A procession of Council Fathers at the opening of Vatican II, Oct. 11, 1962. / Peter Geymayer via Wikimedia (public domain)
Denver Newsroom, Oct 18, 2022 / 09:00 am (CNA).
Sixty years ago this month, the Second Vatican Council brought together thousands of bishops, Catholic leaders and even non-Catholic observers to reflect on the role of the Church in the modern world.
Pope Francis’ two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were eyewitnesses to this three-year event, which took place from 1962 to 1965. After they were elected to the papacy, their pontificates brought the legacy of the Second Vatican Council into the 21st century and taught generations of Catholics how to bring Christ into their lives — and into the world.
For Benedict XVI, the council brought ‘joy, hope, and encouragement’
“It was a unique experience for me, after all the fervor and enthusiasm of preparation, I could see a living Church,” he said in an October 2012 general audience. Benedict recounted how almost 3,000 council fathers joined Pope John XXIII to bring the Church “to learn at the school of the Holy Spirit, the true driving force of the council.”
“Only rarely in history has it been possible, as it was then, almost ‘to touch,’ to feel tangibly the universality of the Church at a moment of the great fulfillment of her mission to take the Gospel in every epoch to the ends of the earth,” Benedict said.
John Paul II said the council has been “a gift to the Church.” It remains a “fundamental event” not only to understand the Church, but especially to explore “the abiding presence of the risen Christ beside his Bride in the course of world events.”
The council was the Church’s “experience of faith” and abandonment to God, trusting him and certain of being loved, the pontiff said in a Feb. 27, 2000, address to a conference studying how the council was implemented.
Before they became popes: a Polish bishop, a German theologian
When the council began, the future Pope John Paul II was 42 years old. He was known as Auxiliary Bishop Karol Wojtyla of the Archdiocese of Krakow, though he would become Archbishop of Krakow in 1964. Though Poland was staunchly Catholic, it was dominated by a communist, officially atheist government aligned with the Soviet Union.
The future Pope Benedict XVI was a priest: Father Joseph Ratzinger, an academic from the Bavarian region of Germany. He was only 35 years old when the council began, but he was already respected as a theologian. He first attended as the chief theological adviser or “peritus” to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne. He was later a theological expert for the council itself.
Benedict later reflected that the reason for the council was explained by Pope John XXIII in his opening speech when he stated that “faith had to speak in a ‘renewed,’ more incisive way” in a rapidly changing world, while “keeping its perennial contents” and “without giving in or compromising.”
John XXIII wanted the Church to reflect on her faith, but this self-reflection had to outline the relationship between the Church and the modern age in a new way. This aimed not to conform the Church to the world but, in Benedict XVI’s words, aimed “to present to this world of ours, that is tending to drift away from God, the requirement of the Gospel in its full greatness and purity.”
What John Paul II saw as a council father
Ahead of the council, then Bishop Wojtyla submitted to council organizers an essay about the human condition in which he reflected on what the people of the world expect from the Church.
He emphasized lay Catholics’ mission in the world. For John Paul II, the Church should remind lay Catholics that they have a “specific responsibility” in secular life, where they are “responsible for the Church and its witness.” They and the clergy must make a mutual effort to build up the Body of Christ.
The Pole’s biography on the Vatican website notes his “important contribution” to drafting Gaudium et Spes, the council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world.
One of John Paul II’s biographers, George Weigel, says that for Wojtyla the “theological linchpin” of the council is found in Gaudium et Spes’ 20-second paragraph: “It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear… all this holds true not just for Christians only, but also for all men of goodwill in whose hearts grace is actively present.”
During Wojtlya’s trips back home, he gave public lectures on what was happening at the council. He asked parishes, convents, and monasteries in his home archdiocese to hold days of prayer and vigils for the council, Weigel says in his biography “Witness to Hope.”
The council’s declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, had special resonance for Wojtyla, whose homeland suffered heavy communist hostility toward the Church.
A shared vision: Benedict XVI and John Paul II find continuity amid renewal
Especially in North America and western Europe, many news reports, religion commentators, and academics promoted and praised the Second Vatican Council as a major break in Church history. Most of these critics came from a “liberalizing” or “secularizing” perspective, though some vocal “traditionalist” Catholics believed similarly.
Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI took pains to set the record straight.
We see this in John Paul II’s Feb. 27, 2000, address.
The sainted pope said the council’s teaching “requires ever deeper understanding,” but in an authentic way. A true understanding must overcome “biased and partial interpretations which have prevented the newness of the council’s Magisterium from being expressed as well as possible.”
The correct interpretation of Catholic dogma or an ecumenical council must come from “within the fabric of faith and not outside it,” he said.
“To interpret the council on the supposition that it marks a break with the past, when in reality it stands in continuity with the faith of all times, is a definite mistake,” Pope John Paul II said. “What has been believed by ‘everyone, always and everywhere’ is the authentic newness that enables every era to perceive the light that comes from the word of God’s Revelation in Jesus Christ.”
Benedict XVI echoed his predecessor in February 2013, just weeks before his pontificate ended.
“The world interpreted the council through the eyes of the media instead of seeing the true council of the fathers and their key vision of faith,” he said in a Feb. 14 address.
“The media saw the council as a political struggle, a struggle for power between different currents within the Church,” he recalled. “But it was obvious that the media would take the side of whatever faction best suited their world.”
This phenomenon obscured the council’s teaching on the true role of the Church, the pope, the Catholic bishops, and the laity. Coverage of changes in the Catholic liturgy avoided presenting the Mass as an act of faith but rather presented it as a “community activity.”
This “council of the media” became dominant and “created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery.”
“In reality, seminaries closed, convents closed, the liturgy was trivialized … and the true council has struggled to materialize, to be realized,” Benedict said. He suggested that the true vision of the council was only just then coming into its own.
What to know, where to start? John Paul II’s ‘reader’s guide’
The major documents of the Second Vatican Council are an excellent way to grasp the event.
Here’s how John Paul II’s Feb. 27, 2000, address summarizes them:
Dei Verbum, on divine revelation, places the Word of God “at the heart of the Church’s life.”
Sacrosanctum Concilium, which is about the sacred liturgy, outlined “a liturgical life that would give God the true worship owed him by the people called to exercise the priesthood of the New Covenant.”
Lumen Gentium, which reflects on the Catholic Church, is “a true hymn of praise to the beauty of Christ’s Bride.”
Gaudium et Spes considers the Church’s relationship to the modern world. For John Paul II, the Church “knows that her message is a fruitful synthesis of the human being’s expectation and of God’s response to him.” Here, too, he quotes the document: “It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.”