“What a strange thing this Council is; it has no programme and is not being ‘led.’” Such is part of theologian Yves Congar’s notation on 12 November 1962 in his now famous diary, My Journal of the Council (2012; 979 pp.). The date looked ahead to the Second Session, which opened on 29 September 1963. (The First Session began on 11 October 1962, and closed on 8 December of the same year.)
Pope John XXIII – Blessed Pope John – obviously opened his heart and mind to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. No one had a clear idea of the specifics to be discussed, even though both Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII had agendas in mind for a General Council that never took place. Under Pius XII, the Council would be extremely intellectual; one of the subjects for debate would have been, we have read, polygenism (i.e., can we think of Adam as plural, in order to fit him neatly into the evolutionary theories?). Earlier, during the Pontificate of Pius XI, the Council might have concentrated on the so-called “Roman Question”; i.e., just how Vatican City as such was to be formed as a sovereign state.
In convoking Vatican II, however, John XXIII stunned the Church with the announcement of an agenda completely as fresh as it was old; he would simply open up the windows of the Church, as it were, and allow the Holy Spirit’s rush of inspiration to flood the structure anew, as the same Spirit breathed upon the nascent Church in the Upper Room on the first Pentecost.
Given the size of the 20th-century Church, Vatican II was destined to be the largest Church synod ever; more than three thousand delegates were summoned. (Vatican I counted about 750 delegates.) Given the character of the times, the 3,000 Council Fathers needed theologians on hand (the Latin word periti means “experts”); and almost countless “observers,” secretaries, and technical aides had to be invited. And where could the deliberations be carried out in a proper manner? Nowhere else, it was soon realized, than St. Peter’s Basilica, where rows and rows of temporary seating were constructed. (I recall visiting St. Peter’s between the first and second sessions; the temporary accommodations were still in place, of course.)
Father Congar almost immediately offered to help his own bishop with theological expertise. Shortly afterward, when his bishop received a collection of thirty-two “schemas” for evaluation, Congar’s gracious offering was quickly accepted. Moreover, by 1960 (just months after John XXIII announced the Council), Congar found himself officially named a Consulter to the Preparatory Theological Commission (on the suggestion, he later discovered, of the Pope himself).
Thus, the great Dominican (he ranked alongside the young German, Joseph Ratzinger, and veteran theologians like Karl Rahner and Jean Daniélou, and Scripture scholars like Augustin Bea) began a chapter of his life that eventually earned him the title of “the Father of Vatican II,” and, of course, the Cardinal’s Hat from Pope John Paul II.
Vatican II produced 16 major documents. Three were Constitutions (the highest form of Conciliar statement): Lumen Gentium (the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”); De Revelatione (“On Divine Revelation”), and Gaudium et Spes (the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”).
Other documents included various “Decrees” (one on Ecumenism, another on the Pastoral Role of Bishops, a third on the Laity, a fourth on Priesthood, etc.). There were also two exciting “Declarations”; one on religious freedom, the other on non-Christian religions. The above is not a complete listing.
Vatican Council II turned out to be the single greatest Church event of the century. Father Congar’s Journal of the Council is by far the most authoritative and frank record of its proceedings penned by one of the periti. By the time the Council was in full motion, Congar was being recognized as the greatest of the periti who participated in it. His name remains today, a half-century later, as the leading witness to (in another theologian’s view) “the dynamics at work,” day-by-day from the very beginning on.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.