One of the occasions which passed almost unremarked last year was the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome. The 40th anniversary of its closing, which will occur on December 8th 2005, will doubtless slip into oblivion in much the same way, writes John Horgan. Yet, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, there can have been few events which had, and continue to have such an effect upon our times.
These reflections are prompted less by the anniversary itself than by memories of a memorable Dutchman who was a pivotal figure in many of these events, and who became and remained a close friend of Irish and other journalists who went to Rome during the council. It is a testimony to the preservative effects of exceptional quantities of pasta and red wine, not to mention the Negroni that they served in the Bar Tre Scalini in the Piazza Navona, that so many are still around: Sean Mac Reamoinn, Louis MacRedmond, T.P. O'Mahony, Desmond Fisher and Donal Musgrave in particular. If fate had not been unkind, Kevin O'Kelly might still be with us too.
This Dutchman laboured under the name of Dr Leo Alting von Geusau but, as nobody was ever quite sure how to pronounce his baronial surname, he was to most people simply "Leo" or "Leo Alting".
The Dutch Church
He was ordained as a parish priest in Groningen, but his gifts as a theologian brought him to Rome early in the council, where to many he personified all that was exciting about the "Dutch Church", as it came to be called: loyal, intellectually curious, interested in new ideas, impatient of Vatican bureaucracy and thought-control mechanisms, multilingual, and possessed of seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy and good humour.
All these gifts came together in an extraordinary institution called IDOC - "Information and Documentation on the Council" - which Leo and others ran from a set of rooms overlooking the Piazza Navona. IDOC was, in a sense, the Catholic Church's government in exile, or at the very least its loyal opposition. The harder the Vatican bureaucracy tried to stamp out or neutralise new ideas - on ecumenism, on liturgy, on the missions, on the Church/world relationship - the more they bubbled up on the edge of the Piazza Navona. Once a week at least, the rooms were crowded with journalists and many others (visiting churchmen from other denominations, the odd bishop, theologians, historians, controversialists) to listen to papers from people such as Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Bernard Haring, and Yves Congar, all of them pushing the frontiers of what was possible, or even thinkable, at the time.
Leo was at the epicentre of all this frenetic activity, seemingly unflappable (although IDOC was perennially short of funds and sometimes on the verge of collapse). Week after week, the papers generated by IDOC winged their way to every corner of the globe, and underpinned a fair share of the religious journalism emanating from the Eternal City. He ran, in effect, a rolling seminar on theology, history and church affairs, with no admission fee and all the best speakers in town.
Synod of Bishops
After the Council ended, the Curia tried to turn back the tide. At the first Synod of Bishops in 1967, it seemed as if the bureaucrats had forgotten nothing, and learned nothing. The information flow dwindled to a trickle. But they had reckoned without Leo.
He set up an unofficial press bureau which met every afternoon in a basement on the Via della Conciliazione, within sight of St Peter's, at which journalists were given an unofficial but highly accurate account of what had actually happened in the Synod hall that morning: There was also, usually, a panel of theologians and other experts prepared to comment on and interpret what had happened. The bland, impersonal, and extraordinarily uninformative Vatican Press Office handouts could safely be thrown in the bin.
What nobody knew was that this vital informational lifeline depended personally on Leo and one other person - a Dutch missionary bishop at the Synod, whose views on Church secrecy coincided with Leo's, and with whom Leo had lunch every day after the Synod. Leo rushed back into the city after lunch, and briefed the moderator of the press centre - for my sins, this was usually me - sometimes only minutes before the other journalists turned up. I still remember the tension: what would happen if the bishop had a cold, or Leo's car got a puncture? But it never happened and, to this day, I do not know who the bishop was.
Leo performed one other signal service. The following year, in his own inimitable way, he came across a full set of documents from the famous papal commission on birth control, whose majority conclusions in favour of a change in Church teaching Pope Paul VI was to reject. He gave them to Gary Mac Eoin (still writing away today in his nineties) who published them in the National Catholic Reporter. The rest is history.
As the council and the successive synods faded from view, Leo's own perspective changed. He left the priesthood and went to New York, where he studied anthropology, and found a new passion in Thailand: the Akha hill people, who live north of Chiang Mai, whose history, literature, language and customs he came to cherish and defend, and among whom he met Deuleu, the woman who was to become his wife.
Just before Christmas, and now in his late seventies, he was invited to an anthropological conference in China, where he was justly fêted for his pioneering work. Back in Chiang Mai, he felt unwell and was taken to hospital. Three days later, he died of a heart attack, and was buried, a week or so ago, with full Akha ceremonial. It was a fittingly extraordinary end to an extraordinary life.