The Third Session of Vatican II

Do we see the laity as the full Body of Christ, within whom we are called and ordained to serve and preside?

Fifty years ago this month, the third session of the Second Vatican Council opened on Sept. 14, 1964. This third session was significant for many reasons, but I would like to suggest a few themes that can be of help for us in our own daily ministries. Specifically, how do we understand the nature of the Church as we experience it daily in our relationships with our bishops and in our approach to ordained ministry within the broader context of the Church?

Each session of the Council took on its own special feel. By the third session, the bishops seemed to have a much more mature sense of what they were about. During the first two sessions, most of the fundamental issues had been introduced and trajectories of the various positions and arguments had been established, and it was hoped and expected by many of the bishops that they would be able to conclude their work at the end of this session.

The agenda for the third session, however, was particularly complex. Consider some of the issues they were going to address: episcopal collegiality, the role of Mary, the role of the religious and how it should be presented, texts on religious freedom and our relationship with the Jews, and then the whole question of “Schema 13,” the draft that would become the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, would need to be addressed. It would become quite clear to the bishops that a fourth session would be necessary.

The concelebrated Mass opening the third session was itself an expression of the liturgical reform already underway. Throughout the third session, concelebration became far more common, both during the Council’s general congregations, but also among other groups of bishops. This exemplifies, in my opinion, the underlying sense of the importance of episcopal collegiality which was so central to the work of the Council in this session.

Do we see and experience a similar appreciation of collegiality within our own ministries? As priests and deacons, how well do we value each other in our shared baptism and participation in the sacrament of Orders? It is perhaps difficult for us today, with concelebration such a common experience in our lives, to appreciate just how revolutionary the idea was just 50 years ago, and the significance attached to it by the bishops.

Our communion, however, goes much deeper. In his reflections on Pope Paul’s homily at the opening Mass, Father Yves Congar noted that the pope understood the laity more “as a particular ordo in the Church than as the people of believers within whose midst the structures of service and presiding are established.” I find this observation quite interesting and applicable for us as deacons (“service”) and priests (“presiding”)!

Indeed, how do we understand our own relationship (communion) with the laity? Do we ourselves sometimes think of the laity as an order of persons distinct from ourselves (which is true enough in a certain sense), or do we understand the laity as the full Body of Christ, within whom we are called and ordained to serve and preside? The question of this relationship, which was so central to the Council 50 years ago, remains equally fundamental for us today.

In a world in which so many people feel more isolated in their individualism, we are a Church (as the council Fathers repeatedly stated: “The People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit”) which gives constitutive value to our communio. How well are we nurturing the relationships of this communion? Are we collegial in our daily dealings with others? Do we see ourselves as “apart” from others, or as men within the communio serving the common good? These are just some of the questions our bishops from 50 years ago challenged us to consider; the challenge remains even more critical in our world and church today.

DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif.  He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.