Bishop Michael Smith addressed to the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy at All Hallows College on Wednesday 15 October 2014 on several aspects of the Church’s experience of Ecumenical Councils.
In his first point, Bishop Smith emphasised that the work of the Councils have been providential. To explain by way of example, the Bishop noted the transition from the First Vatican Council to the convocation of the next Council a century later. The political crisis facing the Church in the latter part of the nineteenth century meant that some of the key questions relating to ecclesiology were left unfinished when the Council Fathers returned from the Vatican, which was besieged by the Italian independence movement.
Yet only 44 years after the death of Pius IX, the new Pontiff Pius XI made significant preparation for the convocation of another Council. He decided not to reconvene the First Vatican Council and a similar effort by Pius XII in the late 1940s was likewise not followed through. He felt that further attention had to be paid to the impact of the terrible world wars on the life and faith of Europe.
In that sense, it is worth noting that Monsignor Roncalli had experienced the devastation of both world wars. As a young priest he was conscripted into the Italian Army and experienced the disastrous defeat of that army at Caporetto in 1917. He was in Turkey during the Second World War where he helped many Jewish people escape the Holocaust. At the end of that war he was sent to France to sort out the major problems the war had caused to the French Church. Nor should it be forgotten that, it was during the pontificate of Pius XI that Monsignor Roncalli was assigned to the Apostolic Delegation in Bulgaria where he, a keen student of history, was taking a particular interest in Conciliar history.
While many were taken aback by the early decision of Pope St John XXIII to announce the Second Vatican Council, the decision was long in fermentation and Pope St John would draw upon the preparatory notes which Pius XI had already compiled. The hand of Providence was at work over the course of that century, not only in the liturgical movement which had grown during the reign of Pope Pius XII but also in the Conciliar attitude of several Pontiffs prior to 1962. The long shadow of two world wars had, Bishop Smith suggests, given rise to the profound wisdom and hope expressed in “Gaudium et Spes”.
The second point Bishop Smith addressed was the question of the “spirit of the Council”.
Bishop Smith noted that there is little precedent to the interpretation of the Council by any means other than the Church’s authentic magisterium. The teaching of Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, both of whom were key players during the Council, have made it abundantly clear that it is the Council’s written word alone which remains as the authentic record of the Council and its meaning. Each of the sixteen documents of the Council was the subject of careful preparation, drafting and reworking prior to being voted upon by the Council Fathers. During this drafting period, every single word of each document was carefully considered. Bishop Smith was eager to emphasise that St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, rather than an undefined notion of “the spirit of the Council”, are the authentic interpreters of the Council documents.