After the tensions of Black Week (November 1964) and with four documents still to be addressed, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council were more than apprehensive about the last weeks of the final session.
Two of the outstanding documents, the Church in the Modern World and the Declaration on Freedom, promised lengthy sessions. One thing all agreed on – this session must be the last. The council had kept bishops away from their dioceses for so long in the preceding three years. They resolved not to be bogged down by debates over what they considered smaller matters which often admitted passages into the texts that did not convey the full thrust of the document being passed.
When the Pope had promulgated the Constitution on Divine Revelation and the Apostolate of Laity on November 18, there remained little time to pass the remaining four documents and debate centred on aspects of the church in the modern world.
Communism a growing force
Should communism be condemned? This seemed to go against Pope John’s wish not to condemn movements which Pope Paul himself seemed to agree with. Finally the bishops agreed to add a footnote to the section on atheism referring to a papal encyclical condemning totalitarianism of all types.
Many Italian bishops felt this was not strong enough. The number of adherents to the Communist Party outside the very walls of St Peter’s had grown and with no excommunication of Catholic Communist voters, as there had been under Pius XII, the number of Catholics voting for the Communist Party had risen.
A tussle of mission control
The decree on missionary activity caused much debate. The control which the Propagation of the Faith exerted over missionary activity in relation to that of local churches was hotly debated.
The document on priestly life and ministry raised questions about the monastic-type seminary training for priests moving into a pastoral and often lone ministry.
The document on Liberty was well fought out. The American bishops were determined to maintain the freedom of conscience their ancestors had fought for in the American Revolution (ca1770–1783). The document was framed and inspired by the great philosopher and theologian, John Courtenay Murray.
The final voting on these documents including the one on the Church in the Modern World went on until the day before their promulgation on December 8.
Meanwhile, Pope Paul had emerged as a world figure. He had travelled to Palestine and Jordan, the United Nations and India and received a great response from the laity as well as non-Catholics and non-Christians.
He now intended to show he had learned from the tense closing of the third session by devising a fitting end to the council. He always had an eye for the symbolic and eloquent gesture.
On December 4 he joined the non-Catholic observers and 1000 or so of the council bishops in an unprecedented, interdenominational Liturgy of the Word in the historic basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls where, six years earlier, Pope John had announced his intention to summon a General Council.
Instead of the magnificent papal throne, Pope Paul used a straight-backed, sparingly ornamented chair from where he spoke to the non-Catholic delegates simply and movingly, saying that their departure would not mean the end of ecumenical dialogue.
He acknowledged there had been ‘failures’ on the part of Catholics and others in the past with regard to reunion but now every effort would be made to transform these into sentiments ‘worthy of the school of Christ’.
Afterwards the Pope met every non-Catholic observer. Some were in tears. At least one said that this was the most moving moment of the whole council.
An end to a 900-year standoff
December 7, the day before the final session closed, was extraordinarily busy for Pope Paul. After promulgating the last four decrees, the Pope read a joint declaration with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I, in which both churches removed and ‘consigned to oblivion’ the excommunications they had made of each other 900 years earlier in 1054.
When the Metropolitan Meliton of Heliopolis, representing Athenagoras, knelt to kiss the Pope’s ring, the Pope raised him up and embraced him. The Metropolitan returned to his seat to the thunderous applause of 2,000 bishops and many onlookers. At the same time in the cathedral in Constantinople, Athenagoras read out the same statement.
As one protestant observer said, ‘If the church is able to express its regret for the past with such ease and humility, anything is possible’.
Pope Paul then gave audiences to the groups of people connected with the council including the auditors, chauffeurs and handymen. At 6pm he gave a sharing of confidences to the Italian bishops, many of whom had formed the conservative minorities in the voting. The period after the council was not to be a return to the ‘good old days’ but a time of immense work with a renewed look at the church.
Surprisingly, an hour and a half later, Pope Paul gave an audience to the periti (experts) who had run classes for the bishops – many of these had been declared heretics by their foes. He spoke movingly of the great help they had been to the council and slyly suggested that having come to know the bishops so well, they should continue the communication after the council.
The concluding ceremony on the feast of the Immaculate Conception was outside St Peter’s and had more of the pomp of papal ceremonies. Archbishop Felici, as secretary-general, read the papal brief ending the council. Then six bishops joined by the Sistine Choir chanted the Litany of Saints as had been customary at general councils since the fifth century adding prayers for the pope, Pope John, the moderators, the bishops, the observer delegates, the heads of governments, the People of God and all people of goodwill. The Pope dismissed the assembly with a final blessing: ‘Ite in pace – go in peace’.
A personal reflection
This short history of the Second Vatican Council has, I hope, helped us to understand better the complexity of the process of church government. An acute and impartial observer, one of the non-Catholic delegates, Robert McAfee Brown, who attended only the second session, wrote of his buoyant optimism at the start of the session in September which became chastened by the end of the session three months later.
The optimism remains: the council is going to do many things for the genuine renewal of the Roman Catholic Church and whatever renews one part of Christendom is beneficial to the rest. But the optimism is tempered by a more realistic assessment of the fact that the renewal is going to take longer, be harder to achieve and less sweeping than I had originally hoped. There were many times when it seemed perfectly clear to me what the Holy Spirit and I wanted to have happen on the council floor, but the message didn’t get through to the council fathers. Sometimes – and this is more disturbing – the message got through to most of them, but a minority was able to block a clear expression of this working. For years I have known about Presbyterian obstructionists. Now I know a bit more about episcopal obstructionists, some of whom not only wear purple but even cardinal red.
I remember the closing of Vatican II 45 years ago. For many of us they were heady days that seemed to fit well with the euphoric 1960s – the Kennedy era, the Beatles, Rock and Roll, the student riots in Europe.
But they changed into the more neo-conservative era of the ’70s and ’80s and, with them, the church. Opposing sides began to form on the interpretation of Vatican II. Many of the changes moved forward slowly.
The progressive side said they saw a slackening of much official effort in implementing the law and even the spirit of the council.
The conservative side cited gross exaggerations of the ‘new’ Mass, of hearing of Masses in France particularly when the bacon and egg dishes at breakfast were put to one side and Mass said on the soiled table cloth (I always wondered how the French, who rarely had bacon and egg for breakfast but rather bowls of coffee and bread, were caught out in this way).
The distortions, of course, were not numerous and every zealot can go too far when the rules are changed. The council was careful to define what an informed conscience was but soon some were saying, ‘My conscience tells me to do this’, when they should have said, ‘I feel I like this way of doing it’.
The conservatives, too, often ignored the thrust of each document and insisted on cautionary paragraphs being inserted. These were left in to appease a small minority in the haste to get the document passed. The main and positive thrust of each document is clearly discernible.
The Holy Spirit a key player
When one considers the small, conservative minority getting their way with perhaps posterity in mind while the progressive and middle-of-the-road bishops comprised 90 percent or more of the final vote on almost every document, the Holy Spirit’s influence is clearly to be seen.
The extremes of the conservative side are exemplified by the St Pius X Society (Lefevbrists). These not only disagree with the church on the use of the vernacular in the Mass, but also reject Vatican II. Even Pope Benedict’s gesture to them of allowing the Latin Mass more often does not appease them.
A number of conservative Catholics say, ‘The church has been in a mess since Vatican II’, but the majority accept the council documents, though often in a literal way without capturing their spirit.
On the liberal or progressive side, the extreme position does not really accept the Magisterium or full teaching authority of the church and wants immediate changes.
The liberal spectrum begins to fan out from there wanting the full spirit of the documents to be re-examined knowing, as we have seen, that the historical factors of the period prevented a full discussion of birth control, celibacy and so on. This group hopes often for a Vatican III.
In between there is, at times, a rather confused body of Catholics seeing Vatican II as a great turning point in the church’s history but bewildered by the polarisation of opinion.
Opposers must seek commonality
Pope John XXIII who impressed Khruschev during the Cuban Crisis (1961) wrote in Pacem in Terris, if we are to have peace on earth (and in the church), enemies must sit down and try to make peace, not by confronting each other, but by looking at what they have in common.
If our polarised people sat down and saw that we share baptism which has given us our faith and confirmation which strengthened it to make us all – clergy, religious and laity – apostles of Vatican II, surely this is a good starting ground for dialogue which can be expanded further and perhaps provide a basis for Vatican III.
One of the 20th century’s outstanding theologians Karl Rahner said the 21st century will find a church smaller in numbers but more contemplative. One hopes our prayer life will deepen, building on our faith.