Continuity and Reform

When we observed the Pauline Year in 2009 we also marked the half-century anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s calling of the Second Vatican Council.

Fifty years earlier, on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Jan. 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII had announced the convocation of a general council for the universal Church. And the Second Vatican Council was born. Blessed John XXIII had been pope for fewer than 100 days. Trembling with emotion, he issued the call for an ecumenical council in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in the presence of 17 cardinals of the Curia and other Church servants.  

The immediate reaction was — silence. Later, Pope John mentioned that he expected the cardinals to be elated and overjoyed with enthusiasm. But this was not the case. Quickly and from various parts of the world several cardinals expressed skepticism, saying this was “a rash and impulsive decision,” “a hornet’s nest,” and “premature, senseless and doomed in advance to failure.” But history quickly exposed their poor judgment, and Pope John XXIII’s dauntless confidence in the working of the Holy Spirit bore rich fruit. 

Now, in 2012, we observe the 50th anniversary of the opening session of Vatican II. 

Significant Anniversary

Three years of preparation led to the four sessions of Vatican II, which began in 1962 and concluded in 1965. Blessed John XXIII passed to his eternal reward after the first session, and Pope Paul VI presided over the remaining three sessions. 

Three decades earlier Pope Pius XI had considered a general council, and in the early 1950s the same thought occupied Pope Pius XII. But conditions were not right. The 1959 announcement by Pope John was welcomed by the majority of leading theologians, who wondered if this new council would be a continuation of Vatican I held almost a century earlier. But the intrepid Dominican priest Yves Congar expressed the confidence that this would be a new council and not a continuation of Vatican I: “I saw in the council an opportunity for the recovery of the true meaning of the episcopacy and of ecclesiology. This would be a pastoral council.” 

Many consider Vatican II a Pauline council. The 16 instructional and directional documents reveal theological insights imbued with many themes found in St. Paul’s letters; enlighten us on biblical theology and spirituality, the theology of the Church, the universal call to holiness and liturgical renewal; and discuss how to engage contemporary society. The revised liturgical calendar of Scripture readings for Mass draw heavily from the letters of Paul. And what authority is quoted most frequently in the documents of Vatican II? None other than St. Paul the Apostle. 

In the nascent Church, Paul played a prominent role in the epochal event we now call the Council of Jerusalem (see Gal 2:1-10 and Acts 15:1-22). Like Vatican II, the Council of Jerusalem dealt with challenging pastoral questions. Paul, Titus, Barnabas and others came to Jerusalem to meet with Peter, James and other leaders of the apostolic Church to meld different but complementary charisms and gifts for the good and growth of the Church. The Jerusalem Council is an early example of the very real interrelationship between the human and the divine in Christ’s Church. A similar interplay was experienced at the Second Vatican Council. 

The Proper Perspective

The past is prologue, so with wisdom we recall the past as well as point to the future. Today it is important to recall the insight of Blessed John Henry Newman at the time of the First Vatican Council (1870), that there is always a lack of historical perspective after an ecumenical council. “It is rare,” Newman wrote, “for a council not to be followed by great confusion…. The century following each council has ever been a time of great trial … and this seems likely to be no exception.” 

This perceived lack of historical perspective after Vatican II caused some observers to suggest erroneously that the council rejected the historical consciousness of the Church in order to meet the needs of the contemporary world, overlooking history and tradition. Pope Benedict XVI aptly describes this as a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” by which Vatican II is seen as an end of tradition, a new start from scratch, a history and a theology based on a false distinction between a “pre-conciliar Church” and a “post-conciliar Church.”  

Our faith reminds us that the Holy Spirit guided the Church through all the centuries before Blessed John XXIII’s inspiration to convoke a council. The Holy Spirit was with the fathers of the council during Vatican II. The Holy Spirit has been with the Church during the past 50 years as we gradually incorporated the council’s teachings. And the Holy Spirit will be with the Church in all the years to come. St. Paul made this crystal clear in his writings. If we lose sight of this fundamental truth, we risk the confused thinking that the Holy Spirit would abandon Christ’s Church. But we know that the Holy Spirit, like Christ himself, is with us always. 

An Important Lesson

Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI
Blessed John XXIII
Blessed John XXIII

Pope Benedict XVI prudently teaches us that the false “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” needs to be replaced by an authentic “hermeneutic of continuity and reform.” The lessons of history show us that the Church is reformed and always reforming. “Semper ecclesia reformanda” (“The Church is always reforming”), as Pope St. Gregory I the Great taught. Continuity and reform provide the correct map for the study and implementation of Vatican II.  

Blessed John XXIII told us: “This council wishes to transmit doctrine pure and whole without attenuating it or falsifying it, but not watching over this precious treasure as if we were concerned only with antiquity. We wish to present the sure and immutable doctrine in a way that answers the needs of our time. The deposit of faith and our venerated doctrines are one thing; the way they are announced is another thing.” Pope John called for the Second Vatican Council to be a synthesis of faithfulness and dynamism in the spirit of Sts. Peter and Paul and the Council of Jerusalem. 

Blessed John Henry Newman (who was named a cardinal about a decade after Vatican I) shrewdly projected that it takes a century to integrate fully the wisdom of an ecumenical council. At the outset of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII noted that “it is now only dawn.” We are still digesting the work of Vatican II: 16 important decrees approved by more than 2,500 council fathers, who cast more than 1.2 million ballots after more than 1,000 speeches and more than 6,000 written interventions. 

The 50th-anniversary celebration of the Second Vatican Council is an invitation and opportunity to refresh and renew ourselves by rereading (or reading for the first time) the dynamic teachings of the council. These documents reveal a Church ever faithful, a divine gift, a Church ever dynamic, and a grace that continues from that very first council at Jerusalem. Both continuity and reform are the call of Vatican II, a council that will always have the power to draw us closer to Jesus Christ and to each other. 

Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, “The Church both before and after the council is the same one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church journeying through time.” TCA

Brother John M. Samaha, S.M., writes from the Marianist Center in Cupertino, Calif.