Vatican 2 – by one who was there (briefly!)

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I’m grateful to Fr Starkie for twisting my arm and asking me to speak about the 2nd Vatican Council. It brings back so many happy memories. The Council met from 1962 to 1965. It was the 21st General Council in the history of the Church. It’s impossible at this distance to grasp the excitement – and the importance – of Vatican 2. The Council wasn’t just a Church event; it was a world event. Charles Malik, President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, called the Council “the greatest event for several centuries”. How then to do it justice now?
I’m reminded of something Bishop Thomas Holland said about his time in India. (For those who don’t remember, Bishop Holland was Bishop of Salford for 20 years, years that covered the Council and its aftermath, and I’ll mention him several times in this talk.) He was staying in a Jesuit house of studies in the Himalayas, on the foothills of Mount Everest. Everest remained hidden by cloud. But then, one day the cloud lifted and you could see the summit of another mountain, almost as high as Everest - Mount Kanchenjunga. “It wasn’t that you simply looked up” he said. “The mountain was so towering you had to jerk your head right back and look up.”
The 2nd Vatican Council is something like that. It’s far too big to encompass in a short talk. But I’ll try to bring the peaks into focus, even if we do have to crane our necks.
One of those peaks is the sheer number of those taking part. Not only the Bishops, but the Observers from other Churches, the periti (experts), the vast media corps and so on. They came from all over the world. They gathered at the crack of dawn on Thursday 11th October 1962.
I had been in Rome for six years then, and I was briefed to go into the Vatican with some of the English bishops, to show them where they were to get ready. When I’d done that I took the opportunity to look around. There were nearly 2,500 Bishops and they were vesting in the Hall of Benedictions and along the two long corridors of the Vatican museum. I walked the length of those corridors among the two and a half thousand bishops, and as I walked I saw bishops from all the continents and from all the different Catholic rites, and I heard dozens of different languages. I saw the diversity of the nations drawn into the Church and I was dazzled by the Catholicity of it all. That was one of the formative moments of my life. I experienced the universality of the Church.
I felt too the smallness of the Church in England and Wales. I sometimes say to the children in school, “Suppose all the Catholics in the world numbered 76,000 and suppose that they all fitted into Manchester United’s ground at Old Trafford, how many of those 76,000 would be from England and Wales?” The children’s answers vary enormously. “10,000?” “20,000?” The real answer would be about 300. 300 out of 76,000! That gives us some idea of the universality of the Catholic Church.
Then the whole gathering got ready to go out from the corridors of the Vatican museum and into St Peter’s.The papal MCs somehow got everyone moving, and we went down the Scala Regia, out through the Bronze Doors and into St Peter’s Square. The papal MCs tried to get us into line. Seni! they called out, Seni! Very few knew that was the Latin for “In sixes!” But somehow it worked. Try to imagine that huge procession walking through the Square and up into St Peter’s! The procession was four kilometres long, two and a half miles! Imagine that long line, with those 2,500 bishops six abreast, all wearing white or gold copes and white mitres (or golden crowns if they were from an Eastern Rite). And then came Good Pope John XXIII – Saint John XXIII. He was carried, as Popes were in those days, on the sedia gestatoria. And the crowd of people packing the Square was immense. What an atmosphere it was!
It took a long time. I forget how long. But eventually we were all in the basilica. The Bishops took their places in the banks of seats specially made for the occasion. They faced each other across the nave of St Peter’s. Mass started. Pope John was the only celebrant. Concelebration in the Latin Rite only came in with the Council. Everything was in Latin, except of course the Kyrie and the Gospel sung in Greek as well as in Latin. At the end of the Mass Pope John delivered his address.
It had taken hours to get to this point. Inside St Peter’s it was quite hot. The Pope’s address seemed to go on and on. Now if you or I were to nod off during a homily hardly anyone would notice. But if you’re wearing a tall white mitre it’s different. All over the basilica one could see mitres falling, and then suddenly jerking upright as the wearer woke up. Remember, very many of these bishops had only arrived in Rome a day or so before, some after very long journeys. As students, it took us two whole days to travel by rail from Manchester to Rome. Travel in those days wasn’t what it is now. Tiredness was taking its toll. Bishop Holland wrote to his brother a few days later: “[Pope John’s] speech was surely one of the best in papal history. I went to sleep three times but read it carefully after.”
Pope John’s address went home. That address in many respects was dynamite. It set the tone for the whole of the Council. The Council was to be a Pastoral Council. That had been Pope John’s intention from the start. He had announced the Council some three years before, on 25th January 1959. He said the idea came to him in a conversation with Cardinal Tardini, his Secretary of State. They were talking of the troubles of the world and what the Church could do to help promote peace and harmony [V2btwwt p117]. Pope John had seen war and oppression at first hand. Remember, Pope John had been in the thick of many very difficult situations. As a young priest during the 1st World War he was drafted as a sergeant into the Italian Army. He served as a stretcher bearer and chaplain. In the 1920s and 1930s he held posts in the Vatican’s diplomatic service – difficult posts in Bulgaria and then in Greece and Turkey during the 2nd World War. Towards the end of that war he was the Papal Nuncio to France – a very delicate situation in a France recently liberated but full of problems. He stayed in Paris until appointed Patriarch of Venice in 1952.
It would be a mistake to think that the Council started its work only on 11th October 1962. For three years before that, between January 1959 and October 1962 the Church had gone into labour. There were Pre-Preparatory Commissions and Preparatory Commissions. In the end ten specialised commissions were formed. Media people were involved. The Commission for Christian Unity was particularly important. A Central Commission saw to the overall coordination. Most of the members of these groups were from the Roman Curia but many were also from around the world. A number of our English Bishops were involved, including Cardinal Godfrey, Archbishop Heenan, Bishop Beck, Bishop Holland and others. Famous theologians were drafted in too. Altogether the Commissions held almost one thousand meetings between January 1959 and the Council opening in October 1962 [987 meetings to be exact].
At that time I happened to be President of the Literary Society in the English College. All these experts coming to Rome were too good to miss. I managed to get a number of them to speak to us in the College: Archbishop Heenan of Liverpool spoke to us about Christian Unity; Mgr Worlock (later of Liverpool) spoke to us about the media; Mgr Bob McReavy, the leading moral theologian in England, spoke us about the morality of nuclear warfare; Archbishop Young of Tasmania spoke to us but I can’t remember what about!; Archbishop Hurley of Durban spoke to us about seminary training; Bishop John Wright (later Cardinal) of Pittsburgh spoke to us of the Council; Fr Josef Jungmann spoke to us about Liturgy; Fr Henri de Lubac spoke to us, mainly of Fr Teilhard de Chardin; Fr Barnabas Ahern, the scripture scholar, spoke to us of the Synoptic Gospels; Fr Bernard Lonergan spoke to us of the relevance of philosophy and the development of dogma. I tried but failed to get the German Jesuit theologian Fr Karl Rahner. I rang him up, speaking in Italian, but he insisted on speaking Latin. So we conversed in Latin on the phone but we weren’t able to find a suitable date, so he never came. Similarly with Fr Yves Congar.
I mention all this to show the intense work that went on even before the Council started. When it did start, it was the largest gathering in any Council in the Church’s history. (In comparison, 737 bishops attended the first Vatican Council in 1870, most of them from Europe.) For the first time at a Council other Churches and denominations were present. About 50 of these Observers attended the first session of the Council. That number had doubled by the end of the 4th session in 1965.
But back to Pope John’s opening homily. Dynamite isn’t too strong a word for it. Yes, he said, “This is the greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council: the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and more efficaciously taught. [That doctrine embraces the whole person, composed of body and soul, and, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, commands him to strive always after Heaven …] The 21st Ecumenical Council … wishes to transmit this doctrine pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion … This doctrine, however, should be studied and taught through the methods of research and the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient teaching of ‘depositum fidei’ [‘the deposit of faith’] is one thing; the manner in which it is presented is another. This latter must be taken into great consideration; if necessary, with patience. Everything must be measured in the form and proportion of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.” (Bold type mine)
“As we begin the 2nd Vatican Council, it is obvious that the truth of the Lord will remain forever … Today, however, the Spouse of the Church prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day more by demonstrating the validity of her teaching than by condemnation … She desires to show herself as the loving mother of all; benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness to the children separated from her. As Peter of old said to the poor man who begged alms from him, she says to the human race which is oppressed by so many difficulties: ‘Silver and gold I have none, but what I have I will give you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk.’ … “Venerable Brothers, this is the aim of the 2nd Vatican Ecumenical Council. While bringing together the Church’s best energies and striving to have men welcome more favourably the good tidings of salvation, she prepares, as it were, and consolidates the path towards the unity of mankind …” Such was Good Pope John’s vision: his dying words were reported as being “ut omnes unum sint”. “May they all be one.”
Something astonishing happened the day after the Council opened. As Bishop Holland put it: “The first working day of the first session of the Council made one thing very plain: the Fathers [i.e. the Bishops] of Vatican 2 had a mind of their own.” (For Better and Worse p 281) What happened was this. The Council needed various groups or ‘Commissions’. These Commissions needed members. Before the Council opened, and to save time after the Council opened, the Roman Curia had drawn up a list of members for all the Commissions. These members had a key responsibility. They would put into words the mind of the Council as it emerged from the debates in St Peter’s.
The lists drawn up by the Curia did not please the Council Fathers. Cardinal Lienart of Lille proposed that the Council be suspended to give the various hierarchies the chance to discuss among themselves who should be members of the various Commissions. “The effect [of Cardinal Lienart’s speech] was devastating. The 21st Ecumenical Council ground to a full stop” (For Better and For Worse p 281). The decision was made to drop everything to allow for wider consultation. It was plain that the Bishops meant business. I still recall the buzz that went round Rome that day.
I hope that what I’ve said so far gives you a flavour of the Council as it started. 17 days after it started I was ordained priest. On 28th October 1962 Cardinal Godfrey, then Archbishop of Westminster, ordained John Hine, Anthony O’Sullivan and myself in the chapel of the Venerable English College. All the bishops of England and Wales except one lived at the College during the Council. All were there at the ordination! Cardinal Godfrey instructed them not to lay hands on us who were being ordained priest. He said that if all the bishops came and laid hands on us there might be a doubt about which order we had received – priest, or bishop!
During that first session of the Council I would sometimes wander across to St Peter’s to see the Council Fathers coming out from their meetings. The bishops were dressed in choir dress, with their purple cassocks and mantellettas and white cottas. From a distance it was like strawberries and cream pouring down the steps of the basilica. They were in choir dress because that was the correct liturgical dress. The Council was above all a religious event. Each day began with Mass and the enthronement of the Sacred Scriptures, and with the prayer, “We are here before you, O Holy Spirit …”
Especially with the bishops living with us in the College, we got an idea of what was going on in St Peter’s. It was a heady, exciting time to be in Rome. The first session of the Council ended on the 8th December, feast of the Immaculate Conception. I was in St Peter’s on that day and managed to get into the section reserved for the Superior Generals of Religious Orders!
That very day we heard a rumour coming out of the Vatican [from the Congregation for Rites] that Pope John had stomach cancer and only three months to live. He lived in fact for six months. The remaining sessions of the Council were led by Pope Paul VI. I stayed in Rome until Pope Paul’s election and a few days later came back to England. After that it was a case of following the Council from afar.
What then did the Council get up to in its four years? What did it produce? Shall we look briefly at the peaks I mentioned earlier? The four highest peaks are the four Constitutions (as they are called). What do we mean by a Constitution of the Council? A Constitution is a document that has to do with the teaching of the Church. It’s very much a central document of a Council. There are two other kinds of document that a Council may produce: they are Decrees, and Declarations. For the record the Council produced nine Decrees and three Declarations. Decrees and Declarations take their lead from the Constitutions. They tackle more practical issues facing the Church. Examples would be the Decree on Ecumenism; the Decree on Priestly Life and Ministry; the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity; the Declaration on the Church and non-Christian Religions; and the Declaration on Religious Freedom. The Council also issued several messages: for example, a Message to Humanity; to Rulers; to Men of Thought and Science; to Women; to Artists; to Youth; and so on.

It’s not possible to go through any of these in details. You’ll have to read them for yourselves. And read them until the book falls to pieces, as you can see this is. But I’ll try to describe the highest peaks.

First, the highest peak of all: the Constitution on the Church. How do we understand the Church? We have to look back in history. In answer to the Reformation, the Church had to emphasise certain truths about herself: for example, the hierarchical structure of the Church; the supremacy of the Pope. The First Vatican Council met in 1870. That Council had intended to cover the fuller teaching on the Church. But it had time to deal only with one part of that teaching. That was the definition about the primacy and infallibility of the Pope. War in Europe led to the First Vatican Council having to break up. It never got round to the other part of the teaching on the Church, namely the part concerned with bishops and with the laity. And the teaching of the Church had matured since Vatican 1, especially with Pope Pius XII’s famous encyclical on the Mystical Body (1943). The Fathers of Vatican II wanted to give a vision of the Church that was “more biblical, more historical, more vital and dynamic” (Abbott p11).
“The Constitution starts with the notion of the Church as a people to whom God communicates Himself in love” (Abbott p12). So the chapter entitled ‘The People of God’ comes before the chapter about the bishops. Also, emphasis was laid on the pastoral, priestly duties of the bishops, as distinguished from administrative duties.
And together, the bishops are seen as forming a ‘College’. They are collectively responsible for the welfare of the whole Church. This idea of a ‘College of Bishops’ wasn’t all that familiar to many of the Fathers. I think it was Cardinal Cushing of Boston who was reported as saying: “The Bishops want a college. Sure, let them build them a college, I’ll pay for it!”
We’ve seen this collegiality of the bishops at work in recent years. Synods of Bishops now meet regularly with the Holy Father to treat of various aspects of the Church’s life. The first suggestion of Synods of Bishops was made in the Council by the Bishop of Salford, Thomas Holland. He picked up a hint in Pope Paul’s address at the opening of the second session of the Council in September 1963. And on behalf of the Bishops of England and Wales, Bishop Holland suggested that the Holy Father might consider associating bishops the world over in his task of overseeing the universal Church. Pope Paul took up the suggestion. At his opening address at the fourth and final session of the Council, he announced that he was establishing an Episcopal Synod to assist the Pope in governing the Church (See ‘For Better and For Worse’, p 292). Other important chapters in the Constitution on the Church are entitled ‘The Universal Call to Holiness’ and ‘The Pilgrim Church’. But we must move on.
A second high peak is the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Key sentences in the Constitution read: “The Liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the source from which all her power flows … Thus the Liturgy is everything to us and we are nothing without it.” "Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4–5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14). The Constitution brought about changes in the way Mass is celebrated. The most obvious changes are the language of the Liturgy (the use of local languages); the priest facing the people; the simplifying of rubrics.
These changes didn’t come out of the blue. Pope St Pius X, in the early 1900s, had encouraged reform of the Liturgy. Pope Pius XII wrote his very influential encyclical on the Liturgy, Mediator Dei, in 1947. Experts like Fr Josef Jungmann, and Fr Clifford Howell here in England, had prepared the ground with their studies and writings. In our doctrinal and liturgical lectures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in the years leading up to the Council, the professors were teaching us many of the ideas the Council endorsed. So it was no surprise when the Fathers of the Council approved the Constitution on the Liturgy with 2147 votes in favour and only four against.
A third peak of the Council is the Constitution on Divine Revelation – On the Word of God. Both clergy and lay faithful were encouraged to make study of the Scriptures a central part of their lives.This Constitution was eventually approved by the Council Fathers, with 2344 in favour and only six against – but only after long and sometimes acrimonious debate. There is record in previous General Councils of the Church of the venerable Fathers arguing and pulling each others’ beards. Something similar happened here. Only this time it was Fathers Karl Rahner and Sebastian Tromp, both world renowned Jesuit theologians, addressing a meeting, and struggling with each other to get hold of the microphone.
What was all that about? Well, the first draft of the Constitution on the Word of God was entitled De duplici fonte Revelationis – About the double source of Revelation. The question was: are Scripture and Tradition two distinct sources of God’s Revelation or are they one single channel of divine truth? Fr Tromp argued for the double source, Fr Rahner for the single. In the event, the Fathers came down on Rahner’s side. Scripture and Tradition are not two independent sources of Revelation: they are completely linked and inseparable. The Magisterium of the Church (i.e. the teaching office of the Pope with the Bishops) is at the service of Sacred Scripture and Tradition, and is the authentic interpreter of Scripture and Tradition. To quote the decisive passages from the Constitution: Scripture and Tradition “make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” and “the two flow from the same wellspring and move towards the same goal.” “The authentic interpretation of God’s Word has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone” (Constitution on the Word of God, 9 and 10).
The fourth high peak of the Council is the final Constitution, The Church in the Modern World. It was approved by the Council Fathers on the very last working day of the Council. It is the longest document the Council produced. No other document changed so much during the course of the Council. No other document was nearly thrown out so many times! It was drafted and re-drafted, and the Council Father who had most input into it was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, later Pope St John Paul II. There’s only time to give the chapter headings, to give the flavour of this Constitution: The Dignity of the Human Person; The Community of Mankind; Man’s Activity throughout the World; The Role of the Church in the Modern World; Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family; The Proper Development of Culture; Socio-Economic Life; The Life of the Political Community; The Fostering of Peace and the Promotion of a Community of Nations.
There were other peaks too which would make us crane back our necks. I’ve mentioned some of them earlier. I’ll pick out two: the Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on the Church and non-Christian Religions.
The Decree on Ecumenism. The day Pope St John XXIII announced that he was going to call a Council he desired “to invite the separated Communities to seek again that unity for which so many souls are longing in these days throughout the world.” He set up a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. (Bishop Holland was a member for 12 years, 1961-73.) Pope John asked the Orthodox Churches and the Protestant bodies to send observers. When the observers came, Pope John had them seated in St Peter’s in an honoured place, across from the Cardinals. One of the Protestant observers [Dr Oscar Cullmann] said of the Decree on Ecumenism: “This is more than the opening of a door; new ground has been broken. No Catholic document has spoken of non-Catholic Christians in this way.” The Decree on Ecumenism marked the beginning of a new era in the relation of the Churches to one another.
Finally, the Declaration on the Church and non-Christian Religions. Pope John wanted the Council to make a statement on the Jews. After much debate this Declaration was the result. It includes other world religions as well as Jews. For the first time in history, a General Council of the Church acknowledged the search for the absolute by non-Christian peoples, and hailed the truth and holiness that may be found in other religions as the work of God.
The Declaration emphasises the links between the people of Israel and the Church. There is no room for saying that the Jewish people are guilty of Christ’s death, nor is there room for anti-Semitism. The Council Declaration repudiates both those things. The Declaration mentions St Paul’s comments in his letter to the Romans, viz that the Jews still remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for He does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (Romans 11, 28-29).
The Council closed on the 8th December 1965. It had been an exhausting time for all those taking part. But now the real work began: putting the Council into practice. Pope Paul approved the setting up of various Commissions charged with implementing the Council’s decisions.
Some people have interpreted the Council as a rupture with the past. Others, such as Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict, see it as in continuity. They were both present throughout the Council. I’m sure they are right. Wasn’t it Pope Pius IX who said at the First Vatican Council, “You will find the Holy Spirit inside the Council, not outside”?
In the 50 years since the Council much has been written; much has been said; much has been done. Not all that has been written or said or done has been what the Council intended. But by and large a great deal has been achieved. There is a new Code of Canon Law. We have a new Catechism of the Catholic Church. The aftermath of a Council demands patience. Blessed John Henry Newman once said: “It is rare for a Council not to be followed by great confusion” (quoted by Fr Yves Congar OP, V2btwwt p.349). The first Council of Nicea for example was followed by 56 years of contention. Chalcedon, Trent, Vatican 1 all had their troubles.
Bishops returned to their dioceses around the world with the intention of bringing the Council’s teaching home. On returning to Salford, Bishop Holland said that in the light of the Council he wanted to see “one single family, one community, all consciously united in the bonds of truth and love. This is the point to which all my efforts will be directed.” The greatest revelation of the Council for him was that only by keeping unity with the Pope and the other bishops could a bishop teach, make holy and shepherd the flock of Christ. From that vision came a concern for the universal mission of the Church.
Has the Council’s vision been realised? Fr Yves Congar was a Dominican priest and theologian. He suffered a great deal at the hands of the Nazis (he was imprisoned in Colditz) as well as at the hands of his superiors. He was therefore no starry eyed idealist. Writing about 20 years after the Council Fr Congar had this to say: “The Council produced many very substantial fruits, consisting to a great extent of promises. At present we have only the first crop of these fruits. Many local Churches are displaying great vitality. Charisms and basic ministries are everywhere in evidence. Ecumenical efforts are gradually coming to maturity. Christians are everywhere committed to their fellow men, especially those who are crushed or put to the test. One does not have to look far to find countless examples of total spiritual generosity. Does this not make our period one of the most evangelical in history?
“I must admit that it makes me very sad to see so many of the great and fine structures that I loved so entirely fall into ruins or get put up for auction; but I am at the same time astonished to see so many worthy initiatives and so many new beginnings prompted by the Gospel and the Spirit of God … When a tree falls it makes a great noise, but when a forest is growing nobody hears anything. That Chinese proverb expresses very well what is happening …” (V2btwwt p 352)
Pope Benedict XVI wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Council. So he declared a "Year of Faith" from October 2012. He said the Year would

be “...a good opportunity to help people understand that the texts bequeathed by the Council Fathers, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, 'have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church's Tradition...’ I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning (Porta Fidei 10 November 2011).”

The forest continues to grow.

JA St Joseph’s, Heywood 14 December 2014

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