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Pope John XXIII and Vatican II
This is the first part in a two-part interview with Dr. Alan Schreck, author of Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise, in which he discusses Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, as well as their roles in the "Council of Mercy," Vatican II.
Why did Bl. Pope John XXIII call an ecumenical council in the first place?
When he [delivered] his opening speech to the Council, he just said it was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But there was a lot of consideration behind it. Blessed John XXIII had a prophetic insight into the need to present the faith of the Church to a world that was rapidly and significantly changing. It was the time of the Cold War, [and] the [advances] in communication and transportation [were] making the world a global village. In fact, for public relations photos, he often posed next to this huge globe, representing his concern for the whole world. He wrote encyclicals — Pacem in Terris [Peace on Earth], Mater et magistra [Mother and Teacher] — [sending] the message of peace and unity out to the world. That [concern] was a seed of the new evangelization. John Paul II said that the new evangelization was born out of the Second Vatican Council.
John XXIII also saw that there were various renewal movements underway in the Church, such as the liturgical renewal, which had been discussed for almost a century before the Council; new trends in biblical studies [and studying the Church Fathers]; the nouvelle theologie, a new ferment in Catholic theology which had been somewhat suspect, but was gaining traction among intellectuals in the Church. He realized the world's bishops [needed to discern]: allow these things to bear some fruit and be integrated into the life of the Church, or to reject them if they didn't seem beneficial.
So he was entrusting the Church to the grace of the new Pentecost which he'd prayed for. He believed that the Holy Spirit would work through the Council to address the needs of the world and also these various concerns within the Church.
What did he hope the Council would achieve?
He wanted to see a Church that was more spiritually vibrant — he prayed for a new Pentecost — and also more missionary, open to the world and its real needs. He was hoping the Council would enable the Church to address the need of the world for peace [and] unity more effectively if the world's bishops were able to meet to determine a direction that would be of benefit to the whole world, as well as to the Church. He said in his opening address that his concern was for all of humanity, and that he desired a new step toward Christian unity as a means of bringing more unity in the world. How can we speak a [beneficial] word to the world if Christians continue to be so disunited?
So it was truly to be a Council [pursuing] greater unity [between] Christians and even [with] non-Christians, especially the Jewish people, as well as Muslims and others. John XXIII desired interreligious unity as well as Christian unity. He warmly reached out to other religious leaders to attend the Council as observers, which they did. The Orthodox and Protestant observers were a very significant factor in the Council's work. He also saw the spiritual renewal of the Church as a first step towards Christian unity. Then if there needed to be a renewal of the liturgy [and] biblical studies, that could only benefit our unity with other Christians and renewal of the Church if they were authentic renewals which would lead to a more transparent and powerful witness, bringing the message of Christ to the world. He had hope the Holy Spirit would bring this about through the Council.
What word or phrase sums up the Council for you?
Renewal. It was a Council of renewal.
It was a Council of renewal on many levels. As John XXIII said in his opening speech, the purpose of the Council was to present Christian doctrine clearly and faithfully, but in the idiom of modern thought. This was the renewal of Catholic thought and theology: being able to present the Gospel through forms that people in the twentieth century could understand. For the most part, you don't need a theological dictionary when you're reading the documents to understand what is being said. It's presented in language that an ordinary, educated Catholic person could understand. And of course we see this reflected in the new Catechism, which was a fruit of the Council. Obviously, it requires study and reflection and prayer, but you don't need a theology degree to read the documents and understand the basic points of what the Council is calling for. That's a sign of a renewal: The faith is for all the people of God and not a private domain of bishops and theologians. Also, as I said, renewal of the Church herself to be more spiritually deep and dynamic.
What are the essential teachings of Vatican II that every Catholic needs to know?
Wow. Where to start? Well, we're all called to holiness. Everyone [baptized and confirmed] in the Church is equally and fully a member of the Church, of the People of God. Together we have a common vocation, which is to follow Christ fully, to be holy. That's really essential.
Also, we are to live our faith and witness in word and deed — the seed of the new evangelization. Every Catholic is called to be an apostle, as well as being called to holiness, and has a mission to live their faith in the world. They called the [document] on the laity, not just the decree on the laity, but the "Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity."
[Another essential teaching] is the call to be a worshipping people, fully engaging in a participatory way in the worship of the Church. This is the worship of the people of God. It's not a spectator sport. We're not observing it. We're offering the liturgy, obviously with the necessary presence of the ordained ministers who act in persona Christi, but we all are worshipping together.
Also, every Catholic should be reading their Bible and making use of all the wonderful Catholic Bible study aids available so that the Word of God is not the domain of the specialists. We should all be more familiar with the Word of God in Scripture and Tradition.
[And] Catholics are to take the initiative to reach out to other Christians to build bridges of understanding. [We are] not to be closed in on ourselves, but really seeking to bring our faith into the world — not in a way which is just condemning, but trying to find common ground with other Christians and even with non-Christians for the sake of the welfare of the world. Our faith is not just to be an isolated, privatistic thing. It is a faith which is to be lived in the world. Gaudium et Spes, the document on the Church and the modern world, [essentially] says, "Get out there and live it in the public forum." Part of that is reaching out to other Christians and non-Christians, to appreciate that we're not going to be able to proclaim Christ if we're not willing to listen and to understand what others believe. Not that we're compromising or watering down the faith in any way, but we really have to live this faith in the world in a way which is winning and open to dialogue with others.
There are so many different areas of the Council but those are some that come to mind. These are ways of living out that [call to] holiness.
Why has the Council been the subject of such widely different interpretations?
First of all, it has to be understood that it's not the fault of the Council that there were different interpretations. This Council's sixteen documents cover just about every aspect of the life of the Church [and] the relationship of the Church to the world. Every document, such as the Scriptures themselves, needs to be interpreted. Such a comprehensive Council is bound to be interpreted in different ways. We as Catholics are blessed, as it says in the documents, with a magisterium, a teaching office, which is necessary to guide the Church. Fortunately, we have been blessed with a very active magisterium. There is an emphasis in statements from Paul VI, John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and even Pope Francis, saying that one of their main tasks is to carry out the teaching of the Council, to enable its proper interpretation and implementation. So we rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us, especially on the Holy Spirit working through the magisterium to enable the Church to unfold the riches of the Council.
In the initial 20 years after the Council, even over the course of that short time, there was more and more clarity. Some of the more evident misinterpretations or abuses tended to be sorted out within the first 20, 25 years. There was more divisiveness about the Council 20 years ago because there were still a lot of unanswered questions. Now we're getting to the point 50 years after where the Council documents are better understood. They've been codified in the Catechism and in Canon Law. Now we're in the long haul of carrying out the teaching with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the help of the magisterium. There's a period after every Council of seeming disunity based on differing interpretations, so this Council is no different.
Is there a break between the letter and the spirit of Vatican II?
Some people think so. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops was called at the 20th anniversary of the close of the Council in 1985. It specifically said that the spirit and the letter of Vatican II cannot be separated, the letter being what the Council actually taught, the spirit meaning the idea of the Council. Anything that is from Vatican II must have its roots in what the Council actually taught.
Yet there is an authentic spirit of Vatican II: the spirit of renewal, the spirit of reaching out to the world with the good news in a fresh and powerful way. Unfortunately, that term has sometimes been misconstrued and misinterpreted. But there is no division. A sign of the true spirit of Vatican II is fidelity to the actual teaching of the Council, the so-called letter, and the letter has to be unfolded and embodied in the life of the Church. It can't be a dead letter. It can't just be documents on a page. So in that sense, the letter has to beget a true Christian spirit that flows from the Council.
Read part two.