What’s What: Baltimore Catechism

During the spring session of Vatican III an elderly American bishop got the idea that a nuclear cataclysm had occurred in Baltimore, Maryland, having misinterpreted the discussion of this text [Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies; 93].

Officially A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Prepared and Enjoined by Order of the Third Council of Baltimore, the Baltimore Catechism was the de facto standard Catholic school text in the United States from 1885 to the late 1960s. After Vatican II the old catechism fell out of favor, replaced in 1994 by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The evolution of Saint Fidgeta – that is, from Bellairs’ first stories told in Chicago to the article in the Critic – ran concurrently with an once-in-a-lifetime event occurring overseas, the Second Vatican Council.

To appreciate the event that became known as Vatican II, one must take a step back to October 1958. As 21-year-old Bellairs began his third year at Notre Dame, news reached South Bend, as it did to the rest of the world, that Pope Pius XII had died in Italy. Per tradition, a Papal Conclave was assembled and later that month elected an obscure 78-year old cardinal who would go on to became John XXIII. Less than three months into his pontificate, he called for the formation of the Second Vatican Council.  The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican opened in 1962 and came to a close under Pope Paul VI in 1965.

As Vatican II opened, there appeared in The New Yorker a "Letter From Vatican City," the first of thirteen sensational and revelatory articles, or letters, on the inner-workings of the Council. Because the Council's deliberations were supposed to be secret, these behind-the-scenes letters – written by the mysterious Xavier Rynne – aroused interest in the proceedings for Americans and put a very human face on a process supposedly guided by the Holy Ghost and a complete mystery to both the laity and much of the Church hierarchy. Rynne also covered the papal election that resulted in the accession of Pope Paul VI as well.

As such, the letters prompted the oft-asked question, “Who the hell is Xavier Rynne?” Xavier Rynne was the pseudonym of Francis X. Murphy (1915-2002), an American priest/professor in Rome during the Second Vatican Council; the name was a combination of Murphy's middle name (Xavier) and his mother's maiden name (Rynne).

Because Vatican II was so revolutionary and far-reaching, Bellairs decided to poke some fun at both the event and Rynne’s gossipy news. Bellairs introduces the Third Vatican Council in chapter nine, written in the form of a letter by author Nepomuk Prynne. Not only mocking the divulging of too much personal details about some of the wilder activities held during the Council (such as priests mishearing about nuclear cataclysms), Vatican III assumes the outcome of its predecessor was so radical that everyone went back to the drawing board to try again a mere two decades later (keep in mind there was a span of over 90 years between the First and Second Vatican Councils).

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