Just before Christmas I was warmly welcomed to his residence in Damascus by His Holiness Moran Mar Ignatius Zakka I, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.
During the visit, the patriarch reminisced about his experiences, when a young priest, as the official observer of the Syrian Orthodox Church at the Second Vatican Council.
After attending two sessions of the council, he was named a bishop and assumed new duties. Pope Paul VI wrote him a personal note of congratulations, a gesture which touched Patriarch Zakka deeply.
I told the patriarch how I, too, as a young priest, had attended two sessions of Vatican II. While in Rome pursuing doctoral studies in Canon Law, I served on the council staff and was privileged to attend its daily sessions.
During the first session of the council in 1962, three draft documents dealing with Christian unity were placed before the Council Fathers: The Commission for the Eastern Churches had prepared a text on unity; the Theological Commission, on Protestants; and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, on general ecumenical principles. The bishops voted to have the Secretariat draft one decree on ecumenism, incorporating all these ideas.
In 1963, I remember when the preliminary vote was taken on the new draft. The council decided to accept the first three chapters about relations with the Orthodox and Protestant churches as a basis for discussion.
During the general debate in the 1964 session, more than 1,000 amendments were proposed by the Council Fathers. Item by item and chapter by chapter the revised draft decree was debated and approved.
On November 19th, the day before the final vote, we were given an unusual document to distribute to the bishops. Usually draft materials were nicely printed and bound; this was a mimeographed paper proposing nineteen changes in the text on higher authority.
There was consternation among the bishops: Why these last-minute changes? Who had made them? What was to be done?
It turned out that Pope Paul VI, burning the midnight oil, had personally revised the final text. The upset of the Council Fathers was calmed, and the next day the Decree on Ecumenism was overwhelmingly approved.
With a stroke of the Holy Fathers pen, the old vocabulary of schismatic and heretic was wiped away. Now Catholics began to speak of separated brethren, fellow members of the one Church of Christ.
Let us go forward without obstructing the way of divine providence and without prejudging the future inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the pope and his fellow bishops prayed.
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA