It will be sixty years next week, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, that the first of four sessions of Vatican II adjourned after a grueling two months of work. The formal close of the first session was overshadowed by the realization that Pope John XXIII, the pontiff who had called the Council back in 1959, was dying. The pope’s declining health was obvious to everyone. In attendance the Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, observed “What was intended as au revoir turned into an adieu.” [p. 239] There was a certain degree of anxiety among the bishops about the future of the Council, as councils are automatically disbanded at the death of a pope until [or if] the next pope chooses to reconvene it.
I strongly recommend John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II  for an excellent description of the preparation of the Council and the rejection of the presented agenda by the bishops in that first session of 1962. [See my Amazon review of O’Malley’s book here.] In brief, suffice to say that when Pope John established the various working committees to draw up the discussion drafts for the Council, he turned to the Roman Curial departments to organize and complete this work. The Roman Curia had responded quite negatively to the pope’s announcement of the Council in 1959, so it may seem surprising that the preparatory work for the Council was entrusted to men who were less than enthusiastic about it in the first place.
In truth, the pope was limited in his options. The Curia was the only functioning bureaucracy in Catholicism capable of preparing for a council with a three-year deadline. In addition, Pope John was enough of a loyal traditionalist that he would not intentionally embarrass or diminish the reputations of men who had served the church for decades. And, at some level, he perhaps hoped to win their approval for the aggiornamento or winds of change he believed were permeating the Church through the Holy Spirit.
The Curia recruited eight hundred persons to prepare the Council drafts, though as author Peter Hebblethwaite points out, many of the greatest theological minds in the Latin West were excluded for what we would call today “progressive methodology.” Among those excluded: Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves-Marie Congar, and the American priest-scholars John Courtney Murray and John L. McKenzie. What the Curia—operating in secret--could not control was the growing interest in the Council as discussed in the secular media and in popular writing, including the Swiss theologian Hans Kung’s The Council, Reform and Reunion.  See America Magazine’s review of this work here. Kung’s book, eminently readable, shaped the possibilities of the upcoming council, particularly its implications for Catholic relations with other Christian Churches. Mainstream Protestant leaders became very interested in the possibilities of Vatican II.
Pope John, it seems, was quietly pleased with the “outside rumblings” of Kung and other churchmen and worked behind the scenes to obtain a position of major importance for Father Austin Bea, S.J. on the newly created “Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity,” which would have powerful influence later in the Council. In August 1962, two months before the opening of the Council, only seven drafts of conciliar documents were ready for dispatch to the world’s bishops. Four of these would be rejected outright on the floor of the Council. It was becoming clearer, to insiders at least, that the first business of the Council would be control of the agenda.
On Sunday, September 23, 1962, Pope John was informed by his physician that his stomach cancer had progressed to the point that he was living on borrowed time. He decided to keep this prognosis secret, particularly in view of the Council, and he devoted much of his pre-Council work to negotiations with Communist governments to allow bishops behind the Iron Curtain [including Karol Wojtyla] to attend Vatican II. Finally, on October 11, the solemn opening of the Council was highlighted by the most important sermon ever delivered by John XXIII, on the purpose of the Council. [Sadly, it was also his last major address as his illness was advancing.] I take the liberty to quote his address at some length:
The manner in which sacred doctrine is spread, this having been established, it becomes clear how much is expected from the Council in regard to doctrine. That is, the Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which will draw upon the effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and administrative experiences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men. It is a patrimony not well received by all, but always a rich treasure available to men of good will.
Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries.
The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.
For this a Council was not necessary. But from the renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a Magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character. [Emphasis mine.]
Pope John’s charter for the Council is clear enough. Vatican II would not create new doctrines, new feasts, or radical departures from the corpus of Catholic Faith. In fact, this aspect of the mission here is articulated quite traditionally. The challenge to the Church was the need to reexamine the language and understanding of timeless revealed truth by the lights available in the twentieth century—with the hoped-for outcome that the Gospel of Jesus would become better grasped, greater loved, and devotedly followed. In the last sentence cited above, John calls for a “pastoral” style of engagement with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Vatican II would have no condemnations; there would be no burnings at this council as actually happened at the Council of Constance in 1414 when the reformer Jan Hus was executed during that council’s proceedings.
Again, I would direct you to a full source on the substance of Vatican II, such as the O’Malley text cited above, to get the full flavor and detail of the first session in particular, the session Pope John lived to see. In the space of two months the bishops were faced with the challenges of setting priorities, and operating procedures to set something of a level playing field vis-à-vis the packaged plan proposed by the Roman Curia, all of this undertaken in Latin, which few bishops outside the Curia could speak. One might call the Council the precursor of “Synodality” as we use the term in very recent years.
During the first session Pope John received advice on the direction of the Council from Cardinal Giovanni Montini, who proposed an outline for discussion that proved to be strikingly close to what would unfold, except that the Council ran to four sessions instead of Montini’s projection of three. Montini advised that the first session should focus on the nature of the Church itself, a subject which included the exercise of papal authority and the nature of the ministry of bishops. [The pope-bishop dynamic was a continuation of Vatican I’s work, a council forced to adjourn prematurely due to the danger of war.] The second session, the cardinal proposed, would deal with the mission of the Church, and would include the reform of the Liturgy. The third session in this plan would discuss the Church’s relationship with “human groups,” a hint of what would become Gaudium et Spes. Interestingly, Montini’s correspondence here was not discovered until 1983, twenty years after the Council. Montini, incidentally, was elected to the Chair of Peter in June 1963, taking the name Pope Paul VI, and oversaw the final three sessions of the council.
Pope John observed the proceedings with great interest, and never lost hope in the outcome of the Council though he had plenty of reason to do so. The first session promulgated or issued no documents, and bishops became increasingly aware that the Council would last several years. But as the first session ended, Pope John recorded this entry in his journal: “Brothers gathered from afar to get to know each other; they needed to look each other in the eye in order to understand each other’s heart; they needed time to describe their own experiences which reflected differences in the apostolate in most varied situations; they needed time to have thoughtful and useful exchanges on pastoral matters.” [p. 239]
The first session ended in an “almost penitential” mood on December 8, 1963, as the pope’s declining health overshadowed other concerns and left some question as to whether a new pope would even reconvene the council. A thoughtful man to the end, the Pope’s farewell address at the end of the Council was addressed primarily to the conservatives of the Curia, who had endured a hard time of things as their planning and documents were discarded or significantly redrafted.
It is little known in the United States that Pope John had been involved in working toward the settlement of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which coincided with the first two weeks of the Council. Hebblethwaite believes that John Kennedy was reluctant to make this fact known because of his sensitivity over appearances of “taking orders from Rome,” a real issue in the 1960 presidential election. The likelihood of a nuclear holocaust led the dying pope to pen his most famous encyclical, Pacem in Terris [Peace on Earth], issued on April 11, 1963, just seven weeks before his death on June 3. At the conclave that followed, Cardinal Montini, his close friend, was elected to succeed him on the sixth ballot. The Council resumed that fall.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything