On Jan. 25, 1959, less than three months after succeeding Pope Pius XII in the Chair of St. Peter, Pope John XXIII surprised the church and the world by calling an Ecumenical Council.
It was close to 100 years since the first Vatican Council adjourned in 1870. The doctrine of papal infallibility confirmed by the bishops at Vatican One had seemingly resolved all of the problems that had plagued the church in the previous century and whatever problems might come up in the future could be readily addressed by the Holy Father who spoke with the full authority of the church.
It is said that when the pope made the announcement to the Curia, the members reacted in stunned silence. Members of the Curia knew what a council was and many feared that a council could be genuinely disruptive of the status quo. If there was to be a council they wanted to insure it would be a council that expressed the convictions and policies of the Roman Curia, a council with a minimum of dislocation and a minimum of change.
Cardinal Domenico Tardini was appointed head of the Antepreparatory Commission and was charged with soliciting suggestions for the council’s consideration from the bishops of the world and superiors of all religious orders of men. Letters went out to 2,598 cardinals, archbishops, bishops, abbots and major superiors. Nearly 2,000 (1,998, to be exact), more than three-quarters (77 percent) replied.
In May 1960, 10 Preparatory Commissions were appointed to draft schemas for proposed documents to be considered by the council, all headed by members of the Curia. At the same time, the pope created the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity under the direction of Cardinal Augustin Bea.
Three months before the first session of the council, in July 1962, non-Roman Christian churches, Protestant and Orthodox, were invited to send delegate-observers.
On Oct. 11, 1962 the first session of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, was convened by Pope John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Pope John XXIII died before the second session and the council was continued by his successor, Pope Paul VI.
Over the course of the next four years, a total of 2,860 council Fathers and 400 observers, theologians and other experts would meet in four sessions ending on Dec. 8, 1965. For reasons of health or denial of exit visas, 274 bishops were not able to participate.
Only one of the documents originally submitted was accepted (Decree on Ecumenism), all 15 others were returned to the Commissions to be redone before being accepted by the Council Fathers. Debate became heated at times and on occasion the pope had to intervene, but in the end there were 16 documents agreed to by the Fathers and promulgated by Pope Paul VI during the second, third and fourth sessions:
- Four Constitutions–On the Sacred Liturgy; On Divine Revelation; On the Church, and On the Church in the Modern World.
- Nine Decrees–On Social Communication; On Ecumenism; On the Catholic Eastern Churches; On the Pastoral Duty of Bishops; On the Renewal of Religious Life; On the Training of Priests; On the Ministry and Life of Priests; On the Apostolate of the Laity, and On the Church’s Missionary Activity.
- Three Declarations–On Religious Liberty, On Relations with Non-Christian Religions and On Christian Education.
After the council, commissions were appointed to plan the details of implementing all the changes called for in the 16 documents. When the pope felt the commissions were not moving fast enough, he wrote: “The commission’s work should not only correspond to the words, it should also comply with the spirit of the council.”
Over the next half-century, there would be many debates over the meaning of both the words and the spirit of the council.