One major consequence of the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday, 27 April, was renewed, intense interest in Vatican Council II, the greatest religious event of the20th century. The 21st General Council was convoked by Good Pope John in 1962; it ended in 1965. The 1960s occurred only yesterday, it seems. However, the 1960s really came and went over a half-century ago, while I was still a very young priest. Hence the Council, which I read about daily at the time, requires considerable historical commentary today.
For one thing, Vatican II was innovative in many ways. Nonetheless, it did not contradict the ancient Church principle, Nil innovetur nisi quod traditum est.(“Nothing novel can be introduced that is wanting in the Tradition.) Another way of expressing this is summarized in the phrase, “a hermeneutic of continuity.” This is to say that Vatican II, when addressing the substantial data of Revelation – Sacred Scripture as read by and within the Church – could not possibly contradict the doctrine enunciated, for instance, at Vatican I or the Council of Trent or even Nicaea I.
The truths of the Catholic faith fit together, in one harmonious entity. Modalities of expression differ; indeed, discovering a vocabulary and style relevant to place and time is crucial for preaching the Gospel, which really does speak to all peoples of all times. But precise and meaningful philosophical, theological and linguistic expressions can come and go.
In addition to updating the language in which Gospel truths are set forth and preached, an awareness of how these doctrines appear in historical context has to be maintained by the teaching Church. Each Council, each pope, builds upon the legacy of earlier ones. Thus in most news stories about Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, very little was explained about the foundations fixed by earlier popes or Councils. For example, several major changes in the liturgy were initiated by Pope Pius XII, who restored the ancient Easter Vigil. It was also Pope Pacelli who modified the strict Eucharistic Fast, together with certain aspects of the Lenten fast. Moreover, the beginnings of the new Order of Mass could be detected in Pius XII’s pontificate. And wasn’t it he who also allowed the priestly ordination of married Lutheran ministers – presaging “the Provisions” on behalf of married Anglican priests? (The first German Lutheran minister to enjoy this privilege happened to be a descendant of the poet Goethe.)
Another pope almost forgotten in the news reports about the canonizations of 27 April was, of course, the truly great Pope Paul VI. When Good Pope John died early in the Council, the task of implementing Vatican II fell to Paul VI; e.g., producing the new Roman Missal, various new Rituals, applications of ecumenism and interfaith activities; etc. His accomplishments were enormous by any assessment. They were also agonizing in many, many ways.
“Agonizing” is an apposite descriptive for Good Pope John’s decision to convoke the Council, as well as Pope John Paul’s successful efforts to interpret and apply Conciliar mandates, proposals and themes. Somewhere I read that, during the first few months after announcing Vatican II, Good Pope John, when meeting with his closest aide, the famed Jesuit Scripture scholar Cardinal Augustin Bea, would repeat Coraggio! – a beautiful Italian expression for “Courage!”; or “Take heart!” Interesting, too, is the fact that John Paul the Great, when steeling the hearts of Catholics, beginning with his inauguration, repeated Jesus’ words to his Apostles, “Be not afraid!”
It often happens in Church history that agony occurs during the midst of the most significant, most noble and most monumental enterprises. Vatican II was one such occasion. At such times, the Holy Spirit was clearly in our midst, inspiring, guiding, clarifying, confirming. And the Spirit’s presence secures success, no matter how substantial the odds are against the Church and faith. In a sense, the Church was ready. Not only did the right popes for the times appear, but the ranks of the finest theologians – experts – were also available: giants like Joseph Ratzinger, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner and, of course, Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.