A professor of history at the Catholic Institute of Lyon considers these last six decades, and where we go from here.
October 11, 2022, marks the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, with a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica. Of the nearly 3,000 bishops who participated in the Council, only five “council fathers” are still alive today, including one cardinal, the Nigerian Francis Arinze, who took part in the last session in 1965. Benedict XVI contributed to the Second Vatican Council as an expert theologian, but he was not yet a bishop.
While Pope Francis has shown himself a spiritual son of John XXIII by canonizing him and also advocating an aggiornamento of the Church, Fr. Daniel Moulinet, a priest of the Diocese of Moulins and professor of history at the Catholic Institute of Lyon, explains how Pius XII laid the first guidelines for a reform of the Church that his successors have since concretized. He also reviews the legacy of the Second Vatican Council that continues to infuse the current synodal process.
Pope Francis has sometimes said that a council takes 100 years to assimilate. Can we say, however, that the Second Vatican Council, 60 years later, has been assimilated, or are there still themes to be deepened?
I believe that it has been fully assimilated on many points: on the level of the liturgy, for example, the question of the fully active and conscious participation of the faithful has been assimilated by the majority of the Christian people. The place of Sacred Scripture is now fully accepted. The structure of a sacrament, its celebration, is no longer conceived without the intervention of the Word of God. In the past, this was not necessarily the case. The Eucharist is now thought of as a “whole”; there is no longer this dissociation between what was called the “pre-mass” and the consecration. The Word of God has taken its full place.
In terms of ecclesiology, many aspects have been well integrated. In particular, we’ve seen the appearance of the notion of “presbyterium” around the bishop in each diocese, and priests are much more aware of this than they used to be. But there are still things to explore. The practice of priests listening to the faithful needs to be deepened. Some clerics remain reticent, but the Holy Spirit also speaks through the laity, as the Council reminds us.
What were the precursors of the Council? Can we say that Pius XII foresaw the need for change?
On a liturgical level, Pope Pius XII had already opened the way for important changes in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, which put into practice another encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi (1943). The challenge was to think of the Church as a body and to apply this vision to the liturgy. Each member of the faithful thus became a member of a body: it could no longer be said that the priest celebrated the Mass and that the faithful simply attended, as in a theater.
Pius XII had also allowed the publication of lectionaries with translation into the local language, from the 1950s onwards. In some countries, such as Germany and China, it was possible to celebrate Mass in the local language before the Second Vatican Council. This was not the case in France, but for the celebration of the sacraments, it was possible to use the local language, as long as the sacramental formulation as such was kept in Latin.
People have the impression that everything started with Vatican II, but this is not true; there were many transformations before. We can also point to the re-establishment of the Easter Vigil in 1954. Without the pontificate of Pius XII, the Council would not have had the same starting point. It would have started much further back. Pius XII moved things forward, and John XXIII amplified the movement begun by his predecessor.
Traditionalists often reproach the Second Vatican Council for having contributed to the identity crisis that Catholicism experienced from the 1970s onwards. But can we think, on the contrary, that this crisis could have been even more violent if there had been no Council?
Perhaps yes, insofar as the clash with modernity could have been even more frontal. But in reality, things had been moving for a long time. The year 1965, the year of the conclusion of the Council, can be considered as an accelerator, but not as a starting point.
There were in fact two phases in the reception of the Council. In the years 1965-68, people didn’t ask themselves too many questions; they thought that assimilation would happen naturally. For example, the Catholic Action groups worked a lot on Gaudium et Spes. But the implementation was perhaps a bit too functionalist and reductive.
For example, we set up the presbyteral council with a sort of “democratic” logic, by making sure that each category of priests was represented in this body: the worker priests, the teacher priests, the Catholic Action chaplains, etc… We made careful adjustments in the dioceses, but this logic was perhaps too centered on adapting to the way society works, without going to the heart of things. We started with the surface, lacking a spiritual anchor.
Faced with the difficulties and divisions that marked the second phase of his pontificate, did Paul VI have a feeling of failure in the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, or was he, on the contrary, aware of the slowness of this historical process?
Paul VI, who was a very sensitive man, took this crisis of the Church head on and suffered from it. But a change of direction took place after the Holy Year of 1975. The organization of this Jubilee had aroused the skepticism of some within the Church. However, the success of this Holy Year changed the situation. These large gatherings reminded us of the importance of popular religiosity, whereas after the Council, some clerics had disqualified it by wishing to welcome only “conscious” Christians, with a more intellectual and reasoned faith. The rehabilitation of popular piety was an important fruit of this Holy Year, and Pope Francis today often insists on the importance of promoting these forms of devotion.
The other important legacy of the 1975 Jubilee was the recognition of the Charismatic Renewal. Paul VI, urged on by Cardinal Suenens, Primate of Belgium, gave the charismatics their place by recognizing them as a factor in the rejuvenation of the Church, offering a new impulse. The French bishops of the time, trained by Catholic Action, were more reticent, but they eventually entered into dialogue with this movement in the 1980s. This allowed it to structure itself, while putting an end to the existence of certain poorly regulated communities.
The long pontificate of John Paul II is today the object of many critical readings, some accusing him of having slowed down the Council, of having blocked certain developments. But is this a false accusation? On the contrary, did he give the Council its full importance in his magisterium?
I believe that his pontificate was fully in line with the Council, of which he himself had been an important actor. For example, the chapter on atheism in Gaudium et Spes owes him a great deal. As Pope, he held to the Council’s line on religious freedom, on ecumenism, and on dialogue with other religions, in the face of those who contested the position it took.
On the level of ecclesiology, he didn’t go backwards; quite the contrary. He fully shared the position of the Council. Today, the criticisms are mainly linked to the excesses of the Curia at the end of his pontificate because his health no longer allowed him to exercise full authority. The same phenomenon occurred at the end of the pontificate of Pius XII. But it would be very simplistic to point out only these difficulties, because it was essentially a great pontificate.
What was John Paul II’s position on synodality?
Regarding the Synods, he launched an initiative based on an intuition which was perhaps insufficiently exploited: continental synods, for Africa, Europe, Oceania, etc. Perhaps this intuition did not get the development it could’ve had, but I believe that it could prefigure the shape of future Councils.
To convene a Third Vatican Council today seems impossible. At the time of the Second Vatican Council, all the bishops were formed in the same European theological mold. This is no longer the case. Today, with globalization, Europe is no longer the center of the world. So perhaps these continental synods have shown the way to a decentralized Council, with short texts distributed from Rome, but then an adaptation would have to be found according to continents and countries.
Can the current synodal process be seen as a way of infusing the Council into the life of the Church?
Yes, I believe so, but we still need to discover the synodal way of working. It’s not just a matter of doing an event and then going home. I believe that the future of our Church lies in the apostolate of the laity, and therefore in their spiritual formation. If we want everyone to participate in the life of the Church, we must give importance to a formation that allows each Christian to experience a personal encounter with Christ Jesus. It is by having had this experience, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that each one will be able to find the sensitivity to be part of the Church and take his or her place in its construction. The Pope is right to speak of “missionary disciples,” but this presupposes that we are first of all disciples, that is to say, that we listen to Christ Jesus, that we allow ourselves to be taught. The words must have practical meaning.
The Christian community must also have a true communal and fraternal conscience, such that we carry one another. Each parish must also assume the dimension of diakonia, of service to the poor, which is as important as the liturgy and the celebration. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a fraternal relationship within the Christian community, are, I believe, prerequisites for the synodal life to change little by little the life of the Church, and to be adjusted to what the Lord asks.