Despite the initial anxieties of the Committee, holding the Annual Conference in Rome in 1992 proved to be popular and successful. Not all canonical journeys from these Islands have been a success. During a medieval dispute between the Bishop of Worcester and an Abbey, litigation moved to Rome, with Pope Innocent III himself presiding. Having listened for a while, the Pope commented: “Indeed you and your masters had drunk too much of the English beer when you were taught this”. This time, no such withering criticism was offered by Pope or Curia. Either (or both) because the Society has better taught Canonists or because there was no English beer available.
Certainly, it was a Conference full of contacts with Officials of the Roman Curia and crowned by an audience with the Pope at which he spoke to us at some length and greeted each of us individually. But that was on the last day, and much had happened before. The organisation of the proceedings was a miracle of efficiency and precision. Despite torrential rain, power cuts, Roman traffic, a faulty harmonium and other hazards, all went well at prayer, at table, in the lecture room and on the daily journeys to different dicasteries. Domus Mariae is an immense, old fashioned hotel and Conference Centre run by Azione Cattolica. We shared it with groups as various as members of Opus Dei and a meeting of animal breeders.
Proceedings began on the Monday with a welcoming address from Cardinal Castillo Lara, who was determined to come despite poor health. (He died in 2007) Moreover he came again the next morning to preside and preach at Mass. He was a friend indeed. He had been present at the Society’s meeting in 1986 when David Cousins was elected President. There followed a reception where various guests mingled with us. Old teachers met former students, news was exchanged. After Mass on Tuesday we set off either to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or the Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
Such is the goodwill and respect that the Society has in Rome that not one of the persons invited to speak or preach turned us down. On Tuesday afternoon, Archbishop Tauran from the Secretariate of State spoke to us on the place of the Holy See in International relations. He was measured and elegant, as befits his position in a body that was the first to set up a school for diplomats. For him, Talleyrand was a great diplomat but a poor Bishop. Clearly today the emphasis is on the ecclesiastical character of diplomacy.
Cardinal Cassidy preached at the Mass on Wednesday and we then went either to the frescoed splendours of the Palazzo of the Roman Rota or to the Congregation for Catholic Education. At the Rota, various familiar names acquired faces and distinct personalities: Pompedda, Doran, Burke et al. There was no mistaking the differences of opinion amongst the Auditors. Monsignor Doran recommended that when all else fails we should look to the words of the Code! He illustrated this, and our members did not fail to catch its relevance for our Tribunals, from Canon 1095. In the afternoon, Monsignor Serrano, from the Rota, spoke on psychological considerations in marriage cases. He combined great expertise with an obvious human warmth; no wonder he spoke of the importance of empathy. He gave us a brief preview of a recent decision by him on partial incapacity. The AGM concluded the day.
On Thursday, Bishop Eid of the Maronite rite graciously presided at the Mass, linking Eucharist, love and obedience. We then set off to visit the Signatura, the Congregation for Consecrated Life or that for the Sacraments.
We had two lecturers who were Flemish, Father Daneels, Promotor of Justice at the Signatura, spoke on the right of defence in judicial proceedings. This is clearly something both the Pope and the Curia are becoming more insistent upon, despite the difficulties in applying it in some areas. This lecture provoked much lively debate. The second Flemish speaker was from Archbishop Schotte who began with an hilarious account of his career to date. He stressed that as Secretary of the Synod of Bishops he was not a member of the Curia – “in case they shoot the wrong man”. His absolute dedication to the Synod was evident, as was his fidelity to the priestly vocation.
At the Friday Mass, Archbishop Justin Rigalli, from the Congregation for Bishops, preached; and afterwards the Conference was concluded with a Papal Audience. Bishop Moverley spoke on behalf of the Society as proceedings closed. Just as he had as they opened. He was the only “Founding Father” present. My main recollections are of a hugely successful venture, a gamble that paid off, and of that unique Roman experience which combines a focus on the person of the Pope with the universality of membership of the Roman Curia.
[CLSN 9 June 1992] Robert Ombres, O.P.