The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) still looms large in the awareness of most Catholics today. But how many Catholics are aware that we’re currently in the midst of the 450th anniversary of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), another Church council of great historical significance? And how many Catholics know much at all about the other 19 general councils of the Catholic Church?

Church historians remind us that tracing the developments of the general councils is an outstanding way to survey 2,000 years of Christian history. While the general councils have not treated every aspect of theology and spirituality, they have addressed the major issues of their times. For this reason scholars recognize these meetings as an essential element of the ongoing life of the Church.

What actually constitutes a general (or ecumenical) council? (The terms “universal,” “ecumenical” and “general” are ordinarily used interchangeably, though historically these terms have been used in different ways.) A general council is a meeting of worldwide Church leaders convened by the pope, although this was not always the case in early Church history. All bishops are called to participate, but other officials are also invited.

We should note here the important distinction between general councils and councils that are merely local, regional or provincial. Numerous provincial or local councils (or synods) met during the first three centuries of the Church, especially during the third century, to handle matters of doctrine and discipline. These earliest church meetings in North Africa, Rome, Gaul, Asia Minor and Iberia paved the way for the first general council, Nicaea I.

A number of local councils, some attended by popes or their delegates, also met during the Middle Ages.

Today regional synods of bishops continue to meet, sometimes in Rome, and frequently in the bishops’ home countries as national synods or conferences.

We should also note that the separated Eastern Orthodox churches consider only the first seven councils ecumenical. The Catholic Church, however, recognizes 21 councils to be ecumenical, or general, even though the East was missing from the councils of the second millennium.

Why Do Councils Meet?

When we examine the particular reasons why various councils have met over two millennia, we discover a cycle of challenge and response that brings them into session.

In a sense, councils are convoked because they are provoked, prompted by various circumstances in the life of the Church that require attention. Thus councils most often spend their time identifying and condemning heresy, instigating needed reforms, dealing with questions of church authority, and addressing other significant issues as they have emerged in various historical periods.

Since councils come into existence in response to demanding religious and social issues of the day, the Church has no regular schedule for convoking them. They are simply called as needed.

The councils, we might say, are the Church’s “think tanks” for solving problems and plotting the future. Since apostolic times, Christian leaders have used such major meetings to compare notes and solve problems. Often issues are churning for decades or even centuries before they are brought to a council for solution. The council fathers must enunciate guiding principles and procedures and then plot their implementation.

Consequently, a number of activities are necessary for holding a general council. First, the reasons for convoking the council must be identified. Second, its goals must be established. Third, the Church must engage in a period of preparation. Fourth, the assembly itself must take place. And, finally, the council’s decisions must be put into practice.

A Historical Overview

The Church council held in Jerusalem and noted in Scripture (see Acts 15 and Gal 2:1-10) is not listed with those we consider gen-eral or ecumenical. Yet this meeting of the apostles Peter and James, Paul and Barnabas and others is often noted as the first and model council. The general council of Constantinople II (553) explicitly mentioned the importance of the apostles coming together to consult and to make a decision.

The “Council of Jerusalem,” as it came to be called, probably met in A.D. 49 or 50 to address the question that arose a handful of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection: Must one be a Jew in order to be a Christian? The issue boiled down to whether men needed to be circumcised and whether all were bound by the Jewish dietary laws.

The first general council was the First Council of Nicaea, which was summoned by the Emperor Constantine in 325. Its main purpose was to deal with the Arian heresy, which erroneously taught that Jesus Christ was not fully God.

In the Church’s first millennium, the general councils met largely to formulate doctrinal statements to correct other heretical teachings. The councils of the Middle Ages and Reformation dealt primarily with reforming church divergences and clarifying certain doctrines. In the modern period the two Vatican councils were gathered for dissimilar reasons: the first to define papal infallibility, the second to renew the Church in line with contemporary developments.

Some councils completed the unfinished business of their predecessors. For example, the first eight councils, from Nicaea (325) to Constantinople IV (869-870), met in somewhat rapid succession because they were refining creedal statements. In their deliberations they hammered out the profoundly interrelated dogmas of the Church concerning the Blessed Trinity and the Person of Christ.

Several councils followed soon after another to address persisting problems. The first four Lateran councils met successively in less than a century (1123, 1139, 1179, 1215) to address questions of Church reform. In later situations councils finished the work that earlier meetings could not because of difficult circumstances.

A Wide Variety

The time between councils, their duration and their attendance reveal a wide variance. Counting 21 general councils might lead us to think that they were called about one each century. But in reality general councils have met infrequently, often in clusters. And there were long periods of time — sometimes several centuries — that experienced no councils at all.

General councils varied also in duration. Lateran II sat only a week, while Constance (1414-1418) met for three and a half years of steady activity.

But length of time is no indicator of importance or achievement. Lateran IV gathered for only 20 days, yet was the most impressive of the medieval councils. Lateran V met for five years, 1512-1517, but accomplished little.

Concerning participation, as few as a dozen members were present during a low point at Constantinople IV, and only 17 during one session of Trent in 1551-1552. In striking contrast, 2,540 packed St. Peter’s Basilica for the first session of Vatican II in 1962.

Despite difficulties in travel and communication during the ancient and medieval eras, about 600 took part in Chalcedon (451), more than 400 at Lateran IV and nearly 900 at Constance.

Even though each general council has exhibited distinctive characteristics, a common thread runs through all. Each council rose to the occasion and responded to the urgent needs of its day.

To recall the enduring value of what these solemn assemblies have accomplished for the Church throughout the ages, we need only read the words that for centuries have appeared at the beginning of each council document:

“For everlasting memory.”