September 23, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: The Holy Spirit guides Vatican II

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

Last week, I wrote about the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. I’ll continue that story this week.

After calling the council and laying out the ground rules, Pope John XXIII was content to let it proceed without his constant intervention. He was convinced that the Holy Spirit would guide the participants. He was undoubtedly right because, although most of the bishops had been appointed by Pope Pius XII, it turned out that the “progressives” outnumbered those who came to be called the “intransigents.”

At times, it was a battle between the members of the pope’s curia and the other bishops. The curia was dominated by intransigents, who immediately tried to gain control of the 10 commissions that would draft documents for the council to consider by selecting the commissions’ chairmen. They failed in that when Cardinal Achille Lienart of France suggested that the bishops be allowed to elect the chairmen. Those elected represented the bishops from various parts of the world.

The bishops soon discovered that most of the first-draft papers prepared prior to the council did not say what they wanted them to say, and had to be completely rewritten. The first document to be rejected was on divine revelation. Since it dealt with fundamental theological ideas, its rejection indicated better than anything else that the bishops intended to find new expressions for the Church’s teachings instead of remaining tied to those formulated centuries in the past.

When the first session ended on Dec. 8, 1962, no documents had been approved. But it was clear in what direction the council was headed. Pope John XXIII told the bishops that he was sure the Holy Spirit would continue to guide the council.

Unfortunately, John XXIII did not live to see the rest of the council. He died on June 3, 1963. He was succeeded by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, whose election was widely expected, and who took the name Paul VI.

Pope Paul was determined not only to continue John XXIII’s council, but to make it even more open. He invited more laity to serve as advisers, and some women were invited as “listeners.” And he laid down the law to the members of his curia, telling them to cooperate with the bishops instead of being obstructionists.

The first two documents to be approved, in 1963, were the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” and the “Decree on the Media of Social Communications.” The first completely reformed the liturgy, giving special emphasis to saying Mass in the vernacular instead of in Latin and stressing the need for active participation by the entire congregation. Of all the council documents, this one probably had the most effect on the most Catholics.

The “Decree on the Media of Social Communications” encouraged Catholics to use the media, and was particularly strong in its espousal of freedom of the press and opposition to any forms of censorship.

Next week: the third session.

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