The Second Vatican Council – 1962 to 1965

A Brief Background









Pope John XXIII was elected to the papacy in 1959.  In an address given at the basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, on 25 January 1959, he said:

“It is a happy thing to see the grace of Christ multiplied throughout the world and providing guidance and blessing for everyone.  But I am saddened when people forget the place of Christ in their lives and pursue earthly goods, as though they were an end in themselves.  I think, in fact, that this blind pursuit of the things of this world emerges from the power of darkness, not from the light of the Gospels, and it is enabled by modern technology.  All of this weakens the energy of the spirit and generally leads to divisions, spiritual decline and moral failure.

As a priest, and now as shepherd of the Church, I am troubled and aroused by this tendency in modern life, and this makes me determined to recall certain ancient practices of the Church in order to stem the tide of this decline.  Throughout the history of the Church, such renewal has always yielded wonderful results.  It produces great clarity of thought, solidarity of religious unity, and abundant spiritual riches in people’s lives.

So now, trembling a bit with emotion, I announce to you my intention to hold a twofold event:  a diocesan-wide meeting for this city and an ecumenical council for the universal Church.  And this will lead to a bringing up-to-date of the code of canon law, which will accompany and crown these other two events.”

The formal preparation for Vatican II began with a worldwide consultation with some 2 500 residential bishops, heads of male religious orders, and faculties of Catholic universities.

Just as before Vatican II, there had been a desire to know what the leaders of the Church around the world believed the most pressing issues of faith to be.  The consultation got underway through an invitation sent in June 1959, by the Pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tardini.  The invitation asked the bishops of the world to express their desires for the Council.

More than 2 000 bishops responded.  Concerns were then grouped according to category and subject.  Once the bishops’ replies had been dealt with, the responses from the theological universities of the world, along with those received from religious orders and the various departments of the Curia itself were dealt with.

In 1960 the Pope announced that the preparatory work was complete and that the time had come to proceed with the setting up of the commissions that would devote themselves to the study of the matters to be discussed at the Council.  He went on to say that these commissions would be composed of cardinals, bishops, and other church workers noted for their virtue and learning, both from the diocesan and religious clergy, chosen from different parts of the world, so that the catholicity of the Church might be displayed.

It would be totally incorrect to assume that all Vatican officials and those in the Curia were of one mind about the necessity for, or even the advisability of holding, such a Council.  There were many who feared that the “reformists” or “rebels out there” would strip them of power, change things drastically, and that the Church would never recover.

John XXIII had no such fears.  He believed implicitly that the idea of the Council was the desire of the Holy Spirit, and that the Church needed to be brought up to date.  When asked on an occasion why the Council was needed, he moved to a window, opened it, and replied,  “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.”

He looked forward to the biblical scholars and theologians to assist him in preparing for this great renewal of Church life.  One of his greatest hopes and dreams was reunification of the Christian churches – something that had been feared and opposed generally in Vatican circles.

On the morning of Thursday October 11, 1962, more than 2 500 bishops, partriarchs, archbishops, abbots and cardinals gathered in the Vatican palace to begin the procession that would mark the start of the Council.

More than 500 of them were from South America, 126 were Asian and 118 from Africa.  This was in contrast to Vatican I when only 55 of those who attended were not Europeans, and not a single candidate was native Asian or African.

The language to be used at the Council was to be Latin.  This was at the insistence of the curialists – i.e. the members of the Vatican offices which govern the worldwide Church.  Together these offices are known as the Curia.  Latin was not the official language of the Eastern rites, nor of Protestant and Jewish observers at the Council.  It was not even spoken on a day-to-day basis in most of the Church.  But it was the traditional language of church ritual and official texts.  Obviously, very little actual debate could take place through the medium of Latin, so what tended to happen was that actual discussion, debate, lobbying etc., about an issue went on outside of the formal sessions, but that official papers and position statements etc., were written and presented in Latin.

In his opening address to the Council, given on October 11, 1962, the Pope said finally, “The Council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light.  It is now only dawn.  And already, at this first announcement of the rising day, how much sweetness fills our heart!”

The Council then began its three years of deliberations!