August 20, 2012

On Jan. 25, 1959, a new pope shocked the world. Pope John XXIII, speaking to a small group of Roman cardinals following a liturgy to conclude the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, announced that he had decided to convene an ecumenical council.

Pope John, elected less than three months earlier, had previously told only one person of his plan and had consulted with no one. He had little idea of why he wanted a council. He did however refer to "the strengthening of religious unity and the kindling of a more intense Christian fervour."

The Church, he said, was on the threshold of a new era in history when it would be necessary "to define clearly and distinguish between what is sacred principle and eternal Gospel and what belongs rather to the changing times."

With those comments, Pope John struck a few notes that would eventually help to characterize the much-maligned "spirit of Vatican II," but not until after concerted resistance from the Vatican's own Curia had been overcome.

Essentially, the pope's decision to call the council was an inspiration or an intuition that such a great gathering was needed. When the council finally opened in October 1962, he said the idea for the council had come "like a flash of heavenly light," "a sudden emergence in our heart and on our lips of the simple words 'ecumenical council.'"

Few, if any, ranking churchmen in early 1959 believed that a council was necessary. In the past, councils had been called to respond to crises in the Church, especially over doctrine. But now there was no doctrinal crisis nor was there a pastoral crisis. The Church was apparently in wonderful shape, certain of its teaching and, throughout the Western world, its worship halls were full.

Moreover, after the First Vatican Council in 1870 had declared the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope, many believed that there would never again be a need for a worldwide council. Gotta problem? The pope will solve it with a clear, unequivocal declaration.


Pope John XXIII prays in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls Jan. 25, 1959, just before announcing his plans to convoke the Second Vatican Council.

But Pope John did call a council. And what a council it was! Fifty years later, its reverberations are still being felt throughout the Church. Indeed, the debate over what the council said and meant is ongoing, even increasing in fervour. The process of implementing the council is still incomplete.


Today, the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council form a foundation for the life of the Church. But if in 1965, those documents seemed almost revolutionary, today they seem less so.

Recently, a group of scholars published a book, Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition. The book examines the 16 documents in some detail, carefully pointing out that the council did not erase what came before it. The teachings of Vatican II are totally in continuity with what the Church had taught previously. There is evolution and development of doctrine, but no radical break with the past.

This may be true, but . . . Those of us old enough to remember the Church before Vatican II and who recall the earthquake that it represented in the life of the Church cannot be satisfied with such a placid account.

There is more to Vatican II than what can be found by studying its documents. If there was doctrinal continuity in the council's teachings, there was also an enormous upheaval in the life of the Church. Some of that upheaval may well be due to misinterpretations and over-enthusiasms. Part of it is no doubt the result of a greater embracing of Western culture which, in the 1960s, underwent massive convulsions.


But above and beyond all that, a sea change took place in the Church that was necessary and productive.

The liturgy underwent a process of revitalization that is still continuing. Greater contact with non-Catholic Christians and people of other faiths was encouraged. A static, deadening approach to theology was jettisoned in favour of one that allowed room for inquiry and evolution.

The Church endorsed religious liberty and rejected the notion that error has no rights. The full equality of the People of God in Baptism was recognized and holiness was seen as God's call to everyone, not just a spiritual elite. There was, in short, greater openness and less fear of "enemies."


For many, that openness was disorienting. When the central religious rituals of one's life are altered, it is likely to deeply unsettle one's relationship with the Transcendent. That fact and the effects of other changes were not sufficiently appreciated in the mid-1960's. These are likely not the only causes of a mass exodus of priests and religious from their callings and laity from regular Church attendance. But an honest evaluation of the changes should see them as contributing factors.

Still, a reform of the liturgy was necessary and perhaps overdue. As well, it must be said that one can be faithful to the letter of the Church's teachings and still acknowledge a legitimate "spirit of Vatican II" that is in harmony with those teachings. It is impossible to tell the full story of Vatican II without telling its history and without trying to come to grips with that legitimate spirit.


This will be a lengthy series of articles to mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II in the light of the Year of Faith that Pope Benedict has announced. The Year of Faith begins Oct. 11 – the 50th anniversary of the council's opening – and concludes Nov. 24, 2013, the feast of Christ the King. This series of articles is likely to run even longer than that.

But as lengthy as this series will be, it cannot pretend to be a full account of the council. It will be an overview that hits the high po ints of the history and touches on the main teachings of Vatican II's documents. It will be an interpretation, one which I hope is balanced, fair and faithful to the truth, but an interpretation nevertheless.

The implementation of the council is still far from complete. We do not, I believe, need a third Vatican council yet. We need to struggle ever more diligently to come to grips with Vatican II. My hope and prayer is that these articles will make some small contribution to that project.