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‘The biggest meeting in the history of the world’

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, The Tablet ran a major series of articles celebrating and analysing its impact on the Catholic Church.  Here, Catholic historian Hilmar Pabel reflects of the winds of change blowing through Rome when bishops from 116 countries, more than the then United Nations membership, gathered for the opening of the council on 11 October 1962

In July 1960, Yves Congar, a renowned Catholic expert in ecclesiology, felt that Vatican II “was coming 20 years too soon from the vantage point of theology and especially of ecumenism”. Many ideas had already changed, the French Dominican priest acknowledged, but it would take another 20 years for bishops to mature in ideas developed from Scripture and tradition to attain “a missionary awareness and a sense of pastoral realism”.

But ready or not, the world’s Catholic bishops arrived in Rome two years later to debate and vote at the in many ways unprecedented church council that Pope John XXIII had announced on 25 January 1959.

Today, 50 years after the opening of Vatican II on 11 October 1962, we may still wonder why the council happened when it did. John XXIII consistently maintained that his desire for a council was the product of an inspiration. The idea came to him, he said, “like a flash of heavenly light”.

While accepting his statement as truthful, we can still point to developments in the first half of the twentieth century that made the Church ripe for Vatican II. I shall consider only three: the emergence of a modern global Church embedded in a new world arising out of the ashes of the Second World War; the willingness at the highest levels of the Church’s hierarchy to consider convoking a council; and a growing Catholic commitment to ecumenism.

Vatican II was the first truly global council of the Catholic Church, “quite possibly”, John O’Malley remarked in What Happened at Vatican II (2008), “the biggest meeting in the history of the world”. European bishops and theologians certainly were the most influential at the council yet the gathering in Rome of bishops from 116 countries showed that a global Church was coming of age, albeit at a time of global crisis when the Cold War remained a worrisome source of instability. The Berlin Wall, the architectural symbol of the Cold War, went up in 1961. A few days after the council opened, the Cuban Missile Crisis began to unfold, bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear war.

The Cold War intersected with a concurrent global development – decolonisation – as the United States and Soviet Union jockeyed for influence in emerging independent states primarily in Asia and Africa, the beneficiaries of the erosion of European imperialism after the Second World War. After the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 and of Indonesia in 1949, decolonisation gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the year that the council opened, Uganda, Algeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago achieved independence. A week after the third session of Vatican II came to an end, the thirty-eighth Eucharistic Congress opened in Bombay on 28 November 1964. This was the first time a Eucharistic Congress was held in Asia: a sign of the Church’s life in an emerging new world order.

Latin American states had already achieved independence in the nineteenth century. The history of the Church’s engagement with these countries and their societies is a complex one, but in various ways Catholicism exercised considerable social influence. In 1955, the episcopal conferences of Latin America joined together to form an episcopal conference for the entire region, known by its acronym Celam. Pope Pius XII recognised Celam in the same year and established the Pontifical Commission for Latin America in 1958. At Vatican II, the bishops of Celam demonstrated effective organisation and cohesion.

Readiness for a church council was to some extent evident in the Church’s hierarchy, and in particular in the Roman Curia, without whose resources the preparation for, and the managing, of Vatican II would have been impossible. Only a few bishops who received in 1959 an invitation from the Holy See to recommend topics for Vatican II to consider had received in 1923 a letter from Pope Pius XI canvassing opinions about the suitability of holding a church council in 1925.

Although 90 per cent of the more than 1,000 respondents favoured a council, Pope Pius abandoned the idea in 1924. In February 1948, Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, the Archbishop of Palermo, urged Pope Pius XII to summon a council. Ruffini had the support of an assessor at the Holy Office, Mgr Alfredo Ottaviani, who became a cardinal in 1953. In 1959, John XXIII appointed Ottaviani Secretary of the Holy Office, the predecessor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In March 1948, Ottaviani, authorised by Pius XII, convened a special secret committee within the Holy Office of seven other clerics – six priests and the titular bishop of Aela, Alois (Luigi) Hudal, now infamous for his involvement in the so-called “ratline” that helped Nazi war criminals escape Europe after 1945. Other members joined the committee in 1949, when it became a central commission whose ultimate goal would have been to coordinate the work of several commissions in preparation for a council.

The commission developed a series of themes that a council should address. It proposed the condemnation of many modern errors, such as existentialism and ecumenism. Some themes anticipated important commitments embraced at Vatican II, such as a vernacular liturgy, the formation of priests, the lay apostolate and Catholic education.
One of the committee members drafted his own ideas for conciliar business. Sebastiaan Tromp, a Dutch Jesuit theologian, in a presentation in July 1948 to the cardinals of the Holy Office, wondered, among other things, whether it would be advisable to ordain permanent deacons free of the obligation of celibacy.

Although the central commission met for the last time in 1951 and Pius XII decided against holding a council, the flirting with the idea of a council is historically significant. The promulgation of papal infallibility in 1870 at Vatican I, a possible argument against the need for any further councils, did not deter two popes and their closest collaborators from pondering the need of a such a gathering.

Although Vatican II issued no dogmatic condemnations, it did pursue some of the themes proposed in 1949. Ottaviani and Ruffini were powerful forces at Vatican II, even if they often disagreed with the majority of bishops. Tromp served faithfully under Ottaviani, first as the secretary of the Preparatory Theological Commission for Vatican II (1960-62) and then as the secretary of the council’s Doctrinal Commission. His question about the permanent diaconate became a reality in Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

Ecumenism was part of the programme of Vatican II from the outset. In his announcement of 25 January 1959, at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, John XXIII invited “the faithful of the separated communities to participate with us in this quest for unity and grace, for which so many souls long in all parts of the world”. By adopting the Decree on Ecumenism in November 1964, the Council Fathers officially converted the Roman Catholic Church from a sceptical outsider of the ecumenical movement to one of its leading proponents.

Modern ecumenism began in the nineteenth century. Protestants spearheaded the movement to bring about unity among Christians. Large international ecumenical gatherings convened in the twentieth century, beginning with the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910. Delegates at the Faith and Order conference in Edinburgh in 1937 supported the creation of the World Council of Churches, which took shape in 1948.

The Holy See initially looked with suspicion on the ecumenical movement. Pius XI’s encyclical, Mortalium Animos (1928), represented the most emphatic prohibition of Catholic participation in ecumenical meetings, the product of “a most serious error”. An instruction of the Holy Office of 1949 relaxed previous strictures, however, allowing Catholics to gather with other Christians for ecumenical purposes, provided they had “the prior approval of the competent ecclesiastical authority”.

But a sincere Catholic interest in ecumenism had long been in evidence in some quarters of the Church. Pope Pius X welcomed the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, initiated in 1908 by the Episcopalian Fr Paul Wattson, a year before he and the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement entered into full communion with the Church. In 1921, the Belgian Cardinal, Désiré-Joseph Mercier, initiated informal discussions between Anglican and Catholic theologians in Mechelen to seek ways towards unity. The discussions lasted until 1927. Two years later, the pioneering German Jesuit ecumenist, Max Pribilla, published his book on Church unity. Congar, a committed ecumenist, articulated “principles of a Catholic ecumenism” in Chrétiens désunis (1937).

A year after the publication of Congar’s book, the German Catholic priest Max Josef Metzger founded the Una Sancta ecumenical fellowship of prayer and study. This fellowship gave many German Christians a sense of solidarity in opposition to the Nazi dictatorship, which executed Metzger in 1944. Immediately after the Second World War, Una Sancta, as a grass-roots ecumenical movement, spread in Germany and attracted the support of Archbishop Lorenz Jaeger of Paderborn, who in 1957 founded an institute for ecumenical studies that still thrives today. He contributed to the creation in 1960 of the Holy See’s Secretariat for Christian Unity, a major force for promoting ecumenism at Vatican II.

Reflecting on an ecumenical ceremony at which Pope Paul VI addressed with affection the non-Catholic observers to the council on 4 December 1965, just before the closing of Vatican II, Congar wondered: “Who would have thought it was possible five years ago?”

As surprising as Vatican II seemed 50 years ago, it cannot be classified as a historical accident, as it were. More can and must be said about other developments that made Vatican II conceivable, such as Rome’s interest in closer ties with Orthodoxy, the liturgical movement, and the evolving contribution of the laity to the life of the Church. Greater familiarity with the background to the council will surely increase the appreciation of its significance within the history and life of the Church.

Hilmar M. Pabel is professor of history at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, and co-editor with Kathleen Comerford of Early Modern Catholicism: essays in honour of John W. O’Malley (University of Toronto Press).