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Vatican II: The first Council of Evangelisation

Summary of main ideas

Most Catholics were unfamiliar, when Vatican II was announced, with the importance of the 21 general councils in the life of the Church – since there had only been one council since the 16th century. If some were non-events, these were exceptions; most councils were 'epiphanies of the Spirit', initiating a long process that – while it was often disturbing – brought lasting benefits to the whole Church. This is reflected in the involvement and concern councils have evoked in rank and file members of the Church.

Vatican II was different from previous councils, not only in its size and worldwide representation, but also in the fact that it was the first council that was not a response to an obvious crisis. John XXIII, however, judged that the time was ripe for the Church to give a new expression to its unchanging faith – leaving behind the style that had been shaped by the Council of Trent, that he judged to be too defensive and authoritarian, not open to the signs of a new vitality. Pope John's consistent message before the opening of the council – sensitive to the 'rhythms of history', seeing it as 'a moment of grace', even 'a new Pentecost' – was little appreciated at the time. Convinced that the Church must respond to the needs of a changing world, Pope John had no blueprint for Church renewal. Nevertheless, it is true to say that his faith and courage 'invented' a new kind of council. The Catholic world responded with astounding enthusiasm. The world at large sensed a great change in the Catholic Church. 4000 journalists were present at the Council's opening.

Today, almost half a century later, attitudes to the Council are confused and polarised. Fortunately, an authoritative history of the council has now been published, that can help clear up today's confusion. This study makes it clear that the council's main achievement was an authoritative decision to inaugurate a new era in the life of the Church, in accordance with John XXIII's aims. This decision for renewal was not easily arrived at, because a determined minority (less than 10%) were opposed. This minority, whose leaders were members of the Roman Curia, fought to maintain the status quo. Because they rejected the majority view of the Council, they argued against the doctrine of 'collegiality' (long taken for granted in the course of the Church's history, and upheld by John XXIII and Paul VI), according to which the 'college' of bishops throughout the world share with the pope in the Church's supreme pastoral authority. This group even claimed that the Roman Curia was above the Council, sharing in the pope's authority!;

The Council produced an immense volume of teaching – 900 pages of Latin texts. The 4 Constitutions are its principal documents. 9 Decrees are of lesser authority, concerning practical implementation. 3 Declarations give authoritative guidance on questions still in a state of development in Church teaching . This teaching should be interpreted in the spirit of John XXIII's intentions for the Council. No blueprint is provided for a renewed Church. This must emerge from a return to the sources of the Church's life – the Scriptures, the Sacramental Mysteries, and the witness of the early Church. In other words, renewal will be found in the Gospel itself – the Mystery of God's generous plan for creation, conceived from all eternity. This Mystery can become a guiding principal in interpreting the Council's vision if it is recognised that it has three levels of meaning: 1) the eternal divine decision; 2) the disclosure of God's plan in Jesus Christ; 3) the continuing action of God in the Church's liturgy.

Historians, recalling the experience of past Councils, see a pattern in the aftermath of the Council: an initial enthusiasm, expecting new life from structural changes in the Church; a subsequent time of uncertainty and disillusionment when these hopes are not realised; and finally a period to be looked forward to, in which it is recognised that new life will only come from a spiritual renewal brought by a more authentic meeting with the Church's sources of life.