A Champion of Reform

Author: Chris Eckl '56

Not too long ago, I noticed a book, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, in the reading room at my parish church—St. Thomas à Becket in Reston, Virginia. Any time I see a book about the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council, ecumenism, civil rights or the liturgy, I immediately search the index for “Hallinan, Paul J.” His name was there. Here is what it said: “Archbishop Hallinan of Atlanta, Georgia, one of the champions of reform (liturgy) noted how amusing it was at times to hear bishops speaking in elegant Ciceronian Latin while arguing for the use of vernacular languages.”

I worked for Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan as managing editor of The Georgia Bulletin, the weekly archdiocesan newspaper, from May 30, 1966, until his death on March 27, 1968, at the age of 57. He was the first archbishop of Atlanta; prior to that he served as bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, as a Newman Foundation chaplain at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, as a combat chaplain in the South Pacific during World War II and as a parish priest in Cleveland.

A native of Painesville, Ohio, the 1932 graduate of Notre Dame (philosophy) received a master’s degree from John Carroll University. He earned a doctorate in history from Western Reserve while he was archbishop. He was awarded an honorary degree from Notre Dame and received Notre Dame’s Sorin Award.

Vatican II changes

Every now and then I come across citations that remind me that he was an unusual U.S. bishop who considered Vatican II as one of the great events in Church history and the greatest event in his life. He was proud of his role in persuading the Council to approve use of native languages in the liturgy instead of Latin only. I hope he is still remembered.

Theologian Hans Kung in his 2002 memoir My Struggle for Freedom wrote about the struggle to overcome the Holy Office’s opposition to any language change. Kung cited “the brave Archbishop of Atlanta, Paul Hallinan, who knew that the vast majority of U.S. bishops were behind him, fought against this [delay] and urged speed and concentration.” Kung also mentioned Saturday-night parties at the residence of journalist Bob Kaiser, where he talked to “the leading English speaking progressives.” His list included such bishops as Hallinan, Mark McGrath (Panama) and Thomas Roberts (formerly Delhi).

At one of those parties, Father John Courtney Murray, the controversial architect of the religious liberty provision, told Hallinan that if he wanted to get ahead in the Church, he should stay away from him. “That angered me,” the archbishop told me years later, “but I understood what Murray was saying.”

Xavier Rynne wrote in “Letters from Vatican City,” a colorful inside report on the Council’s deliberations that appeared as dispatches in The New Yorker and later was published as a book, that the archbishop was one of the few American bishops who was heard from throughout the Council, particularly on religious liberty and the liturgy.

Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, a noted U.S. church historian, was a close friend and advised the archbishop as he pursued his doctorate. In his book Catholic Bishops: A Memoir, Ellis said Hallinan was “the most striking example of Episcopal leadership in American Catholic Community of my time.”

At the second session, it was obvious to many observers that the archbishop was on his way to higher office, but a breakdown in his health ended speculation about his future. After his return to Atlanta, he became ill with hepatitis in December 1963 and was hospitalized for almost seven months. This physically robust man was transformed into a skeletal figure with an often swollen stomach and yellowish complexion. When I came to work for him in May 1966, he knew he did not have too long to live. I was afraid to think about that, because I had found the perfect job. I once asked him if he would ever become a cardinal. He replied, “No. I have only have half of a liver.” I told him that I would rather work for a bishop with “a whole head and half of a liver rather than one with a half head and a whole liver.” He smiled.

Hopes for more reform

Despite his poor health, he continued to push for liturgical reform in the church. In July 1964, he wrote a pamphlet “How to Understand Changes in the Liturgy.” About 50,000 copies were distributed across the United State and abroad. His column “Archbishop’s Notebook” was widely quoted, especially when he dealt with the liturgy, war and peace , racism and poverty, ecumenism, and enhancing the role of the laity, particularly women, in the Church. He had high hopes that a mature and progressive laity would play a large role in moving the Church forward theologically and in expanding its role in the world as called for by Vatican II.

On the ecumenical front, he was widely respected by Protestants and had particularly close ties with Atlanta’s Jewish community since he supported Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967. Hallinan and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild promoted and attended a dinner honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. No white Protestant ministers showed up.

Before I moved to Atlanta, my brother told me more than once, “Kit, Atlanta has a great archbishop. He’s a Notre Dame graduate.” I came to Atlanta in 1965 to work for the Associated Press and would read news articles about the archbishop from time to time. When I saw an article that said the present managing editor of The Bulletin was leaving, I applied for the job.

My interview with Hallinan and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Bernardin, his protégé who later became the cardinal-archbishop of Chicago, was memorable. At the time of my interview, Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, a sharp attack on Pope Pius XII’s effort to save the Jews from the Germans, was playing in Atlanta. A Bulletin editorial criticized the play. As we sat down for lunch, the archbishop asked, “Did you read the editorial?” I replied, "Yes, but I did not particularly like it. " He smiled and said, " I wrote it."

Despite my rather blunt assessment, we had a warm discussion after that. He said he wanted an experienced newsman to run the paper, not someone who wrote such headlines as “No Catholics Killed In Kansas Tornado.” He wanted the newspaper to report on changes and controversies in the church. I was overawed by him. When I got home, I told my wife that I felt that I would be offered the job despite my gaffe. I was right.

A blessing of a boss

We had a great working relationship. He never told me what to write or not to write, what to print or not print. I am sure that I caused him pain from time to time, but he never told me to slow down despite complaints about me from some of his pastors who were not as enthusiastic about Vatican II as he was. We would talk several times a month, and he would take me to dinner occasionally. One time a woman of apparent easy virtue walked by as we ate and nodded to me. He saw her and advised, “Chris, at times like this, it is better to be with your archbishop than your wife.” He also would comment when his fellow bishops resisted changes he favored: “With shepherds like these, who needs wolves?”

I still feel a great sense of loss when I think of Archbishop Hallinan. Working for him was a great joy because of his goodness, his wit—which he used on himself—his knowledge, his courage and his openness to change. He lived the axiom of his hero, John Henry Newman, "In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium once said about the archbishop: “On the evening of May 2, 1968, when I just learned of the death of my friend, Archbishop Hallinan—who, of all American bishops had been closest to me—I wrote down something he once said. Someone had been suggesting that he should be more cautious in his public pronouncements on the Vietnam War; he knew at the time he was going to die before long and he replied, ‘You know where I am going, the only problem will be—did I speak clearly enough?’”

Archbishop, you did. I can still hear you.

Chris Eckl, a 1956 Notre Dame journalism graduate, lives in Reston, Virginia, with his wife, Liz. They have four sons, a daughter and 11 grandchildren. He was engaged in congressional relations for the Tennesee Valley Authority and the American Public Power Association, retiring from both. At present, he works part time as a legislative affairs specialist for a D.C. law firm.