Four days before the close of Vatican II on December 4, 1965, Pope Paul VI invited all of the Council Fathers and all of the official non-Catholic observers to an interdenominational “Liturgy of the Word” or Bible Service in the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. No pope had ever before participated in a service of this nature. The service consisted of prayers, psalms, lessons from Scripture, and hymns from several Christian traditions, the solemn closing marked by “Now Thank We All Our God” written by the seventeenth century Lutheran composer Johann Cruger. About 1000 of the Conciliar bishops attended and Xavier Rynne notes that they were “greatly edified” by Paul VI’s encouraging words about a future day of Church union. At the same time, two curial archbishops solicited a number of signatures from other bishops (including a number of Americans) expressing their amazement at Pope Paul’s encouragement of worship with heretics. (Rynne, 570)
Pope Paul spent a great deal of time during the ceremonial closing days meeting with a variety of intimate emotional private audiences for specific reasons. In his meeting with the Italian bishops, generally unhappy with the drift of the Council, he stated that “the period after the Council cannot be one of back-to-normal or the good-old-days.” Cardinal Siri, seated next to the pope, was reported to have said to a group of disgruntled clerics that “they [the documents] are not definitions; they will not bind us.” By contrast on December 7 Pope Paul and the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople embraced each other and jointly “consigned to oblivion” the millennium old excommunications between the Orthodox East and the Roman West. It is worth noting that a few days ago Pope Francis embraced the Russian Patriarch in Cuba on his way to Mexico, continuing the long efforts of reunion between East and West Christendom.
The closing event of the Council in St. Peter’s Square was, in Rynne’s words, “overly pompous and anticlimactic” by comparison (572) and I suppose it is fair to say that every Council father returned home with a deeply personal interpretation of what he had experienced. The Council peritus Father Joseph Ratzinger—who would become Benedict XVI years later—would say that the men who entered the Council were not the same men who departed from it. In a few cases this was literally true, as Bishop Burke of my hometown Buffalo died during the first session in 1962. But Father Ratzinger was certainly correct in his assessment that the Council had roused new energies and deeper retrenchments, factors that would certainly affect the implementation of the Council’s decrees in every diocese and parish in the world.
In his post-game wrap-up, so to speak, Rynne cites the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung, who was one of few Catholic theologians before the Council to write and lecture extensively about the nature and potetial of an ecumenical council. Kung laid out an aggressive agenda in his internationally published works about Council goals, a fact which angered the Curia as it prepared a brief and inconsequential agenda of a council lasting a few weeks. Despite the fact that the Holy Office opened a file on Kung’s works before the Council started, Kung was appointed a peritus or expert by his own bishop and played an instrumental role in a number of the Council’s formulations. (One of history’s ironies: Kung and Ratzinger were close contemporaries at the Council.)
One of the most controversial points of Kung’s thinking was the question: could a Council fail? This was hardly hypothetical. The Council Lateran V (1512-1517) dispersed six months before Martin Luther issued his famous cry for reform of the Catholic Church. Rynne believes that the Council Vatican II did not fail in many critical aspects. In the first instance, Vatican II opened an intangible but real “reappraisal” of Catholicism, changing the ways that people thought about the Church. For Kung, for example, a “monarchical papacy” no longer served the Church nor even made sense to the world. Kung lost his license to teach in a Catholic university in 1979 for his critiques, but remains at this writing a priest in good standing, now in his late 80’s.
Rynne goes on to quote the Decree on Religious Liberty where the admission is made that the Church does not have at its hand solutions to every particular problem. Put another way, the Church continues to grow in the face new challenges (as with Pope Francis and global warming, for example.) In the Decree on Ecumenism the Council states that there is a hierarchy of truths. Rynne himself uses as an example the priority of the Doctrine of the Trinity over the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
The Council redefined the Church in Biblical terms, restoring the ancient biblical concept of the People of God, where rank was replaced with the concept of a worldwide community of the faithful. Laity, religious, and clergy might have different responsibilities, but they were of equal importance to the Church as the Body of Christ. Aligned with this was the restored belief in the collegiality of the bishops as fellow governors and leaders with the pope.
This is Xavier Rynne’s brief summary of the Council in which he himself participated and reported upon. His summary was written in 1968 for the one-volume account of the Council I have used liberally here. This is a condensation of a four-volume work undertaken by Rynne somewhat earlier. I was 17 when the Council closed in 1965 and have lived 51 years in the “post-Vatican II” world, many of those years in professionally bringing the Council’s teachings into public recognition and practice. So, I decided to devote two blog entries to my own experience of the Council: on Saturday February 21 I will reflect upon matters where the Council—or more likely, its implementation—may have created difficulties; and on Monday February 22 I will give my own ground view of how the Church has been enriched by the Council.
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