Q. I am always surprised to read about references to Vatican Council II, even though it happened over a half century ago. Could you answer some questions I have about it, because I was too young to understand it when it took place?
A. Vatican Council II, convoked by Pope John XXIII, was unquestionably the most significant religious event of the 20th century. It was announced on 25 Jan. 1959.
Envisioned as primarily a pastoral Council meant to address Christian Faith in the modern world, its first formal session occurred on 9 Oct. 1962; the incomparable venue was St. Peter’s Basilica. Three principal areas of discussion, noted by the great French Dominican theologian, Ives Congar, named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II (who was a major Father of the Council), were to be Tradition, the Theology of the Laity, and, in a general way, Ecclesiology (the theology of the Church).
From the very start, the task reached far beyond its initial perspectives; in a true sense, the Holy Spirit’s promptings were universally deemed essential. However, they were heeded, despite ambient questions, enigmas, commotions, disturbances and, thank God, newfound enthusiasms. As a young priest in those days, I was definitely more than aware of a heady atmosphere within the Church that could only be described as Pentecost redux. It was a richly rewarding hour for Catholics of faith – and for Christians in general who cared.
As the Council progressed, three specific objectives became more and more evident: (1) Aggiornamento, an Italian word meaning “updating”; (2) Approfondimento, an Italian noun for the process of penetrating more deeply into the data of Revelation (i.e., Sacred Scripture as read within the Church’s Tradition); and (3) Ecumenism (a Greek derivative describing the quest for Christian unity).
The First Session took place from 8 Dec. 1962 to September 1963. The Second Session occurred from 29 Sept. to 4 Dec. 1963. An Intercession followed from 4 Dec. 1963 to 14 Sept. 1964. The Third Session ran from 14 Sept. 1964 to 21 Nov. 1964; but an Intercession followed from 21 Nov. 1964 to 14 Sept. 1965. Finally, the Fourth Session, from 8 Dec. 1965 to 30 Sept. 1966, marked the Council’s end.
Pope Saint John XXIII, who called Vatican II, died early during the Council, on 3 June 1963. The new Pope, Blessed Paul VI, then became the guiding light of Vatican II.
Vatican II was the largest such assembly ever. Vatican I met with about 750 delegates; Vatican II, with over 3,000! Sixteen official documents were promulgated, including three monumental Constitutions: (1) On the Church; (2) On Revelation (i.e., that Scripture and Tradition are mysteriously inseparable); and (3) On Liturgy (a “first,” in the history of General Councils). Another major “first” was the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Other documents included key “Decrees” (e.g., on Ecumenism, on Consecrated Religious Life, on the Apostolate of the Laity; as well as three “Declarations” (e.g., on Religious Freedom).
Incidentally, Vatican II is the 21st General Council of Church history; the first was First Nicaea in the fourth century. The General Councils are also known as “Ecumenical” councils, not specifically because they may accent church unity in the contemporary sense, but rather because “ecumenical” means, from its Greek origins, “worldwide” or “general.”