Rediscovering Vatican II

Frederick Franck’s Drawings from the Second Vatican Council

It was not a whim. It was not an artist’s search for sensational subject matter that made me ‘artist-in-residence’ at the Council. I can hardly believe it now! On the twelfth of October, 1962, I was on my way to an appointment. As I walked along a New York City street I glanced at the headlines in the New York Times. I started to read Pope John’s opening speech to the Council. Suddenly I felt an overpowering impulse to go and draw his Council—such an irresistible pull that I dropped all I was doing, the book I was writing, the paintings I was working on, and flew to Rome.

—Frederick Franck, 1965

Cardinal Ottaviani Siri Rugambwa Spellman Marian And Ukranian Bishops Walking Into The Council Area StCardinals Ottaviani, Siri, Rugambwa, Spellman, Marian and Ukranian Bishops Walking into the Council at 9 am, 1963. Image courtesy of Pacem in Terris: the Frederick Franck Museum. 

Several years ago I was quickly paging through archival photos at the University of Notre Dame when I opened a new file and, caught by the liveliness of the sketch at the top of the pile, paused. The drawing that had interrupted my frantic effort to finish this box by the end of the day was a pen-and-ink drawing of a middle-aged man in a Roman collar. The artist had a fine eye: The nose and ears were caught in sharp, biting detail, and the subject’s gaze was layered, mysterious, arresting. I flipped back the folder to look at its title: “Frederick Franck.”

Who? I’d never heard of him, but a quick search turned up a few biographical details. Born in the Netherlands in 1909, Franck grew up agnostic in a vibrant Catholic town. He emigrated to the United States in 1939 and became an American citizen in 1945. Although an artist by nature, he trained and practiced as a dental surgeon, a profession that gave him the opportunity to work with Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his namesake hospital in Lambarene (Gabon, Africa) from 1958 to 1961. In the wake of that experience he published several books (the first of an ultimate 35) and began to live as a full-time artist. In the mid-1960s Franck, with his wife, Claske, transformed the ruin of a watermill across the river from his home in Warwick, New York, into a “transreligious oasis,” which he named Pacem in Terris after Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical. The old mill and the grounds of the house, filled with the sculpture he referred to as “icons,” are now open to the public from late spring through early fall. Franck’s work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Fogg Art Museum, the Tokyo National Museum, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Sleeping DelegateUntitled. Image courtesy of Pacem in Terris: the Frederick Franck Museum.

Franck’s interest in John XXIII began to explain why the Notre Dame archives had three folders of photostats, all labeled as sketches he made at Vatican II. But I wanted to know more about his story. I sent a short message through the form on the Pacem in Terris website, only to receive a reply from Claske Franck thanking me for my interest, but apologizing: Her husband had died the previous year. We had a brief, cordial correspondence, but my dissertation research was turning in other directions. I filed a few photocopies at the back of a cabinet, and there they sat until last year, when I began organizing the exhibit “Outsider at the Vatican: Frederick Franck’s Drawings from the Second Vatican Council.” It was through the exhibit that I came to understand Franck’s project as an invaluable, if now almost forgotten, entry point into the study of Vatican II.

A Man of Good Will

What did Franck, an agnostic with Buddhist leanings, think he was doing, plunging into a Catholic council whose sessions were not even open to many priests? He claimed he wasn’t quite sure himself. In the context of the Cold War, he was initially galvanized by newspaper reports of John XXIII’s speech at the Council’s opening. In the space of a single book, his 1965 memoir Outsider in the Vatican, he described his five trips to Rome variously as the rekindling of “an old love affair,” the “settling of an account,” a “safari into the Vatican,” an “adventure,” and a “hopeless undertaking.” But it is clear that, far from being hope-less, his project was in fact driven by hope.

2015 was the 50th anniversary not only of the closing of the Council, but of its signature document, Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Its famous opening lines invoke a favorite phrase of Pope John XXIII, who had addressed his encyclical Pacem in Terris to “people of good will.”

  1. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ…. 
  2. Hence this Second Vatican Council…now addresses itself without hesitation, not only to the sons of the Church and to all who invoke the name of Christ, but to the whole of humanity.

Franck’s many drawings of Protestant, Orthodox, and other “observers,” as well as his own presence at the Council, remind us that Vatican II was in part about an effort to build relationships with people of good will. A number of people who viewed the exhibit expressed surprise that Franck neither started out as a Catholic nor converted. Yet I came to feel that our surprise about this fact—for I initially shared it too—was missing the lesson these drawings had to offer. The drawings’ very existence, signaling the willingness of Franck and of all the observers to upend their lives in order to participate, reminds us that Council participants came to feel that the act of respectful dialogue and collaboration between Catholics and other “people of good will” was a good in itself. Gaudium et Spes is characterized by a commitment to mutual teaching and learning, not to an effort to convert in the technical sense. It suggested that the call to conversion is about something deeper than a visible allegiance to the juridical structures of Catholicism.

Sister JacobaSister Jacoba de Grandchamps, Lod (Lydda) near Tel Aviv, N.D. Image courtesy of Pacem in Terris: the Frederick Franck Museum.

Franck’s portraits of observers and his sketches of ecumenical gatherings stress the call to dialogue and the discarding of mutual suspicion. Instead of endlessly recruiting for their own teams, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox were to discover that they belonged to humanity itself. One of the keys to the Council’s success was the decision to let people of good will be themselves. And I came to think that, in studying Franck’s drawings, I as a Catholic could see the results of that success. By looking at Franck as a person of good will rather than as a potential “convert,” I could see more easily what John hoped to gain in establishing the conciliar paradigm of collaboration. Franck’s drawings show what is possible when we set out to dialogue in the spirit of good will. He drew observers interacting with each other at Casa Unitas, the house in Rome where many of them lived during the Council; he drew them during conferences; he drew Catholics like Cardinal Augustin Bea and others who showed a special interest in ecumenism. These drawings show us Vatican II not as a game for insiders, but as a hope for something bigger, a Council meant to unite the world against grave risks. “If there is to be a future,” Franck wrote, commenting on the very present risk of nuclear war, “the Spirit will have to be proclaimed in ever greater liberty…. this was the longing and the effort I had felt behind all these utterances of Vatican II, an effort to overcome all conventional and traditional limitations and to transmit a universally valid message that would deepen our meditation on ourselves and our oneness in the Great Mystery of Being.”

The People of the Council

Franck initially arrived in Rome armed only with an introduction to the Dutch-born bishop of remote Surabaja, Indonesia, a distant relation of his wife, Claske. Yet, in one of the moments of serendipity Franck loved to recount, Bishop Jan Klooster proved an invaluable contact early on, arranging a series of portrait sessions with his fellow missionary bishops. As one subject introduced him to the next, Franck gradually expanded his circle. Fifty years later, working with Franck’s drawings plunged me into the everyday experience of the Council: the ordinary bustle of the refectory and the press room; the exhilarating conferences given by newly prominent periti (theologians); the pathos of John XXIII’s death and the pomp of his burial; Protestant observers discovering Rome; Europeans discovering the existence of the “global church”; and above all, the intimacy of the many men, and a few women, who were coming to understand that their years of meetings would change the Church forever—though how, exactly, none of them knew.

As I researched Franck’s subjects and spent more time with their carefully drawn portraits, I began to see the drawings as a collective argument in favor of a focus on the people who wrote the decrees of Vatican II, and not only on the decrees themselves. Franck was an intelligent and highly verbal person, and he did not think the documents of the Council were irrelevant. But they are important, in part, as the record of a group of people’s discovery of their common humanity—which meant that each individual was inherently important.

This quality of Franck’s approach becomes clear when comparing his earlier Council drawings with later ones. Earlier drawings of crowd scenes in Rome, when he knew no one, can be biting. He never withdrew his criticism of bureaucratic maneuvering or of ostentatiousness within the Church, but there is a striking difference in his later drawings, made as he came to know the delegates. Franck’s bishops are eminently human; he delighted in the endless oddities of old men’s ears, noses, jowls, and paunches, but only rarely did his lively sense of humor get the better of him, tipping his witty drawings into caricature. His favorites are clear: the liberal theologians and bishops who sat for him got sympathetic treatment, showing kindly expressions and compassionate eyes, while more conservative delegates, especially members of the Curia, tended to be drawn with pursed lips and emphasis on their ceremonial attire.

Yet it is even more telling to look at his portraits of those who were not his theological heroes. Looking back on his own development, Franck reflected later about the process of drawing Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, considered by many liberals and progressives to be one of the villains of the Council. He wrote:

I saw him as a Grand Inquisitor. He was old and half-blind. One eye was glassy, the other drooped. He had a confusing multiplicity of chins. As I continued drawing him I began to see him differently. Where I had only seen arrogant rigidity and decrepitude, I saw the human being—until I realized that I was seeing him with a kind of love. While seeing/drawing a face, any face, one sees into the very center of human experience—of existence as such: the one ineffable.

Ottaviani’s chins are a matter of record, and Franck drew them with gusto. But at the same time he came to see that Ottaviani was not his chins; and it was this emotional insight that drew him away from caricature and into portraiture. In turn, this is the great success of these drawings: to help us understand anew that human beings wrote the Council documents, and that for better or worse the documents are marked by the process of their development in this particular moment, in this particular place, by these particular people. This is what John J. Wright, Bishop of Pittsburgh, meant when he commented in 1964 that “No one has caught the human diversities and divine dimensions of the Vatican Council as has Frederick Franck.” At the time, as well as 50 years later, the drawings represent a way of entering, emotionally, intimately, personally, into the life of the Council.

Looking and Love

It might seem obvious to argue that in order to understand a work of art, we have to look at it. Yet despite the visual nature of our culture, studies consistently show that people make snap judgments within seconds of seeing an object. As I took visitors through the exhibit of Franck’s drawings, I encouraged them to spend significant time gazing at a particular work or two, a practice that builds off the insight Franck shared about Ottaviani. The act of looking is, traditionally, a way of falling in love. As I worked with the drawings and reread the Council’s documents, I came to see Franck’s story as a theological claim. It began with his feeling of love for John XXIII, a feeling strongly expressed in his extraordinary portraits of John in his last illness and on his bier. But while that feeling never faded, as Franck drew he very quickly saw that though John remained the Council’s guiding spirit, its success did not rise and fall on him alone. Although we often speak about “The Council” as a kind of monolithic singularity, what we know—and what Franck’s breadth of subject matter illustrates—is that there was no such thing. The individual delegates made choices, and in their wake and by extension, we make choices. Franck also made a choice: to stay in Rome past John’s death, and to enter fully into the events and relationships open to him. Thus the drawings conceptualize love as an ongoing act of participation.

To love is not only to feel. It is also not to idolize, in the theological sense, a person or a moment, to yearn for an earlier time, whether Trent or Vatican II. It’s to let that feeling transform the way we live. Franck allowed himself to grow in love for the people of the Council, and by leaving us the drawings he made, he has given us a gift: a way to grow in love for them ourselves, and therefore to enter as characters into a living story.

This is why I think these works remain of interest, 50 years after the closing of Vatican II. At the end of Franck’s memoir of the Council, this is what he wrote:

The Council will begin in earnest only after the last words of the final ceremony have echoed through St. Peter’s. Then the Council too must die, to bring forth the new harvest. The great prophet Pope John continues to speak: “When truth reigns, charity is law. The Council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak. It is now only dawn.”

Catherine R. Osborne is a postdoctoral fellow at the Cushwa Center and was the curator of “Outsider at the Vatican: Frederick Franck’s Drawings from the Second Vatican Council,” an exhibition which ran from August 2–September 30, 2015, at the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture. She holds a B.A. in art history from Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University. This essay is adapted from a gallery talk given on September 9, 2015.


This feature appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.