Vatican II: fifty years on

January 27, 2009 in General, News

vaticanii_01.jpgTo mark the 50th anniversary of the calling of the second Vatican Council, Brendan Staunton SJ will be guest lecturer in The Milltown Institute on Monday Feb 16 2009 at 8pm. Fr Staunton, who teaches psychoanalysis through art history, will talk about ‘Vatican II and Impressionism’. Earlier this week Brendan was interviewed on East Coast Radio, BBC, and RNN about the Council and Pope John. For a summary of his reflections on this subject, read the article below.

Remembering the Council

“On October 28, 1958, Pope John XX111 was elected Pope, and on January 25th, 1959, he announced his intention of calling a Council. To say his curial cardinals were surprised is an understatement! This came like a bolt out of the blue, completely unexpected. Consternation! After all, he was seen as a caretaker Pope; he was 76 years old, and not expected to rock the boat let alone the bark of Peter! He asked the fifteen cardinals he had invited for advice. A stunned silence was the response! No wonder he didn’t make a public proclamation at first. A hush, hush, confidentiality tone instead. However, the rest is history.”

So writes Brendan Staunton SJ in an article to be published in The Furrow in the spring. In line with his fellow Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley, he believes that Vatican II was “the most important religious event of the twentieth century”. He also concurs with O’Malley that the Council was a ‘revolution’, not an ‘evolution’. (The ‘evolution’ view was expounded by the late Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ.)


The second Vatican council has to be contextualized. The post-reformation Council of Trent (1545-1563) set the spirit of the Catholic Church that would remain largely unchanged until Vatican II. The emphasis was on the Church as institutional, clerical, triumphant, the law-giver, polemical, suspicious of the temporal world. Vatican I (1869-1870), interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war, was largely about papal infallibility.

When Pope John XXIII called for a new Council, many believed it would be a continuation of Vatican I in name and nature. The Pope, however, called it Vatican II, signaling that it would be something new. And unlike Trent the second Vatican Council was characterized by its emphasis on the pastoral, the biblical, and the ecumenical. Also by its strong focus on the laity and its intention to dialogue with the modern world and other Christian churches, rather than stand in opposition to them.

Growing up in Limerick in pre-Vatican II days, Brendan Staunton recalled that they didn’t even have a bible in the house, and attending Protestant ceremonies was forbidden. The Mass and other liturgies were conducted in Latin, the priest was active, the people passive.

Vatican II ushered in a new age – just as Pope John XXIII intended. Protestant representatives were invited as observers to the Council. Women were invited to the last session of the Council but were not allowed to speak. However, according to Fr Staunton SJ, they still managed to make a valuable contribution to the proceedings.

Pope John XXIII vigorously opposed many appeals for him to condemn communism. According to Brendan Staunton, this led to his significant but little-known role in preventing a nuclear war during the Cuban crisis.

The first Pope to keep a diary (he wrote in it every day from age of 14 until the day he died), he was once asked what his role as Pope was. His response was ‘to suffer’. He had, however, a great sense of humour and kept a joke book. Amongst the most well-known quips attributed to him was his response to the question ‘How many people work in the Vatican?’ He replied: ‘About half of them!’

When John XXXIII died, for the first time ever the flags were flown at half-mast at the Westminster parliament. This would have been unheard of in the previous 400 years and a sign of his broad appeal and his important work in reconciling the Christian churches.

The council continued under Pope Paul VI. Unlike Pope John XXIII, who wanted all tabled issues discussed by the Council, Pope Paul reserved some issues to himself.

There was often heated debate at the sessions. During the discussions about changing liturgical language from Latin to the vernacular it was presumed that the conservatives had the stronger support. That was until one Cardinal speaking in favour of Latin ran over his allotted time, and the presiding official pulled his microphone plug. The resounding applause that followed this action gave hope to the ‘vernacular’ supporters, who eventually won the day!

Vatican II today?

According to Brendan Staunton SJ, great things were achieved by the second Vatican Council, but he acknowledges that it has its critics on both sides of a wide spectrum.

He has friends who believe it was a disastrous and unnecessary journey for the Catholic church to embark on. Seminaries at the time were thriving, churches were full, the faithful were loyal, and you knew where you stood and what your role was. The change, as they see it, has undermined Church teaching and clerical authority, led to a watered-down Catholicism, an ignorance of faith and catechism, and a softening on moral issues.

On the other hand there are Catholics who believe that the real spirit of Vatican II has not been fully implemented. The hierarchy, they say, has still not accepted that the Church is ‘the people of God’ with all the implications that flow from that understanding.

Brendan Staunton argues that we need to take a long-term view. It’s the 50th not the 500th anniversary of the second Vatican Council that we are marking. From Trent to Vatican II took over 400 years. We are still living in the immediate aftermath of the second Vatican Council, but it is already clear that it has set in place and begun to realize a vision of Church that is spirit-filled, inclusive, pastoral, and biblically-based – flawed though the working out of that may be. Growth is slow.