someone should translate the censored portions into English and make them available online.

    Another project for an enterprising young scholar: the several volumes of the journals of Metropolitan Leonty Turkevich (written in standard pre-revolutionary Russian shorthand) are archived in the Library of Congress, safe from the reach of ecclesiastical hands that might have been interested in censoring them. Someone needs to get to work on them!

  2. I can't wait to read Congar!

  3. Just found your blog, found this fascinating entry on Congar, whom I revere as a profoundly honest historian in what little I have read of him, esp when he disabuses his readers of the fanciful narrative of Roman primacy as traditionally taught to Catholics.

    Thinking that I'd really made a discovery in your excellent blog, imagine my surprise to see that "the Orthodox Ferris Bueller" (as I long ago affectionately dubbed him-- known as he is throughout the right-believing Oikoumene)-- Mr. Esteban Julio Vazquez, has, like his Spanish forbears, ventured out and discovered it already.

    Have you heard anything from that great theologian Fr. Gabriel Bunge lately? Maybe you could join him now that he has come to his senses and bridged the East-West gap himself.

  4. I too found the paradoxes of Congar's personality fascinating. You point out the impatience with Eastern liturgy of this champion of ecumenism. I was also intrigued by the elitism of this champion of the common folk; he is always referring to opposing clergy as thick peasants with no culture whatsoever. Others have noted Congar's humility, but I enjoyed seeing it offset by his frequent claims for credit in other people's work and his reminding us of the trials of being so much in demand as the only lecturer anybody wanted to hear. The insights into the council are terrific, but every time I was tempted (like so many bishops, according to Congar) to skip the deliberations and head for the bar, he pulled me back in with a bit of choice caricature or a morsel of his complicated personality.

  5. Yves Congar reviewed my PhD thesis on his theology of the laity and wrote its preface. I interviewed him in Paris at Couvent St-Jacques in !975. But it is by reading his diaries in French that I think I encountered the depth of his inner soul, a person of authenticity, directness, with a cutting sense of humor, a no-nonsense person. ("Le Christ n'est pas époux de l'Église parce qu'il aurait un pénis" (Inteview 1975). Congar suffered no idiots.
    Dr. Richard J. Beauchesne, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, Boston
    Website: www.richardjbeauchesne.com


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