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Vatican II: A First Fiftieth Anniversary

This Sunday, January 25th, is the fiftieth anniversary of Pope John XXIIIs announcement that he intended to convoke an ecumenical council. He did so less than a hundred days after his election, privately, to a small group of cardinals, after a service in the basilica of St. Pauls Outside the Walls to close the week of prayer for Christian unity.The announcement came in a speech in which Pope John set out some of the challenges and opportunities he saw, first, as bishop of the local Church of Rome and, second, as pastor of the entire Church. In the latter capacity, he noted in a single sentence the great gifts of grace that Christ was continuing to pour out on the world. On the other hand, there was the sad sight of so many people who reject faith in Christ and pursue material goods instead, an opposition thathe said continues the struggle between two cities that St. Augustine described. Material and technological progress was distracting people from the search for higher things, sapping the energies of the spirit, and relaxing traditional structures of discipline. All of this led to the key moment:

In the heart of the lowly priest whom, despite his unworthiness, the manifest indication of divine providence has led to this height of the supreme Pontificate, these observations arouse a decisive resolve to recall certain ancient forms for stating doctrine and for making wise provision for Church discipline. In ages of renewal in the history of the Church, these ancient forms have produced extraordinarily effective fruits by clarifying thought, by consolidating religious unity, by enlivening the flame of Christian fervor....Venerable brothers and beloved sons! In your presence, trembling a little with emotion and at the same time with humble resolution of purpose, we announce the idea of proposing a twofold celebration: a diocesan synod for the City and an ecumenical council for the universal Church.You, venerable brothers and beloved sons, do not need abundant illustrations about the historical and juridical significance of these two proposals. They will lead happily to the desired and awaited aggiornamento [up-dating] of the Code of Canon Law which is to accompany and crown these two efforts to give practical application to the provisions of ecclesiastical discipline, as the Spirit of the Lord will be suggesting to us along the way. ...

At the end of the talk, Pope John entrusted his proposal to the prayers of the Virgin and of his patron saints. "Of them all we beg that these important proposals may begin well, be carried through, and have a happy outcome, for the enlightenment, edification, and joy of the entire Christian people, for a renewed invitation to the faithful of the separated communities also lovingly to follow us in this search for unity and grace to which so many souls all over the earth aspire."[This was how the sentence appeared, months later, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis. But the original version of the ecumenical reference read: "a renewed invitation to the faithful of the separated churches to share with us in this banquet of grace and fraternity." The official text changes "separated Churches" to "separated Communities," makes the simple "us" into the plural of majesty, "Us", and invites the others, not to share in our banquet--the Council--but to "follow Us in this search for unity and grace."]So thats how the whole great thing called "Vatican II" got started. Its worth a prayer of gratitude to God for Pope John and for the Council.

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Amen, Fr. Joe.I'm too young to recall the council. But my aunt and uncle, who were in Catholic high school at the time, remember that the whole church was excited about it. Everyone followed the reports and dispatches closely, and the sisters who taught at the school assigned special study projects for the students. it must have been an exciting time.

There are lies, damn lies, and Vatican repetitions.

Ann, I always find your comments well thought out and informative; could you please expound? I'm another one who is too young to remember the Council, but I did grow up in the '70's in what seemed at the time to be a very vibrant Catholic Church. I'm increasingly interested in the opinions and memories of those who have experience both the pre- and post Vatican II Church as I have felt lately that the Church I grew up with does not exist any more in this era of Benedict.

"In your presence, trembling a little with emotion and at the same time with humble resolution of purpose, we announce the idea of proposing a twofold celebration..." "Humble resolution of purpose" squares with everything I've heard about Good Pope John -- Fr. Komonchak, you've reminded me I need to read more about and by him. I love the phrasing of "we announce the idea of proposing..." Humble indeed!

Ann: What does your post above mean? Especially in terms of this thread?

Thanks for reminding us about this anniversary and for reminding us about John XXIII. I was 18 years old when he died. John really was as a special man. We were very lucky to have him as pope. I read that he told an editor of Pravda, "You say you are an atheist, but surely you will accept an old mans blessing for your children." Pope John XXIII was a blessing for all of us.

Amen. I was in high school by the time the council ended and remember the excitement of the time and the vitality of the church during my college years. I hope we all make a big deal of this anniversary; something quite important did happen and it needs to be recognized and remembered. Slipping into the mode of thinking that Vatican II wasnt a big deal implies the church today behaves in much the same way as it did in the hundred and fifty years before Vatican II, which is a bit of a stretch. It implies the church in all its hierarchical glory was never wrong about most of the major issues of the day: It was not wrong in its stand against democracy, it was not wrong when it said a state should be able to dictate the religion of its people, it was not wrong about the importance of Scripture and the early Church Fathers, about the uses of history, about Bible studies, about the relationship of the hierarchy to scholarship, or about the laity. This sorry history (and all it implies about how wrong the church can be on so many critical issues over such an extended period of time) is wiped from memory when we say that at Vatican II nothing really happened.The other thing it means is this. If nothing really happened, then there is no unfinished business. If nothing happened, the fact hat no women or laity played a role in the Council is just a quaint historical tidbit. If nothing happened, the fact that birth control, celibacy, the reform of the Curia and the formation of the Synod of Bishops were taken off the Councils agenda by Pope Paul VI is meaningless. The fact that the issue of the authority of the Pope vs the authority of the bishops was not satisfactorily resolved is irrelevant. If nothing happened at Vatican II then who needs Vatican III?Not only did something happen, a lot more needs to happen, so lets celebrate the event as much as we can.

JAK --There is a saying that "There are lies, damn lies and statistics". It means that people can be fooled by using statistics, at least that is how I interpret it. What I mean by "There are lies, damn lies and Vatican repetitions" is analogous to that. I mean that (some) Catholics can be fooled by statements which the Vatican puts out as purported repetitions of earlier Vatican statements but which really do not repeat the first ones. In other words, they aren't really repetitions. It seems to me that the Vatican's changed text of Pope John's speech is a perfect example of this. The Vatican put it forth as a repetition of what he said, but it really wasn't. What it obviously was, was an attempt to place Pope John closer to the conservatives than he actually was.. Other examples of Vatican repetitions are some statements beginning with "As the Church has always taught . . .", as if what follows actually was what the Church did teach -- but in fact the Church taught the opposite. These "repetitions" are obviously attempts to fool people into thinking that Church history was as those responsible for the "repetitions" would like it to have been.

The Catholic Church has always taught that the fullness of Truth, the Deposit of Faith, can only be found in the Catholic Church, and thus, the Catholic Church is necessary for Salvation.

It is not often acknowledged that the "aggiornamento" envisioned by Pope John xxiii was not merely what was connoted by the sedate curial rendition into Latin ("ter pergentes") of Pope John's original Italian text ("un balzo innazi"), since the latter means "a leap forward."Regarding this and its implications, see the excellent reflection of Frederick E. Crowe entitled "The Church as Learner: Two crises, One Kairos," that has been reprinted as chapter 22 in a collection of his essays edited by Michael Vertin, Appropriating the Lonergan Idea.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.