Standing before you I tremble somewhat with emotion but am humbly resolute in my purpose to proclaim a twofold celebration: a diocesan synod for the city of Rome, and a general Council for the universal Church (Giuseppe Alberigo, A Brief History of Vatican II, 1).
These are the words of Pope Saint John XXIII given at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on January 25th, 1959. This announcement came just a few months after his election to the pontificate. Pope Saint John XXIII initially was meant to be an interim Pope. He was seventy-six years-old when he was elected and it was thought he would keep things status quo in the Curia. He proved many wrong.
Throughout the Church’s history many ecumenical councils have been convened; twenty-one in all. An ecumenical council is a meeting of bishops from across the world. The purpose of these councils is to discuss important matters in the Church; such as the clarification of dogmas and other teachings and disciplines of the Church. For example, the Council at Ephesus held in 431 discussed and ultimately declared Mary as Mother of God. On October 11, 1962 the Second Vatican Council was convened at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. For some, this Council came as a surprise. At the time there were no particular controversies or questions needing clarification in the Church. However, the world was still healing from the Second World War and global political events were having an effect on the culture including, the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was also the election of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, to the presidency. The world was going through many social changes.
Many were surprised when Pope John XXIII called for the Council at the Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls on January 25th. 1959. The last Ecumenical Council was The First Vatican Council convened in June of 1868. The overall mission of the Second Vatican Council was to emphasize the rich tradition of the Church and to reaffirm our belief in the rich teachings of the Church but also to discover ways to bring these riches of truth into the modern world and beyond. It was hoped the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Church would transform the world as She has done throughout Her history.
It is absolutely vital that the Church shall never for an instant lose sight of that sacred patrimony of truth inherited from the Fathers. But it is equally necessary for her to keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world. -Pope Saint John XXIII
The rationale behind the calling of the council, was for the Church to cultivate ways to bring the Church into the modern world. It was a call for renewal in the Church. This renewal was to come not only from within the Curia but also among the faithful. The idea was for renewal in the Church through a return to the ancient. Two major themes moved the Church towards the Council. The first theme was that of ressourcement meaning a return to the sources, that is Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church. The second theme was aggiornamento, an updating of the teachings of the Church so that these truths might speak to the people of our time and place. Notice that this does not mean a change in content, but rather, the manner of articulating the deposit of faith so as to meet people where they are. There were also Liturgical changes including, among other things, active participation in worship and use of the vernacular or local language in the celebration of the Eucharist, Ecclesiology, and Biblical Studies.
Some of the key players in the world of theologians at the Council were Father Yves Congar, OP, Father Edward Schillebeeckx, OP, Father Karl Rhaner, SJ, Father Henri de Lubac, SJ, Father Hans Kung, Father Joseph Ratzinger who would become Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Bishop Karol Wojtyla who would become Saint John Paul II. These participants of the Second Vatican Council played varying roles and many times their contributions were done behind the scenes. But nevertheless, these men were great influences and contributors not only during the Council but to the Church as a whole.
During this period of the Second Vatican Council, the Church, just after the late 1950s, was thriving in most parts of the world; with many vocations to the priesthood and religious life, Catholic Schools were flourishing, and Mass attendance was at an all-time high. So, what was the need for such a Council? Below you will find a brief introductory summary of the four Constitutions promulgated at the Council. These four documents will give us a sense of what the Council Fathers thought needed to be addressed.
Sacrosanctum Concilium: Promulgated on December 8, 1963,was the Constitution developed by the Council fathers on the Sacred Liturgy. It was the first document issued by the Council. This document spoke to the liturgy of the Church with an emphasis on the celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments. Sacrosanctum Concilium would have a significant effect on how the sacraments are celebrated, in particular the Holy Eucharist.
Lumen Gentium: Promulgated on November 21, 1964, Lumen Gentium is the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Interestingly enough, this is the first time in Her history the Church doctrinally taught what the Church was, God’s sacrament of salvation in the world (e.g., 1 & 9). Moreover, it is in this document that we receive the universal call to holiness, which all the people of God share in by virtue of their baptism. It is in Lumen Gentium that the Church is referred to as the people of God and the Body of Christ, and Our Blessed Mother, Mary, is placed before us as supreme exemplar and figure of the Church.
Gaudium et spes:Promulgated on December 7, 1965 Gaudium et spes is the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church. This constitution is the longest of the four major documents, addressing various topics such as the nature of the Church and the Church’s relationship with the world. It reflects on the Church’s influence on the culture. The document takes up the role of the family, the dignity of the human person, human rights, technology, war, and the sciences. It also speaks to the role of each member of the Church as well as each person’s participation in the life of the Church.
Dei Verbum:Promulgated on November 18, 1965, Dei Verbum is the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. This document looks at the nature of Divine Revelation and how God uses the human authors of Sacred Scripture to speak to the world about Him through Sacred Scripture. It taught the importance of Divine Revelation and revelations part in the overall development of the teachings of the Church. It spoke to the nature of sacred scripture as the source of the teachings of the Truth and salvation.
This post is a brief introduction to the vast subject of the Second Vatican Council. It is hoped to offer at least four additional posts on these major Constitutions of the Council, so stay tuned. We have supplied links to these documents. We hope you can take some time to read, reflect, and study the texts themselves in order to gain an insight of the teachings of the Council. While they are quite academic and theological in nature; we hope they can be an aid to your personal prayer and theological reflection. We also pray these posts will be a source of clarity about the actual teachings of the Council. Sadly, in the years following the Council, there was in some circles a misinterpretation and poor implementation of the Council teachings, which led to wider divisions to the unity of the Body of Christ; one of the groundbreaking teachings of the Council. We offer these posts with hopeful humility to bring a faithful understanding of the Council in order to help bind divisions….
Father Aidan, OSB
Additional Resources for Study:
A Brief History of Vatican II by Giuseppe Alberigo tranlasted by Matthew Sherry Orbs Books Mayknoll, New York 10545 2006.
Vatican II Did Anything Happen? John W. O’Mally, Joseph A. Komonchack, Stephen Schloesser, and Neil J. Ormerod Edited by David G. Schultenover Bloomsbury 2007.
Photo by manhhai