Vatican Council II: light for the church and for the modern world
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Vincenzo Carbone

Inspiration from up High, flower of an unexpected spring. (1)

When Cardinal Giuseppe Roncalli was elected Pope, some, because of his advanced age, suggested that his would be a transitional pontificate. We don't know the thoughts of the electors, but we can say that God's design was different. At the beginning of the new pontificate, while many tried to perceive what the characteristic note would be, the Pope himself revealed it.

Three months after the election, on January 25, 1959, speaking to the cardinals gathered in the main hall of the Benedictine Monastery of S. Paul, John XXIII announced his decision to celebrate an ecumenical council. The resolution was born from the ascertainment of the crisis, caused in modern society from the decaying of spiritual and moral values. (2)

In the last fifty years, there were profound transformations, both social and political; there matured new and grave problems, which demanded a Christian answer.

First Pius XI and then Pius XII had thought of an ecumenical council and had already gotten the preparatory studies underway, but both initiatives, for various reasons, were blocked.

Several years later, John XXIII, with his look focused on the needs of the Church and the world, set about, with "a humble resolve of initiative," on the great task, which he felt was divine will. The announcement of the Council, totally unexpected, had a vast echo. Everywhere, within and without the Church, expectations and hopes were turned on. It was not without suppositions and erroneous interpretations, that the Pope sought immediately to correct, specifying the aims of the future of the Council.

Faithful in God, without hesitations, he ordered the preparations to go ahead. On May 17, 1959, the feast of Pentecost, he instituted the anti-preparatory commission, with the aim of soliciting a vast consultation, in order to determine the themes to study.

After exploring the copious material received, on June 15th, 1960 feast of the Pentecost, the Pope, with the Superno Dei nutu, traced the complex outlines of the preparatory apparatus.

In two years of intense work, the technical organisms set up, in the Vatican basilica, the grand Counciliary Hall(3), and the preparatory commissions elaborated the plans that would be examined by the Council.

There were multiple difficulties, and that first group was not immune to limits and flaws, which were then, in part, remedied by the submission of the mixed subjects and that of the amendments.

According to the indications of the central commission, they amended the plans and unified those that dealt with analogous arguments.

On October 11, 1962, the feast of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the XXI Ecumenical Council of the Church solemnly began. During the night, it had continuously rained, but in the morning, the sky was again serene and the long cortege of 2,400 Priests in Saint Peter's Square entered the basilica.

The eighty-year-old Pontiff was absorbed and moved; often he had tears in his eyes. His face transformed when he read the "admirable"(4) discourse. "It," said Paul VI, "seemed to the church and to the world a prophetic voice for our century, and which still echoes in our memories and in our consciences to trace to the Council the path taken"(5).

The XXI Council of the Church was open! The long walk took off with so much hope in the hearts of everyone!

While the preparatory works of the second phase proceeded, on June 3, 1963, amid the universal cries, John XXIII passed away.

On June 21st, he was succeeded by the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who took the name Paul VI.

Some worried, others hoped for the postponement of the beginning of the Council. To put aside any uncertainty, on June 27, the new Pope confirmed the start of the Council for September, with the beginning of the second phase starting on the 29th of that same month(6).

The Council continued with multiple difficulties of various kinds. Firstly, the themes of the day were numerous and complex; the dealt with the life of the Church, separated brothers, non-Christian religions, humanity in general; and some of these were discussed for the first time in the Council. And, in the discussions, different formations, mentalities and experiences were confronted.

The debate, therefore, had vivacious tones, but it was always animated by the faith of the Fathers and by the common desire to find the truth and express it in the most suitable form.

In the ardor of the discussions, there were also attitudes that were not very serene and there were diverging opinions, but it cannot be said that the Council was a place of arguments between conservative and progressive tendencies. John Paul II, who was one of the Council Fathers and actively participated in the work affirms: "In truth, it would be very unjust to the entire work of the Council, for some to reduce that historic event to a similar opposition between rival groups. The internal truth of the Council is very different"(7). The road was long and not without difficulty, but it lead, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to the light of the truth.

On December 8, 1965, on a freezing morning, but with a sunny sky, Paul VI, in the courtyard of Saint Peter's Basilica, after having delivered seven messages, (for world leaders, the men of thought and science, the artists, women, workers, the poor the sick and the suffering, young people), closed Vatican II(8). He communicated the difficult and delicate phase of fulfilling it.

Aims and spirit of Vatican II

John XXIII wanted a pastoral Council and one of renovation. This thought of his was by some people interpreted a distorted and limited sense.

In his first encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, June 29, 1959, he stressed that the Council was meant primarily to promote the increasing of the faith, the renewal of traditions, and the updating of ecclesiastic discipline.

This would have constituted a spectacle of truth, unity and charity, and it would have been for the separated brothers an invitation to the unity wanted by Christ(9).

In the meeting of the antipreparatory commission, on June 30, 1959, the Pope repeated: "The Council is convoked, first of all because the Catholic Church [...] proposes to attain new vigor for its divine mission. Perennially faithful to the sacred principles on which it stands and to the immutable doctrine entrusted by the Divine Founder, the Church [...] always following the footprints of ancient tradition, intends [...] to strengthen life and cohesion in the face of the many daily contingencies and situations, and it will establish efficient norms of conduct and activity. Therefore, in front of the whole world, it will appear in its splendor."

The Pope, therefore elevated the prayer to the Lord, so that in front of the new bubbling of fervor and of works in the Catholic Church, even the separated brothers would feel a new call to unity(10).

The word "pastoral," in the mind of the Pope, did not restrict itself to something practical, separated from doctrine: it is inconceivable to have pastoral without doctrine, which is the first foundation.

Ignorance, contempt, and disownment of truth are the cause and the root of all evil, which disturbs individuals and populations.

Everyone is called to embrace the doctrine of the Gospel; rejecting it, the very foundations of truth, honesty and civility are in danger. John XXIII exhorts, therefore, to present the truth with diligence and to acquire knowledge which deals with celestial life: "Then, only when we have reached the truth that comes from the Gospel and which must be translated into the practice of life, can our soul relish the tranquil possession of peace and of joy"(11).

Opening the Council, the Pope on October 11, 1962 declared that the main aim of it was to keep and to teach in the most efficient form the sacred consignment of Christian doctrine; and he indicated the lines of this magisterial exercise.

The auspicated renewal of the life and mission of the Church must occur in the faith of the sacred principles, to the immutable doctrine, following the footprints of the ancient tradition: "The Council wants to transmit pure and integral doctrine, without attenuation or distortions."

This sure and immutable doctrine, faithfully respected, must be deepened and presented in a way that answers the needs of our time. The Pope distinguishes between the substance (entire, precise and immutable doctrine), " fidele obsequium est praestandum," and the form (the presentation), (quae cum magisteriom cuius indoles praesertim pastoralis est, magis congruat)"(12).

The pastorality of Vatican II consists in the studding and deepening the doctrine, expressing it in a way in which it can be better understood, accepted and loved.

Without pronouncing itself with dogmatic and extraordinary sentences, Vatican II would have expressed, with the voice of pastoral charity, its teaching on many question which at the present occupy the conscience and the activity of man; it would not have refereed solely to speculative intelligence, but it would have spoken to the man of today, whoever he is. A Magisterium, therefore, in which the note of the pastoral ministry shines(13).

The renovation is intended not as a break with the past or opposition to historic moments, but as a growth, a perfecting of the good always active in the Church.

Paul VI affirms that John XXIII "did not want to attribute to the programmatic word of 'renovation' the meaning which some wish to give it, rather it consents to see with a sense of proportion according to the spirit of the world everything in the Church: dogmas, laws, structures, traditions, while it was alive and in him the sense of doctrinal and structural stability of the Church and to make it hinge on his thought and work"(14).

In line with the pastoral address, John XXIII indicates that we must oppose ourselves with a merciful spirit to errors. To severity he prefers "the medicine of mercy."

Misleading doctrine, dangerous opinions and concepts gave such deadly fruits that men are already ready to condemn them. That's way it's better to show them, with a positive teaching, the sacred truth, in such a way that they, illuminated by the light of Christ, can "well understand who they really are, their ecclesial dignity, their end"(15). In the pastoral aims of Vatican II, the dialogue between separated Brothers and the modern world resumes. The entire Christian family has not fully and perfectly reached the visible unity of truth; "the Catholic Church believes it its obligation to actively work so that the great mystery of that unity is reached, that Jesus invoked with ardent prayer to the celestial Father in the immensity of his sacrifice".

Men -- affirms the Pope -- cannot, without the help of the entire revealed doctrine, reach a complete and strong unity of souls, which is the real peace and eternal health.From here the solicitation of the Church in promoting and defending truth(16).

The Magisterium of Vatican II

The councils are the milestones of the walk of the Church. They inscribe on its life, with the deepening of doctrine, liturgical and disciplinary reforms, the choice of means more apt for evangelization.

A Council always opens a new epoch, in which the Church takes a step towards the future and advances in its mission.

Notable, is also the influx of the council on civil society. Chesterton said: "Our entire civility is the result of the decisions of the Council. A history of Europe will never be written with logic unless we take note of the values of the Councils."

Vatican II established a point of reference in the life of the daily Church, opening it up, under the breeze of the Holy Spirit, a new path.

It took important stands on subjects and it offered the Church rich documents of doctrine and of action: four constitutions (one liturgical, two dogmatic, and one pastoral), nine decrees and three declarations.

A link connects these documents, which form an organic "body" of doctrine and of law for the renewal of the Church.

The four Constitutions allow for the exact interpretation of the decree and the declarations, which are applied to various sectors of the life of the Church the teachings of the Council.

It's a selective and partial reading, limited to one or the other text, it does not consent an evaluation of all the councilar teaching, or of a false interpretation and it is the reason for wrong applications.

The fundamental thought, which pervades all the documents, is the renewal, with the strongest and most live imitation of Christ, who is the center of the Church and livens everyone with his spirit.

Vatican II is defined as the Council "of the Church," "of Christ," "of man." In truth, these definitions mean the emphasis given to various themes; they must be understood not in an exclusive sense, but integrally. In fact, the relationship between ecclesiology, Christology and anthropology of Vatican II is very strong.

The central theme is the Church. From this, the Council explored the mystery, outlined the divine design of the constitution, deepened the nature, illustrated the mission, re-evaluated the vocation of the laity and their part in the mission of the People of God (17).

The ecclesiological teaching finds development and application in the decrees on the missionary activity, the pastoral office of Bishops, the ministry and the priestly life, the apostolate of the laity, ecumenism, the renewal of religious life; and in the declarations on Christian education, the relations with non-Christian religions, freedom of religion.

A profound Christological and pneumatology reality, the Church revealing itself, reveals Christ, from which it is the visible manifestation and it realizes the "body" in time.

Therefore, the Magisterium of Vatican II, while mostly concentrating on the Church, veers-in a last instance-on Christ, on the relationship of the Church with Christ and of man with Christ.

Opening the second period of the Council, on September 29, 1963 Paul VI declared: "May this Council have always in mind the relationship between us and Jesus Christ, between the saintly and live Church and Christ. Let no other light shines on this assembly, that is not the Christ, light of the world"(18).

The reference to Christ enlivens in a special way the constitutions of Dei Verbum and Sacrosanctum Concilium. They indicate in the word of God and in the liturgy the fundamental forms of presence of the lord and they promote the renewal to allow the faithful to participate more in the spiritual nourishment, that comes from the word of God and from the liturgy. The Church is for men and by men, "it feels truly and intimately united with humanity"(19).

"The Church," says John Paul II- "through the Council, did not want to close itself within itself, refer to it alone, but on the contrary, it wanted to open itself more fully"(20).

In fact the Council, after having deepened the mystery of the Church, it interested itself in the modern world, of phenomenal man, as he is presented today.

The evangelization mission and of salvation pushed the Council to overcome the distinctions and the fractures, to turn to "entire human families in the context of all those realties in which they live"(21).

It dealt with a dialogue, to bring to the whole human family salvation, to collaborate for their true good and to the solution of grave problems, in the light of the Gospel.

The constitution Gaudium et Spes exposes the Catholic doctrine on grand themes: vocations of man, dignity of the human person, atheism, human activity, marriage, hunger, culutre, socio-economic life, peace, war, community of populations.

Laic humanism, closed in the natural order, is opposed by Christian humanism, open to the transcendence, which presents the theocentric conception of man, recalled to find himself in the light and the splendor of God(22).

The sublime reason of human dignity consists in the vocation of man to the communion with God: becoming for Christ and in Christ Son of God. Created by God, man is called to God, to Him he is destined and "he cannot fully find himself, if not through a sincere gift by him"(23).

Therefore the Council refers to all men and invites them to welcome the light of the Gospel.

Vatican II, affirmed John Paul II, "remains the fundamental event of the life of the contemporary Church; fundamental for the deepening of the richness given to them by Christ; fundamental for the fecundal contact with the contemporary world in a prospective of evangelization and of dialogue on every level with all men of attentive consciences"(24).

The Council laid down the premises of the new walk of the Church in contemporary society. Even being the same as yesterday, the Church lives and realizes in Christ its "today," which took flight especially from Vatican II(25). It "prepared the Church for the passage from the second millennium to the third millennium after the birth of Christ"(26).

(1). Motu propio Superno Dei Nutu, 5-6 1960: Acta et Documenta Concilio Oecumenico Vatican II apparando, Series I, vol. I, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis 1960, p. 93.

(2) Cf. Acta et Documenta...I, vol. I, pp.3-5.

(3) Cf. Aula Sancta Concilii, in care of the General Secretariat of the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, Printing Poliglotta Vaticana 1967.

(4) This as it was defined by John Paul II in the homily of 11-10-1987, during the concelebration in Saint Peter's for the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the Council: cf. Teachings of John Paul II, vol. X, 3, 1987, p.831.

(5) Opening speech of the second period of the Council, 29-9-1963: Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, vol. II, pars I, T.P.V. 1971, p. 185.

(6) Cf. rewritten by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, 27-6-1963: Acta Synodalia...,vol. II, pars I, p.9.

(7) Speech to the Roman Curia, 22-12-1992: AAS, 85 (1993), p. 1015.

(8) Cf. Acta Synodalia..., vol. IV, pars VII, 1978, pp. 885-886.

(9) Cf. Acta et Documenta...I, vol. I, pp. 34 ss.

(10) Ibid., pp. 41-42.

(11)Ad Petri Cathedram, AAS, 51 (1959), p. 502.

(12) Speech of 11 October 1962: Acta Synodalia..., vol. I, pars I, 1970, pp. 170-171.

(13) Cf. speech of Paul VI, 7-12-1965: Acta Synodalia..., vol. IV, pars VII, 1978, p. 660.

(14) Speech to the Council Fathers, 18-11-1965. "Renovation," declares Paul VI, "means that from now on for us knowlegeable penetration of the spirit of the celebrated Council and the applications of its norme, happily and saintly emanating.": Acta Synodalia..., vol. IV, pars VI, 1978, pp. 693-694.

(15) Cf. Acta Synodalia..., vol. I, pars I, pp. 172-173.

(16) Ibid., p. 173.

(17) Cf. Lumen Gentium.

(18) Acta Synodalia..., vol. II, pars I, p. 187.

(19) Gaudium et Spes..., n.1.

(20) Speech of 7-12-1985 to the Fathers of the Bishops Synod: Teachings of John Paul II, vol. VIII, 2, 1985, p. 1443.

(21)Gaudium et Spes..., n.2.

(22) Cf. Ibid., n.22.

(23) Ibid., n.24.

(24) Speech of 30-5-1986 to the participants at the conference organized by the French School in Rome about Vatican II: Teachings of John Paul II, vol. IX, 1, 1986, p. 1724.

(25) John Paul II, speech to the Roman Curia, 22-12-1992, AAS, 85 (1993), p. 1014.

(26) John Paul II, speech of 1-12-1992 to the presidents of the European Episcopal Conferences: Teachings of John Paul II, vol. XV, 2, 1992, p. 790.