September 16, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: John XXIII opens Vatican II

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was a month short of his 77th birthday when he was elected pope in October of 1958. Because of his age, he was considered to be an “interim” pope, a caretaker pope; he would not reign for almost 20 years as Pope Pius XII had done.

But Pope John XXIII didn’t think of himself as a caretaker pope. It’s true that his reign would be short—less than five years—but his decisions were to change the Catholic Church in ways that were never envisioned by his electors.

Only two days after his election, he remarked that the Church needed a council that would bring the Church into the 20th century. Less than three months later, on Jan. 25, 1959, he announced publicly that he intended to call a council, and he invited bishops to submit suggestions. The council would be the Second Vatican Council.

When John XXIII became pope, the Church was not quite as closed and opposed to contemporary thought and scholarship as it was during the days of Pope Pius X, but it wasn’t far from it. There was still a deep antagonism between the Catholic Church and Protestantism, for example, and the Church was generally known for its conservatism.

The Catholic Church had grown considerably since the First Vatican Council in 1869-70, especially during the papacy of Pius XII. When Pius IX called that council, there were 739 bishops. When John XXIII called Vatican II, there were 2,594 bishops and, with new bishops being appointed all the time, 2,860 eventually participated in council proceedings.

Then John XXIII had another shock: He invited observers from Protestant communities and Eastern Orthodox Churches to attend because he wanted the council to have a true ecumenical flavor. Indeed, ecumenism and Church unity were to be important themes of the council.

Vatican II was held in four sessions in St. Peter’s Basilica, during the autumn months of 1962 to 1965. When John XXIII opened the first session on Oct. 11, 1962, nobody foresaw the momentous changes the council would bring to the Church. Many thought it would be nothing more than a ceremonial show.

Certainly the documents prepared by 10 commissions prior to the council gave no indication of what was to come. Since the commissions were dominated by curial cardinals, the first drafts of the documents were basic summaries of then-current theology. They certainly weren’t what John XXIII had in mind when he called the council.

But in his opening address, he made clear what he did have in mind. He said that “authentic doctrine has to be studied and expounded in the light of the research methods and the language of modern thought. For the substance of the ancient deposit of faith is one thing, and the way it is presented is another.”

He showed that the Church meant to enter a new age in other ways, too: “Today the Spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than severity.”

Continued next week.

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