The interior of Saint Peter's Basilica. Prior to these years, the basilica was illuminated using beeswax
candles, suspended on high chandeliers
Pope John XXIII's announcement on 25 January 1959 of his intention to call a general council came as a surprise even to the cardinals present. The Pontiff pre-announced the council under a full moon when the faithful with their candlelights gathered in St. Peter's square and jokingly noted about the brightness of the moon.
He had tested the idea only ten days before with one of them, his Cardinal Secretary of State Domenico Tardini, who gave enthusiastic support to the idea. Although the Pope later said the idea came to him in a flash in his conversation with Tardini, two cardinals had earlier attempted to interest him in the idea. They were two of the most conservative, Ernesto Ruffini and Alfredo Ottaviani, who had already in 1948 proposed the idea to Pope Pius XII and who put it before John XXIII on 27 October 1958.
Actual preparations for the Council took more than two years, and included work from 10 specialised commissions, people for mass media and Christian Unity, and a Central Commission for overall coordination. These groups, composed mostly of members of the Roman Curia, produced 987 proposed constituting sessions, making it the largest gathering in any council in church history. (This compares to Vatican I, where 737 attended, mostly from Europe.) Attendance varied in later sessions from 2,100 to over 2,300. In addition, a varying number of periti (Latin: "experts") were available for theological consultation—a group that turned out to have a major influence as the council went forward. Seventeen Orthodox Churches and Protestant denominations sent observers. More than three dozen representatives of other Christian communities were present at the opening session, and the number grew to nearly 100 by the end of the 4th Council Sessions.
A Catholic priest
celebrating Tridentine Mass
, the form of the Mass prevalent before the Council, during the elevation of the chalice after the consecration.
Pope John XXIII opened the Council on 11 October 1962 in a public session and read the declaration Gaudet Mater Ecclesia before the Council Fathers.
What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men's moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else. Roncalli, Angelo Giuseppe, "Opening address", Council, Rome, IT.
13 October 1962 marked the initial working session of the Council. That day's agenda included the election for members of the ten conciliar commissions. Each would have sixteen elected and eight appointed members, and were expected to do most of the work of the Council. It had been expected that the members of the preparatory commissions, where the Curia was heavily represented, would be confirmed as the majorities on the conciliar commissions. Senior French Cardinal Achille Liénart addressed the Council, saying that the bishops could not intelligently vote for strangers. He asked that the vote be postponed to give all the bishops a chance to draw up their own lists. German Cardinal Josef Frings seconded that proposal, and the vote was postponed. The first meeting of the Council adjourned after only fifteen minutes.
A contemporary Mass in modern practice. As versus populum
became the common posture and gesture practised after the council. Note that the priest faces the congregation, while the vestments and religious artwork are less intense and ornate.
The bishops met to discuss the membership of the commissions, along with other issues, both in national and regional groups, as well as in gatherings that were more informal. The schemata (Latin for drafts) from the preparatory sessions were thrown out, and new ones were created. When the council met on 16 October 1962, a new slate of commission members was presented and approved by the Council. One important change was a significant increase in membership from Central and Northern Europe, instead of countries such as Spain or Italy. More than 100 bishops from Africa, Asia, and Latin America were Dutch or Belgian and tended to associate with the bishops from those countries. These groups were led by Cardinals Bernardus Johannes Alfrink of the Netherlands and Leo Suenens of Belgium.
Eleven commissions and three secretariats were established, with their respective presidents:
- De doctrina fidei et morum Commission, Alfredo Ottaviani;
- De episcopis et dioecesium regimine Commission, Paolo Marella;
- De ecclesiis orientalibus Commission, Amleto Giovanni Cicognani;
- De sacramentorum disciplina Commission, Benedetto Aloisi Masella;
- De disciplina cleri et populi christiani Commission, Pietro Ciriaci;
- De religiosis Commission, Ildebrando Antoniutti;
- De sacra liturgia Commission, Arcadio Larraona;
- De missionibus Commission, Gregorio Pietro XV Agagianian;
- De seminariis, de studiis, et de educatione catholica Commission, Giuseppe Pizzardo;
- De fidelium apostolatu Commission and De scriptis prelo edendis et de spectaculis moderandis Secretariat, Fernando Cento;
- Technical and Organizational Commission, Gustavo Testa;
- Ad christianorum unitatem fovendam Secretariat, Augustin Bea;
- Administrative Secretariat, Alberto di Jorio.
After adjournment on 8 December, work began on preparations for the sessions scheduled for 1963. These preparations, however, were halted upon the death of Pope John XXIII on 3 June 1963, since an ecumenical council is automatically interrupted and suspended upon the death of the Pope who convened it, until the next Pope orders the council to be continued or dissolved. Pope Paul VI was elected on 21 June 1963 and immediately announced that the Council would continue.
Second period: 1963
In the months prior to the second period, Pope Paul VI worked to correct some of the problems of organization and procedure that had been discovered during the first period. This included inviting additional lay Catholic and non-Catholic observers, reducing the number of proposed schemata to seventeen (which were made more general, in keeping with the pastoral nature of the council) and later eliminating the requirement of secrecy surrounding general sessions.
Pope Paul's opening address on 29 September 1963 stressed the pastoral nature of the council, and set out four purposes for it:
- to define more fully the nature of the Church and the role of the bishop;
- to renew the Church;
- to restore unity among all Christians, including seeking pardon for Catholic contributions to separation;
- and to start a dialogue with the contemporary world.
During this period, the bishops approved the constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the decree on social communication, Inter mirifica. Work went forward with the schemata on the Church, bishops and dioceses, and ecumenism. On 8 November 1963, Josef Frings criticized the Holy Office, and drew an articulate and impassioned defense by its Secretary, Alfredo Ottaviani. This exchange is often considered the most dramatic of the council (Cardinal Frings' theological adviser was the young Joseph Ratzinger, who would later as a Cardinal head the same department of the Holy See, and from 2005–13 reign as Pope Benedict XVI). The second period ended on 4 December.
Third period: 1964
In the time between the second and third periods, the proposed schemata were further revised on the basis of comments from the Council Fathers. A number of topics were reduced to statements of fundamental propositions that could gain approval during the third period, with postconciliar commissions handling implementation of these measures.
At the end of the second period, Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens of Belgium had asked the other bishops: "Why are we even discussing the reality of the church when half of the church is not even represented here?," referring to women. In response, 15 women were appointed as auditors in September 1964. Eventually 23 women were auditors at the Second Vatican Council, including 10 women religious. The auditors had no official role in the deliberations, although they attended the meetings of subcommittees working on council documents, particularly texts that dealt with the laity. They also met together on a weekly basis to read draft documents and comment on them.
During the third period, which began on 14 September 1964, the Council Fathers worked through a large volume of proposals. Schemata on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio); the official view on Protestant and Eastern Orthodox "separated brethren", the Eastern Rite churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum); and the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen gentium) 'were approved and promulgated by the Pope′.
Schemata on the life and ministry of priests and the missionary activity of the Church were rejected and sent back to commissions for complete rewriting. Work continued on the remaining schemata, in particular those on the Church in the modern world and religious freedom. There was controversy over revisions of the decree on religious freedom and the failure to vote on it during the third period, but Pope Paul promised that this schema would be the first to be reviewed in the next period.
Pope Paul closed the third period on 21 November by announcing a change in the Eucharistic fast and formally reaffirming Mary as "Mother of the Church".
Fourth period: 1965
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. (October 2017)
Eleven schemata remained unfinished at the end of the third period, and commissions worked to give them their final form. Schema 13, on the Church in the modern world, was revised by a commission that worked with the assistance of laymen.
Pope Paul VI opened the last period of the Council on 14 September 1965 with the establishment of the Synod of Bishops. This more permanent structure was intended to preserve close cooperation of the bishops with the Pope after the council.
The first business of the fourth period was the consideration of the decree on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae, one of the more controversial of the conciliar documents. The vote was 1,997 for to 224 against, a margin that widened even further by the time the bishops finally signed the decree. The principal work of the other part of the period was work on three documents, all of which were approved by the Council Fathers. The lengthened and revised pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes, was followed by decrees on missionary activity, Ad gentes and the ministry and life of priests, Presbyterorum ordinis.
The council also gave final approval to other documents that had been considered in earlier sessions. They included the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum), decrees on the pastoral office of bishops (Christus Dominus), the life of persons in religious orders (expanded and modified from earlier sessions, finally titled Perfectae caritatis), education for the priesthood (Optatam totius), Christian education (Gravissimum educationis), and the role of the laity (Apostolicam actuositatem).
One of the more controversial documents was Nostra aetate, which stated that the Jews of the time of Christ, taken indiscriminately, and all Jews today are no more responsible for the death of Christ than Christians.
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.
A major event of the final days of the council was the act of Pope Paul and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras of a joint expression of regret for many of the past actions that had led up to the Great Schism between the western and eastern churches.
"The old story of the Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the council" (Paul VI., address, 7 December): On 8 December, the Council was formally closed, with the bishops professing their obedience to the Council's decrees. To help carry forward the work of the Council, Pope Paul:
- had earlier formed a Papal Commission for the Media of Social Communication to assist bishops with the pastoral use of these media;
- declared a jubilee from 1 January to 26 May 1966 (later extended to 8 December 1966) to urge all Catholics to study and accept the decisions of the council and apply them in spiritual renewal;
- changed in 1965 the title and procedures of the Holy Office, giving it the name of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as the titles and competences of other departments of the Roman curia;
- made permanent the secretariates for the Promotion of Christian Unity, for Non-Christian Religions, and for Non-Believers.