There had never been anything to compare to the great ingathering of bishops in Rome for the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in October of 1962. More than 2600 bishops came from Asia, Africa, North, Central and South America, from Australia, New Zealand, the Far East and the islands of Oceania. The largest number came from Europe, but far fewer percentagewise compared to the First Vatican Council which was the first time any non-European bishops were invited. At Vatican One, European bishops were the overwhelming majority.
As the Council got underway and the bishops settled in they began to experience what it meant to be part of the universal Church. In Rome they experienced a lifestyle totally unlike what they were used to in their home dioceses where deference was the rule. In Rome they were one bishop among hundreds, living in seminaries, pensions, religious houses and even private homes.
For most the experience, while different, was exhilarating. Although every bishop is required to visit the Vatican at stated intervals to visit the Pope and give a report on the state of his diocese, these “ad limina” visits are brief and usually in the company of bishops from their own area. The difference at the Council was that the visits were prolonged (3 to 4 months) and in the company of bishops from all over the world.
Not only were friendships built, but new opportunities opened up for dialogue to explore common problems and solutions. In addition, many of the theologians who were also staying in the various quarters offered lectures and discussion sessions in the evenings. These lectures provided an opportunity for a theological update for busy men with little time to study. Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote of his experiences while living at the headquarters of the Divine Word Fathers when participating in the Council as a peritus or expert. He recalled how he particularly enjoyed the stimulating evening lectures and discussions. Vatican II was, in effect, a formation process for the Council Fathers, an experience in collegiality unlike anything experienced before or since.
One of the many things that made the Council unique and also marked Catholicism’s transition to a truly world church was the contingent of Council Fathers from Africa and Asia. Not only were there many more than at Vatican One but they were no longer European-born men sent as missionaries but native-born bishops, the fruit of many years of missionary effort. Indeed the shift from a Eurocentric Church to a world Church was just starting. At the beginning of the 20th Century,75% of the world’s 266 million Catholics lived in Europe and North America. By the beginning of the 21st Century of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, only about one third lived in Europe and North America. Some 750 million Catholic lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
A recent article in America (Oct. 15, 2012) recalled the comments of the late great theologian Father Karl Rahner, a key figure at the Council, who observed in 1979 that Vatican II was the Church’s first official assembly as a world church. He compared it to when the church transitioned from the world of Jewish Christianity to take its place in the larger world of the Greco-Roman empire and Europe.
The diversity of Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council foreshadowed another epochal shift that is now occurring; the transition from a Eurocentric Church to a World Church.