Thank you for the invitation to participate in the Andean Theological Conference, in view of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.
In this conversation with you, I propose to simply relive some of the moments of that broad event that was the Second Vatican Council....more in the form of personal testimony than of theological reflection around the vast themes that this Council raises.
Fifty years after Vatican II, there are now few bishops alive who participated in the four conciliar sessions. On August 24th, Dom Clemente Isnard, one of the bastions of liturgical renewal, died in Brazil. Dom José María Pires, 93, is still alive.
It can be said that the generation of conciliar bishops is now gone. Now we are the heirs of an event that deeply involved the Church, whose momentum towards renewal is ours to sustain.
Personally, I feel obligated to give my testimony on the context in which this Council took place. I was lucky to experience Vatican II from up close, as a theology student in Rome at the time the Council was happening.
I especially remember the luck I had on October 11, 1962, on the opening day of the Council. I had gone very early to St. Peter's Square to see the procession of bishops that was to go through the square and enter the Basilica. I was there, very aware of the historical significance of that moment.
There I was surprised by the unexpected offer Frei Boaventura Kloppenburg made me. He was in charge of press credentials for Portuguese speaking journalists. And since none had shown up, he asked me if I wanted a press pass. I quickly accepted. I put my Brazilian seminarian's green and yellow sash in my pocket, went on through the square to the entrance of the Pope and bishops and then presented myself at the main door of the Basilica, entry guaranteed by my press pass! They looked at me suspiciously but let me go in. I came closer and closer until I was very near the Pope, nearer than all the cardinals, archbishops and bishops.
So I could see up close with my own eyes, and hear from John XXIII's own mouth, his famous speech at the opening of Vatican II, emphatically saying that this council was not going to repeat anathemas or proclaim new dogmas, but that it would attempt a new and accessible way to present to the people of today the great truths that make up the rich heritage the Church must bear witness to in all generations.
So now I also feel responsible for bearing witness to what that Council was. A while ago my conscience was troubling me, until I decided to write a little book which I titled Revisitar o Concílio Vaticano II ("Revisiting Vatican II"), where I tried to record the intense process of preparation for this great Council, what took place, and how it was received. The book has been published by Ediciones Paulinas, and it would be a good job to translate it into Spanish since it was written by a "Portuguese journalist"!
What I'm proposing to do today is a little bit like what I did in the booklet but I promise I won't read all the pages...because I don't want to kill any curiosity with respect to it!
Also, by way of an introduction, it's good to realize that we are now being challenged to look at the Council 50 years after it took place to answer the worrisome questions:
* To what extent is Vatican II still valid?
* Are its documents still in force?
* Has the process ended or are we still experiencing the consequences of Vatican II?
To answer these questions, nothing is better than to remember, first of all the words of Pope John Paul II in Tertio Millenio Ineunte, where he stated: "I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning."
Written on the occasion of the passing of the millenium, this declaration clearly shows the importance that the Council still has.
At the same time, we need to realize that we are living in a period of a strong tide of conservatism, which is manifested in many ways, and which, in some groups in the Church, is expressed explicitly as a challenge to the conciliar process.
This is a phenomenon that should be analyzed calmly, to understand it with much discernment. Undoubtedly, it presents a serious challenge to correctly understanding the Council, and for how far its proposals for church renewal can reach.
This hasn't ceased to cause a lot of perplexity. Fifty years ago nobody could imagine that we would come to the situation we are experiencing today, with this tide of conservatism, whose major symbol is the return of the Eucharistic celebration to pre-Conciliar models.
We are called to reflect more on what is at stake in this phenomenon. For this, undoubtedly, knowing the historical context can be helpful, that is, both the moment of the celebration of Vatican II and the situation we are experiencing today, especially with the profound social, religious and cultural changes going on.
For this, we'll propose a quick reflection on how the Council emerged, the reactions it provoked, the historical context of those years, the preparation for the Council, its decisive moments, its major institutions, how the Council was received, resistance to the conciliar process, and subsequent perspectives.
All very simple and brief! If you're patient, we'll go quickly through these points:
1) How Vatican II arose
A first observation to make: To understand the Council, it's necessary to realize how much it depended on Pope John XXIII. Never has a council been so linked to a pope as Vatican II was to John XXIII.
Without John XXIII, this Council wouldn't have happened. Without any exaggeration, it can be said that this is Pope John XXIII's Council.
The dynamic of the events that led to the convocation of an ecumenical council had already begun with the election of John XXIII. No one expected that Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli would be elected Pope.
With Pius XII's death in October 1958, everybody was asking who could replace a pope of Pius XII's intellectual caliber.
The conclave process itself highlighted the difficulty in finding a successor to Pius XII. There was vote after vote, with persistent black smoke that showed the difficulty in reaching a consensus.
When white smoke finally appeared, after four days, Angelo Roncalli's name was announced. The vast majority didn't know who the new Pope was. Noting that he was 77 years old, it quickly spread that he was a "transitional Pope" -- one who wouldn't live very long -- until someone would emerge who would be able to continue Pius XII's pontificate.
Therefore, John XXIII started under the stigma of being a "transitional Pope", a role he himself took on and put at the service of his plans that nobody suspected were very brave and worthy of a Pope who, contrary to what was expected, would go down in history as one of the most influential popes in the Church of his time. He surprised everyone, and he knew how to avail himself of the opportunity history offered him.
He started surprising people with the date he took office, which he chose himself: November 4th! It was the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, one of the bishops who had carried out the Council of Trent. The new pope understood about councils!
But John XXIII was able to win everyone's esteem very quickly. In a few weeks, he was quickly identified as the "Good Pope" and the "Kind Pope."
On Christmas, to everyone's surprise, John XXIII left the Vatican and went to visit sick children in a hospital in Rome. The next day, he went to visit prisoners in the city jail.
It was enough for everybody to be very happy with the new 77 year-old pope! For the people of Rome, they didn't need any other pope! And in fact, the primary mission of the pope is to be bishop of the Roman people!
It was in this context of admiration for the Pope, and prompt support for his stances, that a great surprise was announced. The Pope would convene an ecumenical council.
It was January 25th, the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. The "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" was ending in St. Paul's Basilica in Rome. The Pope had been invited and he was getting ready to go.
Three days before (according to a frequently heard statement from John XXIII himself) in a conversation with his personal secretary, Msgr. Capovilla, Pope John XXIII confided that he felt the need, as pope, to do something for Christian unity. And he asked his secretary what he thought. And, as he asked the question, the answer came to him: a Council.
The idea never left his mind. Three days later, at the Basilica of St. Paul, at the closing of the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity", John XXIII surprised the Church and the world with the brave announcement of his plans.
Playing with the "transitional Pope" epithet they had given him, he stated that in spite of that, he also had plans for his pontificate. And then he went on to state what those plans were:
* Holding a synod for the Church of Rome,
* Bringing the Code of Canon Law up to date, and
* Convening an ecumenical council for the whole Church!
2. The reactions
The news spread rapidly and it was met with the same warmth that already surrounded the figure of the pope.
In the middle of this story, there was a significant episode that well shows that Pope John XXIII was aware of how far-reaching his proposals were, especially holding an ecumenical council.
He made a very interesting move. Before going to meet with the cardinals in St. Paul's Basilica, John XXIII had asked Vatican Radio to announce the news of the Council directly, without waiting for the closing of the religious ceremony.
So when the cardinals came out, the news had already spread throughout the world as the big headline of the day! The cardinals, who had listened to the daring proposals of the new pope with a certain amount of suspicion and reserve, suddenly encountered people's enthusiasm at the airing of the news.
Thus John XXIII strategically managed to avoid the possible resistance that might have come from the Roman Curia. The announcement of the Council having been greeted with so much enthusiasm, nobody would oppose this initiative. So, from its announcement, the Council was accepted in the Church with much enthusiasm and hope, especially ecumenically, given the events of the week.
Ecumenical expectations spread rapidly to the point that John XXIII himself felt the need to moderate them and he explained that the Council would be for the Catholic Church. However, the ecumenical atmosphere remained deeply linked with the future of the Council.
Thus the idea of the council was immediately accepted with a lot of enthusiasm, and it was supported from the beginning by John XXIII.
Even before it began, the Council modified the church atmosphere, in which everyone was soon involved, raising lots of hopes of participation and profound ecclesial change.
Taking these facts into account now, 50 years later, it's worth asking ourselves if John XXIII's strategy was completely positive. Now we realize that is caused resistance to build up that then manifested itself in the preparation of the conciliar documents, and especially as the Council developed, and even more after the Council ended.
The fact is that he delayed a lot in noticing the consistency of the opposition to the Council. He began with great enthusiasm, but did not sufficiently take into account the power of reaction, the niches of resistance, which unfortunately became divisive, and now threaten to contaminate the whole Church like volcanic ash from the Andes that extends across the continent!
It never hurts to insistently seek dialogue and to overcome resistance, especially when fundamentalist positions are being taken.
Even the "Council of Jerusalem" shows the importance of mutual concessions to secure unity and communion. Even the "meat sacrificed to idols" was part of the compromise between the two streams of thought!
3) The historical context of Vatican I
To understand the mood that was felt so intently at the council, it is necessary to note the atmosphere of optimism that the world was experiencing in those days.
It can be said that the decades of the 50s and the 60s were the most optimistic in recent centuries. Europe was rebuilding itself after the war. The African nations were at the full apogee of their independence. Development seemed about to come to all countries. The detente between east and west was solidifying, and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis became the symbol of the event with the appearance of the trio of personalities that reflected the new world situation -- Kennedy, Khrushchev, and John XXIII, who would write Pacem in Terris.
It seemed as if the utopia of peace and universal progress were coming!
The euphoric mood infected the atmosphere of the Council, and expressed itself, particularly, in the conciliar document Gaudium et Spes.
At the same time, another observation is very important. The worldwide euphoric mood was abruptly broken by the "cultural revolution of 1968", the revolt of the young people, and by the rapid initiation of the process of secularization which especially affected the Western European countries, where hopes for the Council had grown fonder.
If that crisis had come earlier, or if the Council had happened later, there's no doubt that much of the focus would have been different, whether in the internal Church documents or those addressing its mission in the world.
One fact that should be clearly noted is the error in historical interpretation, which is used insistently by those who are fighting Vatican II today. They accuse the Council of being the cause of the secularization that has deeply invaded Europe and elsewhere. It's a serious error in historical interpretation. Secularization would have happened even without the Council.
Thus, we now have the annoyance of living with incorrect suppositions, which has allowed for gratuitous accusations, attributing effects to the Council that it absolutely didn't cause.
That doesn't exempt us now from making a lucid evaluation, observing how the implementation process of the Council was managed, and , especially how it should proceed in the future. I hope that the serious in-depth celebration of the jubilee of the Council will help us perceive the important values that we can consider and use as a reference for our pastoral activity.
4) The preparation of the Council
Because it was promptly embraced, we can say that the Council process started on January 25, 1959, with the announcement that it was taking place.
The official summons happened on Christmas Day, 1961, in the papal bull Humanae salutis, when John XXIII said the council would open the following year, without specifying the date. Its official opening took place, effectively, on October 11, 1962, the closing date of the Council of Ephesus in 431, when the people proclaimed Mary as Mother of God. Here we can see John XXIII's style. Without offending the "separated brethren", the Council was placed under the protection of Mary.
The preparation for the Council was firmly directed by Pope John XXIII, who had his age in mind and wanted to ensure the effective fulfillment of his great dream.
So after the announcement of the Council, he named a "Central Preparatory Commission", with the primary task of identifying the main issues to be addressed by the Council. For the first time in history, a council was being convened without any specific problems to solve.
The Commission had the bright idea of asking the opinion of the bishops, superiors of the large religious orders, and rectors of Catholic universities.
The response was surprising.
The gathered suggestions filled twelve big volumes, which then served as a source for the development of the 75 schemas, already in the Council's preparatory phase.
The fact is that the council was formed through a strong experience of church involvement, already through its process. Before declaring that the Church is the people of God, the Council led Christians to truly feel like conscious and involved people of God.
Therefore, the best way to relive the Council is not so much by studying its documents as by reliving its experiment in church participation.
5) Key moments in the Council
First, the opening speech on October 11 became a very important reference point for the whole conciliar process. As John XXIII emphatically declared, it would be a Council to bring about the great "aggiornamento" of the Catholic Church, with the subsequent developments that this "updating" entailed.
Another key moment happened in the first regular meeting after the opening of the council. The session was intended to elect ten working committees. Each bishop was to submit 16 names for each committee. The impasse was evident. Who would have the names of 160 bishops in mind to nominate?
This situation led to a clever maneuver by the Roman Curia. At the entrance to the conciliar hall, the bishops received ten lists, each with 16 names of bishops. The intent was clear: to put the names indicated by the Curia on the commissions.
That was when Cardinal Liénart, of Lille, proposed suspending the session, and giving the bishops three days to make relevant inquiries to find the most appropriate names for each committee in each episcopate.
The idea was supported by several other bishops, and was finally adopted.
This demonstrated the importance that episcopal coordination would have in this council to sustain and support the conciliar process. And the autonomy of the bishops as actors in the conciliar process was affirmed.
Some bishops stood out in this role. Among those who obviously emerged with great effectiveness were Dom Helder Cámara, of Brazil, and Mons. Larraín of Chile.
Another important moment came during the first rejection of a preparatory document. It was the schema on the Word of God, where the controversial topics of Revelation, Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church came in. The document had been written in a quite controversial way, and many bishops began asking for its rejection.
When it was submitted to a vote, a clear majority was declared against the schema, but not the two thirds required to reject it. Then John XXIII intervened and decided to order that the document be withdrawn so that it could be written in different, more ecumenical language.
This strengthened the bishops' impression that they were the authors of the Council and that the schemas and programs prepared in advance could be replaced by different ones.
During the interval between the first and second session, before his death, Pope John XXIII ordered a drastic reduction in the number of preparatory schemas, since the Council had already identified the main theme, which would be the Church, and many other less important themes could be integrated within that broader theme.
Thus, before his death, John XXIII could be sure that his great dream was beginning to come true.
6) The great insights of the Council
Some say that this Council had no theological depth, or even that it didn't intend to state truths -- that it was a purely "pastoral" Council. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The big theme of the work and documents of Vatican II was the Church, mainly its vocation and mission in this world. It was clearly an "ecclesiological" Council, just as the first councils were clearly "Christological".
It's not a matter here of elaborating the great ecclesial statements made by the Council. I'm only going to recall them briefly.
The most strategic, the deepest one, was the vision of the Church as the People of God, recovering the Biblical dimension of the Church's journey.
Parallel to this statement, we can place episcopal collegiality, affirming the co-responsibility of all the bishops in the government of the Church, establishing the balance between the primacy of Peter and episcopal collegiality. This laid the groundwork for a vision of the church that includes both unity and diversity.
Closely related to these two truths, we can see how it adapts well to the importance of the local church, and the value of all church communities as practical manifestations of the life of the Church.
Thus, since the Council, we have been able to continue to develop a vision of the Church as People of God, led by pastors who call it to fraternal communion and to the mission in the world as "universal sacrament of salvation."
7) How the Council was received
We know that the worth of a document, or a church event, is measured by how it is received.
One good question to evaluate it, on the jubilee of the Council, is exactly that: checking to see how Vatican II was received.
The celebration of the 50th jubilee of the Council brought the hope that this positive reception of the Council might be resumed. After encountering so much resistance, a time is finally emerging for the fruitful reception of the impetus for Church renewal that the Council brought. This would be the aim for celebrating this conciliar jubilee.
In any case, for us here in Latin America, it's good to remember that our church was the only one that welcomed the Council on the continental level, due to the actions of CELAM, and the general conferences it conducted, especially the Conference at Medellin, in Colombia, which was a sort of Council for Latin America, making Vatican II resound among us.
At the same time, it must be admitted that, unfortunately, during those post-conciliar times, we also experienced a climate of mutual distrust between the Roman Curia and the Church in Latin America.
This suspiciousness was very much present at Puebla and at Santo Domingo, but almost completely vanished during the Conference at Aparecida.
Certainly, mature dialogue can contribute to making relations between Rome and the Church in Latin America take place in an atmosphere of complete trust, enabling us to always be in ecclesial communion, without impeding the implementation of appropriate pastoral options for our reality, for the benefit of strengthening the whole Church, in search of making way for the ecclesial renewal envisioned by the Council.
8) Resistance to the conciliar process
Nowadays we can appreciate John XXIII's grand strategy for circumventing possible resistance to his proposal for ecclesial renewal through a Council. But at the same time, we see that this resistance was not overcome. Instead, it coalesced during the Council, and was explicitly expressed after the Council, leading to ruptures that unfortunately still exist, and which constitute a personal drama for Benedict XVI, in his effort to reach full communion with the few dissidents, putting at risk the conciliar advances of the whole post-conciliar Church.
We hope these difficulties, which have been well located and identified, can be overcome, and not impede the continuity of the conciliar renewal proposed by this great ecumenical council, which God gave as a special grace to His Church in these difficult times of historic change we are experiencing.
Fifty years after Vatican II, we find ourselves faced with a vast panorama that could give rise to two initiatives that could be complementary:
On the one hand, we see how valid the Second Vatican Council was, and how much it gives for walking in the light of its two documents and the ecclesial events it stirred up.
Undoubtedly the Church keeps on moving forward, sustained by the motivation of Vatican II.
On the other hand, the rich experience of the era of the Council make us wonder if it wouldn't be worthwhile to experience an intense conciliar process again by holding a new council.
This second hypothesis is much more clearly opposed by the practical possibilities of its undertaking. And then we realize how difficult it would be, and perhaps too risky to undertake a new council in the current state the Church is in.
In addition to how complex organizing a new council would be, the profound changes that have happened in recent decades would result in a council that would also be completely new in how it was carried out.
In Spain there is even a small foundation, "Proconcil", that can be found through the Internet, dedicated to reflecting on the appropriateness of promoting a new council.
It prudently reached the conclusion that, for now, it was appropriate to recover the conciliar dimension of the Church, which is already a lot, to rely again on the opinion of the bishops and the people of the Diaspora to decide Church matters.
In any case, we have the enormous task over the next few years, as we celebrate the anniversary of Vatican II, of seeing how we can still motivate ourselves through its proposals and its dreams!
In this context, it is worth bringing up here, briefly, the dream of one of the cardinals who dreamed of the ecclesial renewal that we still have. It's the dream of Cardinal Martini, presented at the Special Synod for Europe in the nineties, in preparation for the transition to the new millennium.
Let me cite his dream again here:
Without saying that he was proposing a new Council, he proposed that "all the bishops of the world" should be called together to address three issues:
- Within the Church, rethinking the exercise of ministry, from the Petrine ministry to the community ministries entrusted to the laity, therefore, a radical change in the Church's ministerial structure.
- With respect to other Christians, that foundations be laid for broad theological understanding, which would allow a gradual rapprochement, and finally overcome the divisions.
- With respect to the world today, beginning a broad reflection on the urgent need for inculturation of the Gospel, so that Christ's Church can take on the characteristics of different cultures in the world and not be limited to only one of them, the Western one.
If a council were convened with these goals, all of us, doubtlessly, would have many opinions to give and positions to take. And we would do so enthusiastically.
But for now, at this Theological Conference, we are only called to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, and take up again its generous goals of ecclesial renewal.
Which is certainly no small matter!
Photo: Dom Demetrio blesses his flock.