From .......... National Catholic Reporter

December 8, 1995

page 13

It reads:

With this decree passed, the council then sought the removal of all three popes. John XXIII - yes, John XXIII - who had called the council was deposed the next month, May 29, 1415. Gregory XII from Rome resigned on July 4, 1415. Benedict XIII of Avignon was removed on July 26, 1417.

The council established the norm that the church is more than the pope and, in an emergency, can remove any pope. There was one more item of business to conclude before electing a new pope. This was the decree Frequens. It was approved on Oct. 9, 1417, after the last pope was removed. It called for an ecumenical council to be held every 10 years whether the pope wished it or not. This decree passed about one century before the Reformation began [Oct. 31, 1517]. Had it been followed, there might not have been a division between Catholics and Protestants.

Frequens failed to work for two reasons:

1. The popes resisted councils mightily, especially those they could not control; this makes all the more astonishing the decision of John XXIII to call Vatican II unsolicited and on his own initiative; the resistance of the 15th century popes to 'Frequens' was staunch; the church at large did not have the heart or the energy for another major confrontation with the pope after all it had been through.

2. There were no models in the secular world of the 15th century for democracy, participation and constitutionalism; people were not skilled as we might be now in managing a collegial church with a council every 10 years; monarchy was the norm and it prevailed also in church affairs.

On Nov. 11, 1417, Oddo Colonna was elected to the papacy on the basis of the validity of the Council of Constance and its decrees. He took the name Martin V. The schism was over and the unity of the structured church was preserved, not by the pope but by a council.

Constance was careful to affirm the papacy as a vital and valuable institution. It did not so much declare the superiority of council over pope or pope over council. It did, however, insist that in emergency situations a council may rescue the church from the papacy. Council and pope were not to exclude or diminish each other but to function in a relationship that is reciprocally conditioned.

The Council of Trent was a reaction against Constance and it carried the day with its papal monarchy because of the fear generated by the Reformation. Any institution in crisis gravitates to a strong leader. If Constance as a collegiality council exists in tension with Trent as a monarchical council, then Vatican I as a monarchical council may be said to exist in tension with Vatican II as a collegiality council.

Constance was summoned by John XXIII, the pope from Pisa, as a council of reform and reunion. Vatican II was convened by John XXIII, the pope from Venice, as a council of reform and reunion. Vatican II called the church back to the themes of the Council of Constance. It is noteworthy that both councils of reform, reunion and collegiality were called by popes with the same name, although one was later deemed an antipope.

Vatican II was richer than Constance or Trent or Vatican I because it assimilated not only collegiality but the Reformation, not only the ancient image of the church as the people of God but the modern insight of religious freedom, not only the venerable tradition of liturgy in the language of the people and the scripture as the church's norm but the newer doctrines of the goodness of other religions and the truth of the other churches. It found room for not only the biblical model of ministry as service but the contemporary theology of the value of the secular world and the sanctity of marriage.

Vatican II synthesized much of what was creative in the Christian experience of the last five centuries. This is why it will endure against all shortsighted efforts to act as though it did not happen or to consider it an aberration.


It has been a long and graced journey. It had to have been a good journey because it began with Jesus and because it tends toward Christ. We are the heirs of a noble tradition of reform and the catalysts for a new millennium. The church must always be reformed. Ecclesia semper reformanda. And we are its present reformers, not because we are worthy but because we have been summoned.

We are able to celebrate the papacy and choose It.

The pope is ours. The Roman system need not be.

We affirm the strength of the Catholic tradition, its capacity to endure, its sacramental imagination, its impressive social doctrine, its soaring spiritual and mystical theology, its liturgical creativity and its massive inclusiveness. We celebrate its missionary outreach, its healers and prophets, its martyrs and saints, its noble, noble women, its self-sacrificing pastors and its breathtaking ability to change. A church that gave the world John XXIII and Vatican II in the same decade is capable of anything.

Our church has been a church in reform from its first day, from the parables we were taught and the lessons we learned at the cross and on Easter morning.

The Roman system is not a permanent feature of the church. It came late in our history with no biblical endorsement and no apostolic validation.

John Paul II comments in 'Crossing the Threshold of Hope' that communism failed because of its inner contradictions. The same might be said of the Roman system. The gospel creates in the system an inner contradiction it cannot handle.

And so we have no fear. Nothing can stop the Spirit or reverse the reform or annul Vatican II or ignore John XXIII or bring us back to a medieval model of church. Nothing can do that. No one. Not popes or dark inquisitors, not career-minded bishops or fanatical theologians, not terrified right-wing Catholics or foolishly liberal extremists.

We. too, hear the words spoken to Francis: "Rebuild my church." And we hear the words of Luther: "My conscience is captive to the word of God." We are the daughters and sons of brave women and mystic revolutionaries like Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, like Julian of Norwich and Therese of Lisieux.

This is an infallible community, not in its popes but in its people, not in its inability to make mistakes but in its capacity to survive them. This community endures not from its own strength but from the Spirit forever moving through it. We break bread and are brought to wholeness in the body of Christ from the fragments of our lives. We find the church a broken body but we encounter Easter healing in its every wound.

Let us hear the words that once gave life to the Petrine ministry:

If Jesus could cry out on the cross for forgiveness for the executioners, how can the church, how can we, not forgive those who served the church as an institution too eagerly and exclusively and who often harmed the community of Christ in the very core of its being? It is time to forgive all the popes and all the heretics, all the blind guides and deaf leaders, all the well-meaning obstructionists and the terrified inquisitors. It is also time to forgive ourselves, for our recklessness or our cowardice, for our impatience and our timidity, for our lack of hope and our failures in love.

In spite of all reverses and sinfulness, the gospel is still with us and the reform is still alive. And tonight we remain a sacramental people called from all parts of this country and from many nations to bear witness.

We bear witness that Jesus is the norm for the church. We bear witness that Christ is more than the law. We bear witness that Francis' message has not been lost. We are the reformers who know and reverence the the substantive tradition and we are the traditionalist who are aware of the venerability of reform. We honor the past and we herald the future and we do this for Christ and for God's people.

We give testimony to the Spirit who summoned us as reformers, often against our will and inclination but summoned nonetheless and fortified with a strength not from our own resources.

We are the reformers who yearn for God and long for Christ, who find peace in the scriptures and build a church worthy of our children.

The Spirit might have chosen anyone to be the reformers. At the end of the second millennium, it is ourselves. So be it. We shall serve not because we are worthy but because we have been called.

Picture caption- Pilgrims and tourists crowd St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.

In box excerpt- "This is an infallible community, not in its popes but in its people, not in its inability to make mistakes but in its capacity to survive them. This community endures not from its own strength but from the Spirit forever moving through it."