One of the topics Pope Benedict has asked us to discuss during this Year of Faith is the Second Vatican Council. So for a little while on Friday Potpourri I thought that we might hit some points of the council that might be of interest.
Here are just some interesting tidbits: This was only the 21st such council to be held in the 2,000+ years of the Catholic Church. That works out to be about 1 per century. If averages hold out we should not be seeing another one in the lifetime of anybody reading this.
The name of a council comes from the place in which it was held. This one was the second council held at the Vatican and hence the common name “The Second Vatican Council.” The first Vatican Council was held in 1869/70 under Pope Pius IX. It was cut short by the Franco-Prussian War and was never reconvened to finish. As a matter of fact there was talk at some point that the First Vatican Council (only called the Vatican Council at the time) should be reconvened rather than starting a whole new council but you can figure out what happened.
Councils are generally called in reaction to something rather specific – perhaps to battle a heresy for example. But there is some question as to why this council took place.
About a year ago we threw a surprise retirement party for my cousin at the rectory. She thought it was to welcome relatives in from out of town and so helped cook and otherwise throw the party. When it came time for the toast she was instrumental in gathering people together. “Come on,” she said corralling people, “It’s time for the toast, everyone in the living room!” It was in the middle of the toast that we announced, “And what you don’t know, is that this party is for you and your retirement.” Can you imagine the surprise and the gear shifting going on in her head? Then you have some idea of what the 17 cardinals who didn’t see this coming when the pope announced the council at St. Paul Outside the Walls in 1959.
There is a common misconception in the world that the Catholic Church is a monolith and that we all move in lock step. But the announcement of the council was not met with unified support. It was labeled a rash and impulsive even by some of those who would later become instrumental in the council. A little better than three quarters of the world’s bishops expressed interest before the council.
The council is known as an ecumenical council. Though representatives from other faiths were invited to attend and observe that is not why it is called ecumenical. Ecumenical means that it is a worldwide initiative for all under the leadership of the Pope. It was the largest (and most expensive) council every held with 2,860 bishops directly participating. Bishops who participate are called the “Council Fathers.”
There is a story told by one of my seminary professors (I have no way of knowing if it is factual or not – but if it isn’t true it should be) that there was some debate as to whether the Vatican should buy or rent all the chairs that they would need for this great undertaking. They gambled and just bought them and as it turned out it was a great savings. Had they rented them for the four two months sessions it would have put a hefty dent in the Vatican finances.