A New Ecumenical Council
On January 25, 1959, Pope St. John XXIII took the world by surprise by calling a new ecumenical council of the universal Church. We now know this council as the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), so called because it was held in Vatican City.
An ecumenical council can be called and convened by the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) or, historically, by the Roman emperor. The term ecumenical comes from both Latin and Greek and refers to being “universal” or “from the whole world.” In the sense of the Church, the word takes on the character of the “house” or “household.” So, an ecumenical council is a gathering of the People of God, the Church. The Pope and all the bishops of the world are invited to take part.
Problems in the world and in the Church have led to the calling of 21 ecumenical councils which are convened to address these pressing issues. Many of the previous councils were called to address a specific prevalent heresy operative in the Church. For example, the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD was called in large measure to address the Nestorian heresy.
The Controversy Surrounding Vatican II
Without a doubt, the conversations surrounding Vatican II are filled with ideological landmines. Everyone in the Church seems to have an opinion on Vatican II; though, few have read the sixteen documents on the Council (let alone the four Constitutions from the Council), and even fewer have read these documents in continuity with the two thousand years of preceding Sacred Tradition.
The time before Vatican II was not perfect. There were rampant heresies, collectively called “modernism” which was taking a toll on the Church. The Sacred Liturgy was affected by an overly strict rubricism which was addressed by Pope St. Pius X, Pope Pius XII, and many others in the Church. The world was affected by the horrors of World War One and Two. The sexual revolution was in full up-swing. And secular relativism was on the rise as well.
During the Council, there were many ideologies at war and various lay people and clerics did not act in a way that showed the charity of Jesus Christ. Following the Council, the implementation of the various reforms outlined by the documents of the Council were hastily implemented in a way which was often heavy-handed, unfaithful to the magisterium, and out of step with the continuous Tradition of the Catholic Church.
The cultural milieu and modernist tendencies in the Church contributed to a very controversial atmosphere before, during, and after the Council, which continues until today. It is important to sift through this, however, and recognize the good of the Council, which was guided and guarded by the Holy Spirit, as a matter of course.
Why Was the Second Vatican Council Called?
Knowing that Vatican II was not perfectly implemented and there remains much controversy, why was the Council called in the first place?
On the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Pope St. John XXIII gathered with seventeen cardinals in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls on January 25, 1959. As the successor of Peter, the Pope reminds those present that he is both Bishop of Rome and Shepherd to the whole universal Church. He saw how much had changed in his own home of Rome and strongly felt the call to extend his watchful care to the whole world. In this way, Pope St. John XXIII called Vatican II as a diocesan synod of Rome and an ecumenical council. It is important to keep this in mind because he intended the council to pastorally care for all people in the various circumstances and places in which they are found.
The Pope also invoked the intercession of the Blessed Mother, the protection of Ss. Peter and Paul, and Ss. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, and all the heavenly court. I think that this plea for intercession shows the Pope’s view of the upcoming council. It must be led by our Immaculate Mother because the Church is Mother to us all. It must be under the protection of St. Peter as the first Pope and Bishop of Rome. It must be under the protection of St. Paul whose conversion is possibly the most famous in Christian History.
Further, St. John the Baptist is the forerunner of the Gospel. He makes a way before the Lord and makes straight His paths. The Church has always been called to carry on this activity, helping to dispose all people to the reception of the Saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. And finally, St. John the Evangelist, who gives us the beautiful vision of the Word taking on Flesh, just as the Church helps enflesh the Word to the world today.
The council was called to repropose the Gospel and unchanging doctrine of the Church to the modern world which no longer spoke the language of philosophy and theology fluently. Modernism had not only taken a toll on the Church but also on the world. The Council was meant to faithfully transmit anew the ancient truths in a modern context.
Has the True Vision of the Council Been Realized?
Has the truth of Jesus Christ, especially His life, death, and resurrection, and the truth of His Church been presented to the world anew leading to great spiritual fruit? This question will be answered differently, depending who is asked.
Personally, I think that an individual examination is needed:
· Have I read the four Constitutions of the Second Vatican Council for myself? (Dei Verbum, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Gaudium Et Spes, and Lumen Gentium)
· Have I been positively impacted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
· Do I take up Sacred Scripture and study it regularly?
· Do I understand that I am called to personal holiness and sainthood?
· Do I seek to enter the prayer of the Holy Mass in a full, conscious, and active way?
· Do I recognize where the implementation of Vatican II diverges from the Council itself?
There are many other questions to ask, but this is a good start. I think, if we are honest and balanced, we will see the tremendous spiritual fruit which has resulted from the Second Vatican Council itself, while recognizing that there was a tremendous amount that went wrong after the Council in its implementation. If we see a divergence of Vatican II from Vatican I, Trent, or any other ecumenical council, we need to take another charitable look at the Council itself.
The Church is the action of Almighty God, but it is composed of imperfect men and women. If this is true, there will be problems in the Church. The last half-century in the Church has undoubtedly been a mess. But, if we ignore the talking heads and read for ourselves, in prayer, we will see the beauty of what the Church has given us in the treasures of the Second Vatican Council.
Take A Deeper Look At Vatican II With This Resource
Fr. Britton clears up misconceptions about the Second Vatican Council and reveals how it promotes a radical return to the Church Fathers and the Scriptures, recenters the Church on sacred liturgy, and charts a clear path for the Church’s renewal in his new book, Reclaiming Vatican II: What It (Really) Said, What It Means, and How It Calls Us to Renew the Church.
Fr. Blake Britton discovered the truth and beauty of the council while he was in seminary and he has witnessed firsthand the power of its teachings in the life of his own parish. In Reclaiming Vatican II—a partnership between Ave Maria Press and Word on Fire Catholic Ministries—Fr. Britton presses beyond the political narrative foisted upon the post-conciliar Church and contends that Vatican II was neither conservative nor liberal, but something much more beautiful and challenging.
Fr. Britton clears up misconceptions about the council and reveals how—when properly understood and applied—it fosters a richer experience of being in the Church. Britton says Vatican II promotes a radical return to the Church Fathers and the Scriptures, holding both a commitment to tradition and the need for constant renewal in life-giving balance, recenters the Church on sacred liturgy and encourages both active participation and genuine encounter with transcendence, and charts a clear path for the Church’s renewal and empowers it for evangelism and transformative engagement with the world.
Fr. Britton invites all Catholics to step beyond the polarization and embrace Vatican II as one of our greatest resources for being in the Church in a way that is faithful, engaged, and effective if we answer its radical call to worship and renewal.