In July 1960, Yves Congar, a renowned Catholic expert in ecclesiology, felt that Vatican II “was coming 20 years too soon from the vantage point of theology and especially of ecumenism”. Many ideas had already changed, the French Dominican priest acknowledged, but it would take another 20 years for bishops to mature in ideas developed from Scripture and tradition to attain “a missionary awareness and a sense of pastoral realism”, reports The Tablet.
But ready or not, the world’s Catholic bishops arrived in Rome two years later to debate and vote at the in many ways unprecedented church council that Pope John XXIII had announced on 25 January 1959.
Today, 50 years after the opening of Vatican II on October 11, 1962, we may still wonder why the council happened when it did. John XXIII consistently maintained that his desire for a council was the product of an inspiration. The idea came to him, he said, “like a flash of heavenly light”.
While accepting his statement as truthful, we can still point to developments in the first half of the twentieth century that made the Church ripe for Vatican II. I shall consider only three: the emergence of a modern global Church embedded in a new world arising out of the ashes of the Second World War; the willingness at the highest levels of the Church’s hierarchy to consider convoking a council; and a growing Catholic commitment to ecumenism.
Vatican II was the first truly global council of the Catholic Church, “quite possibly”, John O’Malley remarked in What Happened at Vatican II (2008), “the biggest meeting in the history of the world”.
European bishops and theologians certainly were the most influential at the council yet the gathering in Rome of bishops from 116 countries showed that a global Church was coming of age, albeit at a time of global crisis when the Cold War remained a worrisome source of instability.
The Berlin Wall, the architectural symbol of the Cold War, went up in 1961. A few days after the council opened, the Cuban Missile Crisis began to unfold, bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear war.
The Cold War intersected with a concurrent global development – decolonisation – as the United States and Soviet Union jockeyed for influence in emerging independent states primarily in Asia and Africa, the beneficiaries of the erosion of European imperialism after the Second World War.
After the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 and of Indonesia in 1949, decolonisation gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s.
FULL STORY ‘The biggest meeting in the history of the world’ (Tablet)