Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are not linked only by their holiness, their popularity, and their emphasis on mercy, but by the Second Vatican Council. John Paul’s biographer George Weigel describes the two popes as the Council’s ‘twin bookends’.
The Council, which historian Eamon Duffy has described as ‘the most revolutionary Christian event since the Reformation’, took place over four sessions between October 1962 and December 1965 and was the largest gathering of any council in Church history. Unlike the Church’s previous 20 ecumenical councils, it defined no new teachings and condemned no new errors, but sought instead to translate the teachings of the Church so it could more effectively evangelize the contemporary world.
The idea of calling the Council came to John, he later said, “like a flash of heavenly light” while in prayer. John felt himself “under obedience” to the Holy Spirit, and “had noticed that disposition, in things great and small, gives me, unworthy as I am, a strength of daring simplicity.” He would need that strength, because the opposition to the council from within the Vatican bureaucracy was formidable.
It wasn’t just the idea to call the Council, but what it was for, that came to him. He had an intense desire to bring God’s love into the world, to bring Christ to every corner of it. What upset John was that the Church seemed no longer to be speaking to the world. In Pope Francis’s famous phrase, it had become “self-referential”, no longer living by the light of the Holy Spirit but too often by its own light. The Council was called to reform the Church in order that it better live by the light of Christ, and better communicate that light to the world.
In his opening address, Pope John explained that the greatest concern of the Council should be that ‘the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously,’ before distinguishing between what and how the Church teaches:
‘The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a Magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.’
The watchwords of the Council were ‘ressourcement’ and ‘aggiornamento’. Aggiornamento is an Italian word meaning ‘bringing up to date’; it required the Church to listen to the modern world — to discern the Holy Spirit at work in the modern world — in order to speak to it more effectively. Ressourcement, a French term meaning a return to the sources, offered the way in which this should be be done. In facing the challenges of modernity the Church had no need to limit itself to the methods and ideas of recent centuries when looking for answers: it had almost two thousand years of history, practice, thought, and prayer from which to draw.
Although the Council produced 16 enormously important documents, notably ‘dogmatic constitutions’ on Divine Revelation and the Church, constitutions on liturgy and the Church in the modern world, declarations on Christian education, religious freedom, and the relations between the Church and non-Christian religions, and decrees on the laity, ecumenism, and more, the meaning of these documents, and of the Council as a whole, was not always clear at the time.
Addressing the Clergy of Rome on 14 February last year in one of the final statements of his papacy, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who had participated in the Council as a peritus – a theological expert –attributed much of the confusion that followed the Council to a shallow popular understanding that was in many ways at odds with what the Council had agreed and decreed. Characterising the former as a ‘Council of the media’ and the latter as the true ‘Council of the Spirit’, he said:
We know that this Council of the media was accessible to everyone. Therefore, this was the dominant one, the more effective one, and it created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy … and the real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council. But the real force of the Council was present and, slowly but surely, established itself more and more and became the true force which is also the true reform, the true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that, 50 years after the Council, we see that this virtual Council is broken, is lost, and there now appears the true Council with all its spiritual force.
That such understandings of Vatican II threatened to prevail was apparent even during the Council; in April 1965 the then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla wrote an open letter to the editors and staff of a Polish Catholic newspaper, in which he warned against superficial readings of the Council. Viewed from the outside, he cautioned, the Council could look like a battle between factions, but the real story of Vatican II was far more profound: the Council, he explained, was above all a transformative spiritual event in which the Holy Spirit was preparing the Church for a renewal of its mission in its third millennium.
In the years immediately following the Council this understanding was obscured. The future Pope Benedict XVI remarked in his 1985 The Ratzinger Report that Vatican II’s documents had been ‘quickly buried under a pile of superficial or frankly inexact publications’ and that these ‘misinterpretations’ had wrought catastrophic damage. Nonetheless, he insisted, the remedy for this devastation was to be found in the Council itself.
I believe, rather, that the true time of Vatican II has not yet come, that its authentic reception has not yet begun… The reading of the letter of the documents will enable us to discover their true spirit. If rediscovered in their truth, those great texts will make it possible for us to understand just what happened and to react with a new vigour.
I repeat: the Catholic who clearly, and, consequently, painfully perceives the damage that has been wrought in his Church by the misinterpretations of Vatican II must find the possibility of revival in Vatican II itself. The Council is his, it does not belong to those who want to continue along a road whose results have been catastrophic.
The catastrophe the Pope was describing was indicated partly by the drop in priestly vocations. Although the global population rose by almost 30 per cent between 1970 and 1985, the number of priests worldwide dropped from 420,000 to 403,000 in the same period, reflecting increasing uncertainty about the role of priesthood.
John Paul II’s priority was to supply the Church with an authoritative understanding of the Council around which Catholics could unite. He also sought to recover John XXIII’s original vision of an evangelically revitalized Church speaking in language the modern world could understand. The 1983 Code of Canon Law which sought to express the Council in law, the 1985 world synod of Bishops on the Council’s twentieth anniversary, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Great Jubilee of 2000 that pointed the Church to its third millennium were all specific attempts to bring to light the promise of Vatican II. But John Paul II’s whole teaching was to this end.
In clarifying the meaning of the Council, John Paul II showed how aggiornamento meant not spurning the past, but building on it; as Pope emeritus Benedict XVI explained at Christmas 2005, the Council, to be understood rightly, needed to be read in terms of a ‘hermeneutic of renewal’ rather than one of ‘rupture’. Pope Francis clearly shares this view, praising as ‘the best interpreter of Vatican Council II’, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, a leading critic of those who would see the Council as a break with the past, and agreeing with Benedict’s belief that the Council needs to be seen in terms of continuity and renewal, saying that it applies as much to the sixteenth-century Council of Trent as to the Second Vatican Council.
For John XXIII, John Paul II and Francis – as well as Paul VI and Benedict XVI – the Second Vatican Council was always about the mission: renewing the Church for a third millennium of evangelical and apostolic action. The process of that renewal has not always been easy, and was thrown off course in the 1970s, such that Paul VI grew increasingly alarmed at what was happening: what John XXIII initiated, and Paul VI implemented, John Paul II – with Cardinal Ratzinger – rescued and deepened, and Francis is now taking forward. The Council is still being interpreted, and still being implemented – currently in Francis’s reforms of the synod and church governance. The task then and now was what John XXII first intuited in prayer: rebuilding the Church to bring Christ’s mercy to every corner of the world.