What was the scope and work of the Second Vatican Council? John W. O’Malley’s excellent book, “What Happened at Vatican II,” explains that the council “was quite possibly the biggest meeting in the history of the world” (p.18). As such, it’s helpful here to take a moment to grasp its massive size and range. Nothing like it has ever been seen in the history of Christianity.
Vatican II was opened on Oct. 11, 1962, and was concluded on Dec. 8, 1965. Held over four 10-week sessions, it was convened in successive autumns, augmented by innumerable public sessions and working sessions. Bishops and other religious leaders taking part in the council came from all over the world to deliberate and vote in formal council sessions, usually on what, earlier that spring, theologians and prelates had argued about in lectures, in working papers and behind the scenes. It was a long, complicated, at-times chaotic and dramatic process. Yves Congar, a great theological voice and influence during the council, wrote in his journal at its start that the council obviously had “no working method.” He wrote, “We are at sea.”
From one point of view, the council was the Church at its most bureaucratically banal. It was also a mix of the human and the spiritual, and Congar repeatedly talked about its mystical side. He wrote, “I see that a Council goes through phases of shadow and sunlight. I believe the Holy Spirit. He makes use of people” (My Journal of the Council, 10 November 1962; 26 November 1962).
As Congar made clear, when thinking about the Second Vatican Council, as we said before, one mustn’t see it just as some isolated moment in history but as something of the Spirit. The council was a very human and at times imperfect endeavor, but still it was an endeavor of the Church. Remembering here that the Church’s DNA contained in John 17 helps us think about Vatican II. Jesus promised his disciples — even today’s disciples — the power of glory and love. Thus, this gathering of the Church was a spiritual gathering before all else; and so, to understand it at all, one must understand it spiritually.
But what was this council specifically to be about? Through his Secretary of State, Cardinal Tardini, John XXIII sent out, believe it or not, a questionnaire. “The Venerable Pontiff wants to know the opinions or views … of their excellencies, the bishops,” Tardini wrote. Since there was no urgent crisis to address, Tardini needed their suggestions “in preparing the topics to be discussed at the council.” They were invited to respond “with complete freedom and honesty.” The door was open to talk about anything, and Rome actually got mountains of stuff back from this questionnaire — 2,598 opinions were solicited, gathering 1,998 responses. Some bishops answered with only a page, others sent back book-length tomes. Almost 3,000 invitations were sent out all over the world. Bishops, prelates and other religious leaders from 116 countries participated. Europe and the Americas counted for 70% of that participation. The Americans largely paid for it. If there was an ecumenical council called today, the demographics would obviously be quite different. German theologian Karl Rahner, an influential figure at the council, said once that at Vatican II the Church finally became a “World Church” (Karl Rahner, “I Remember,” 89). At any one time, 2,400 council fathers participated; overall, 2,860 people participated in Vatican II. By contrast, only 750 people participated in Vatican I and only anywhere from 29 to over 200 people participated in the Council of Trent. When Vatican II was in session, there may have been 5,000 to 10,000 people in Rome solely on council business. Rome during that time was a busy and bustling place. St. Peter’s Basilica was transformed into a forum that dwarfed houses of parliaments and congresses. There was even a bar in the nave behind the seats called Bar Jonah!
Three lay “auditors” spoke at the council, and although there were 15 women serving as auditors, none of them spoke. Among the theological experts present — the periti — some were among the greatest theologians of their time and of the century. One such peritus was Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Also, there were theologians like the aforementioned Yves Congar, though never formally a peritus, as well as Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner. Many great theologians added their brains, hearts and words to the council by serving as careful writers of many of the council’s documents.
A global news event, 1,000 press passes were issued to the council. News from the sessions made the headlines — one thinks of Francis Murphy’s essays for the New Yorker under the nom de plume Xavier Rynne. Among the non-Catholic observers were Protestant theologians and leaders from all over the world. One of my teachers at Duke, the late Geoffrey Wainwright, a Methodist systematic theologian, was an observer. Other Protestant theologians like Albert Outler from Southern Methodist University and Oscar Cullman were also observers. And their presence was particularly important and mattered a great deal to John XXIII. One anecdote illustrates this. In typical Roman Catholic institutional fashion, at one session the Protestant observers were put in the corner behind a pillar. Why? Because they were Protestants of course. Yet, when John XXIII noticed, he stopped everything and moved all the Protestant observers to the very front, giving them the best seats in the house. When one Protestant observer later said to John XXIII, “Now I see why it can be a good thing to have a Pope!” the pope replied, “Now my Council really begins!” Again, remember he called the council on Jan. 25 at the end of the old Christian Unity Octave. He knew what he was doing!
On paper, the result of Vatican II was a lot of documents — over 3,000 pages of Latin texts. These documents were categorized into four constitutions, nine decrees, and three declarations. The constitutions were to be the most important, the decrees less so and the declarations even less. However, once published, each document took on a life of its own. Some are clearly dated — interesting, but a product of the time. Some are the most beautiful theological texts produced in the 20th century. Speaking personally, these documents helped me discover Catholicism because they described a faith and a Church that I simply thought beautiful and biblically complete. The descriptions of the Church in Lumen gentium (on the Church) and Unitatis redintegratio (on Christian unity) moved me deeply. Sacrosanctum concilium (on liturgy) articulated for me, in biblically rich clarity, just what it is we Christians do when we gather to worship God. Dei verbum (on Scripture) helped me think clearly about how tradition and the Bible relate. The last constitution, Gaudium et spes (on how the Church lives in the world) — a controversial text then and still today for some — articulates as best as it could at the time that tense, creative relationship.
These, of course, are just some of the texts of the council, and they deserve more of our attention. But, for now, remember that to understand what we believe as Catholics, to understand the Church, we must explore and understand the Second Vatican Council — the expression of Catholicism in our time.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.