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What Happened at Vatican II? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Saturday, 24 January 2009 22:03
Airplanes are wonderful places to do serious reading and one of the few places in my life when I can do so without guilt.

Which is how I made it through my first, fascinated reading of "What Happened at Vatican II?" by John W. O'Malley.

One of the things I dislike most about the polarization of the US Church is how difficult it is to feel like one has access to really solid, trustworthy historical sources because no matter what you read, half the Catholics in America are going to insist that it is all spin. Most of the reviews of this book that I read were really devoted to reading back into the past how the reviewers feel about the state of the Church now - 50 years later. None of them addressed the issue of this book's historicity, which would seem to be critical because O'Malley is writing as a historian, not a theologian and they are radically different disciplines.

But the Council was a true historical event and to understand it, it is critical to first understand how those who were there and shaped events actually thought and acted. Before we start interpreting the Council in light of what has happened since, we first must know what actually happened then. Give me a well-documented, blow-by-blow historical account of what was done and said when and where by whom *before* you try to sell me on what it meant.

I have been trying to piece it together bit by bit on my own but as O'Malley points out, the office Acta of the Council, published by the Vatican Press in 1999 is 51 volumes long and many of those volumes run 800 pages. For all practical purposes, people like thee and me are dependent upon scholars who have the time and ability to master the primary documents. It is very helpful that O'Malley includes a chronology of the Council and brief descriptions of 65 of the major players and his footnotes are extremely interesting (although in five languages). It is especially intriguing that O'Malley has had a life=long scholarly interest in both the Council of Trent and Vatican II. By the way, O'Malley is a good writer and most of the book is a truly gripping read.

I experienced a number of ahas just from the depiction of the progression of events. For one thing, we now know that Pius XI in the 20's and Pius XII in the 50's both seriously considered calling a council essentially to resume and complete Vatican I which was interrupted by the occupation of Rome by Italian troops in 1870 and have never officially closed. But in 1959, it seems that not even Pope John XXIII knew that. He always maintained that the idea came to him as a spontaneous inspiration.

John never mentioned Vatican I and there is no reason to believe that he understood his council as a resumption of Vatican I. Calling it Vatican II meant that it was a completely separate Council.

One reading is not enough but I wanted to share O"Malley's passage on the significance of the January 25, 1959 date.

Pope John's diary gives some fascinating clues: On January 20, he wrote that he intended the council to be an invitation to spiritual renewal for the church and for the world.

As is also clear from the Pope's diary, he chose january 25 to make the announcement because on that date, he was scheduled to be at the basilica of St. Paul to close the Church Unity Octave, a week of prayer for Christian unity that originated in the United States in 1908 with an Anglican priest and had become widely popular even in Catholic circles. As Pope John put it in his speech of Jan 25, one aim of the Council was "a renewed cordial invitation to the faithful of the separated communities to participate with us in this quest for unity and grace, for which so many souls long in all parts of the world."

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