Good Pope John and His Council

Today marks the 57th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, back in those heady days of the early sixties, the future, to many eyes, full of promise and hope, throwing off the shackles of their own ancien regime, the bourgeois suburbia of the fifties giving way to the hoary hedonism of the hippies.

This is also the day chosen by the Church to commemorate the Pontiff who called the Council, John XXIII, an elderly ‘caretaker’ Pope, elected when a septuagenarian upon the death of the austere Pius XII in 1958. No one expected him to call an ecumenical Council, which are rather rare, the last being interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, and the one before that was the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563).

Much of the mayhem that happened after the Council – however much of it intended – has little to do with the conciliar texts, which are overall quite conservative, especially if read in their original and official Latin (the English translations can tend towards the tendentious), even if a bit vague in parts.  Everything from Latin in the Mass, Gregorian chant (to be given ‘pride of place’), the organ, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the value of priestly celibacy and chastity, the power of contemplative life (‘as effective as it is hidden’), the historical truth of Scripture, especially the Gospels, the divinity of Christ and devotion to His mother and all the saints, and the necessity of the one, true Church for salvation.

Pope John himself was traditional and conservative – one of his last encyclicals was on the need to maintain Latin in the Church. Born Angelo Roncalli, he was steeped in the piety of his peasant upbringing, always hopeful and jovial, fourth in a family of thirteen, disciplining himself to see the good in all and everyone, striving for personal sanctity. Ordained on August 10th, 1904, he moved up through the ranks of the Church without ambition. As nuncio to Turkey, he worked tirelessly for the Jews during the Second World War, and saw salvation not only as open to all, if only each soul would accept the truth.

Hence, his desire as Pope to open the ‘windows of the Church’ to the world, with the idea of a Council coming to him, as he said, like a flash of inspiration. He perhaps did not see – and did not live to see, dying of stomach cancer on June 3, 1963, less than a year into the Council – that the world, even the ‘smoke of Satan’, would enter the Church.

In his first Christmas address in 2005, Benedict XVI warned against what he termed the ‘hermeneutic of rupture’, interpreting the Council to mean a break from the Church’s Tradition, her morals and liturgy; rather, we must follow a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’, reading the Council, as it should be read, as embedded in and flowing from the preceding two millennia of Church teaching and practice.

But various and nefarious ‘spirits of Vatican II’ now lumber or prowl about the world, depending on their degree of maliciousness, seeking what and whom they may devour. Many no longer even care about what the documents actually taught, and few, I fear, have even read them.

So we journey towards our final end, choosing what sides we might, the wheat and the tares, inextricably linked, now being divided – or, rather dividing themselves – by an ever-wider chasm. We must choose what side we are on – rupture or continuity – and persevere thereon. 

He who is not with me, is against me. And the Church and Christ are one.

Good Pope John knew and lived that. And so should we.