On October 11 1962, Pope John XXIII lifted the first page of his speech from the ornate table beside him and a hush fell over St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
In front of him were some 2,500 Cardinals, Patriarchs of Eastern Catholic Churches, Archbishops, Abbot Presidents of Religious Orders and Bishops from 116 countries.
Former RTÉ Deputy Head of News Desmond Fisher looks back at the Second Vatican Council and its impact five decades after the momentous event.
“Gaudet Mater Ecclesia” (Mother Church Rejoices) said the Pope marking the solemn opening of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council.
Good Pope John, as the Roman people called him, was no great theologian like the present Pope Benedict XVI.
Nor was he an astute political operator like one of his successors, Pope John Paul II, who was credited with subverting Communism in Europe.
He was one of the 13 children of a modest tenant farmer from a small Italian hill village near the Swiss border.
However, he was a good man who thought clearly and had the dogged commonsense of his peasant ancestors.
He had seen that the Roman Catholic Church was not fulfilling the task for which Christ established it.
Instead of motivating more and more new members to follow Christ and come to love and worship God, it was alienating modern men and women and losing many existing members.
So, as soon as he had been unexpectedly chosen to lead the Church, he decided to summon an Ecumenical Council, the highest authority, apart from the Pope himself, in the Catholic Church.
He wanted the Council to renovate what is basically a 16th century version of the Church Christ founded and equip it to serve people of the 20th and subsequent centuries.
The Council Fathers, as those who attended it were called, worked for three months a year from 1962 to 1965 and produced 16 documents of varying degrees of significance.
The main reason for this modest output was that, from the start, the Council was divided into two camps.
The overwhelming majority of bishops, mainly those from Continental Europe, North America and parts of South America and Africa belonged to what was called the “progressive camp”.
They supported some radical changes in how the Church is organised and governed and in its relationship with other religions and with the secular world.
Most bishops from English-speaking countries other than North America and bishops from Spain and Italy were in the minority camp.
They took their lead from the Roman Curia, which was against change from beginning to end of the Council and is still opposed to implementing the Council’s decisions.
Despite the obstacles the Council produced five major documents. Taken together, they portray a new kind of Catholic Church very different from the 16th century Counter-Reformation version that still prevails.
The Vatican II Church abandons the existing portrayal of the Church as a pyramid with the Pope on top of descending tiers of Cardinals, bishops and priests sitting on a bottom layer of lay Catholics whose only function, as a bishop told the Council, seems to be “to pray, to obey and to pay”.
The Vatican II version of the Church is a “communion” of members sharing a common task – to convince all the people of the world that God loves them and that Christ is the example of how to love and serve him.
In this Church lay people are not the passive onlookers they are seen as now but the most active workers at the coalface.
It is they who in their normal lives at home, at work, at their everyday activities represent Christ and by their word and example help to complete his work of redeeming the human race. Priests, bishops and Pope are there to support them with the sacraments and with guidance.
This Church does not claim to be the only way to salvation. Members of other Christian Churches are not regarded as heretics but temporarily separated brethren.
Jews, either at the time of Christ’s Passion or today, are not all decides and religious liberty is a human right, not a concession.
But the Vatican II decisions have not been embraced and implemented. Instead the post-Council Popes (except for Pope John Paul I who ruled for only 33 days) have not put them into effect.
The present Pope has blamed the delay on ambiguity in the Council’s texts that need still longer consideration. Pro-Vatican II commentators say the ‘spirit of Vatican II’, as shown by the huge majorities the drafts got, emerges quite clearly between the lines.
The outcome has been that a deep split that now exists in the Catholic Church in Europe and North America. On one side are those Catholics who see the Council as the direct cause of the dissension and who favour a clamp down on any signs of disobedience. In time, they trust, what they regard as the aberrations of Vatican II will be forgotten.
On the other side are those who believe the Council showed up the pre-existing weaknesses in the institution and, in its decrees, provided the right prescription for rectifying them. For them, too, it is a matter of waiting. But they are waiting for change.
They believe some of the Council’s seeds fell on good ground and that in time they will grow up and yield a hundred–fold.
Desmond Fisher covered the Second Vatican Council for the Catholic Herald, London of which he was editor from 1962 to 1966.