What Happened at Vatican II
John W. O’Malley
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 400 pp.
October 28 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII. Less than three months later he announced his plan to convene a council. After three years of preparatory work, the Second Vatican Council opened on October 11, 1962. As John O’Malley acknowledges, shelves “are filled to overflowing” with books of various genres about the work and accomplishments of the council. One important history comprises five volumes. In this single volume, O’Malley has filled the need for a readable account that meets three goals: providing the essential storyline from Pope John’s announcement on January 25, 1959, to the council’s conclusion on December 8, 1965; setting the issues that emerged into their historical and theological contexts; and thereby providing “some keys for grasping what the council hoped to accomplish.”
In the introduction and first two chapters, O’Malley analyzes Pope John’s motives and goals, and masterfully lays out the contexts and important issues of the council. He explains that, during the second to fourth sessions, after John had unexpectedly died, Pope Paul VI removed the issues of clerical celibacy, birth control, and reform of the Roman curia from the agenda of the council. After a brief review of the history of past councils, O’Malley considers the distinctive characteristics of Vatican II. A new ease of communication enabled its decisions to be rapidly publicized and...