Fifty years ago, on January 25, Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convoke an ecumenical council. In the fall of 1962 his plan became reality when approximately two thousand five hundred bishops came together in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. They came from every part of the world and in the course of four years they issued sixteen documents that passed with almost unanimous consensus.
Where did such unanimity come from? After all, the bishops represented an immensely diverse range of cultures, languages and ethnicities. They also came from many different pastoral situations: the bishops of Western Europe still knew the impact of the horrors of World War II; the bishops of Eastern Europe (those who were permitted to come) knew the oppression of the Communist system; the bishops of Africa came from newly independent nations, freed from the chains of colonialism; the bishops of Asia represented fragile minorities in the midst of immense of non-Christian majorities; the bishops of Latin America knew the deeply embedded poverty of their populations. How was it possible for them to discover common ground?
Almost all of them had a common language – Latin - and a common theological background – the neo-scholasticism of the manuals used in most seminaries. And yet they united in encouraging the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy and the final documents would reflect very little of the neo-scholasticism in which they were trained. How did this happen?
Though they came from many different and challenging pastoral situations, they recognized the urgency of those situations. They were meeting at a critical time for the Church and the proclamation of the Gospel. A response was needed and could not be delayed. The urgency of pastoral needs created common ground. But their response to critical pastoral needs used a new language or, to put it more precisely, an older language that had had not been heard for a long time. The bishops used language from the first millennium of the Church. They spoke in terms of communion, participation, collegiality.
They used the language of the Scriptures: people of God, body of Christ, divine and ecclesial missions. Where did this come from?
In addition to the bishops at the Council there were large numbers of theologians. In the decades preceding the Council many of them had been engaged in renewed study of Scripture, Church history and the vast literature of the early centuries of the Church. They had gone back to the sources and they had enriched contemporary theology with their research and publications. Some bishops were familiar even before the Council with this rich treasure of thought. During the years of the Council many more became familiar with this theology renewed by the sources. Theologians gave lectures to groups of bishops and served as consultants to commissions of bishops. The Council became a school for the bishops. They came to consensus as they learned the resources of the Church’s tradition. This did not happen without contention. It was not easy to surrender familiar patterns of thought.
Patience and hard work were required and ultimately consensus was established on a new common ground: the awareness of the immensely rich tradition of the Church extending from the Scriptures to contemporary theology. The intricate debates of bishops and theologians during the years of the Council led to the near unanimity of the final documents and the renewal of the Church through a reformed pastoral style.
Today we live in another period of pastoral urgency. Threats to the unity of humankind are rising from the intolerance of extremists. The inner spirit of the human being is being eroded by the superficialities of consumerism and hope is being destroyed by the current collapse of unregulated financial markets. This is no time for polarization within the Church. There will always be some conflict, but the search for common ground is more necessary than ever in the face of current pastoral needs. Our tradition is inexhaustible in what it can offer the Church in the present circumstances. Will we have the courage, humility and wisdom of the bishops at Vatican II to look to that tradition for the common ground that we need today?