One feature that distinguished the Second Vatican Council from the 19th-century Vatican One and the 16th-century Council of Trent was the presence of "observers" from other Christian churches.
While there was disagreement or uncertainty in the months after Vatican II was called about whether and how to involve other Christians, Pope John XXIII put the basic issue to rest in June 1960 when he said the separated brethren "will be called to assist at the great meeting of the Church."
Church historian Joseph Komonchak wrote, "The decision to invite non-Catholics as observers was one of the most important decisions made during the preparatory period with consequences for the character the council would assume and the work it would carry out that far surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic."
The observers had no right to speak or to vote during the council; their only official role was to be present in the council assembly. However, through their informal contacts with the council fathers, they had a significant impact on the tenor of the council.
Invitations were sent out and 54 observers attended the first session in 1962, a number that rose steadily over the duration of the council until there were 106 observers at the fourth and final session in 1965.
CNS FILE PHOTO
The number of observers from other major Christian churches who attended the sessions of Vatican II almost doubled over the course of the council.
Pope John received the observers in an audience two days after the council began. While many were wary of meeting the pope, they came away stunned by the warmth with which they were received.
The observers held their own meeting every Tuesday afternoon while Vatican II was in session to compare impressions and ideas. Typically, a representative of the Vatican's Christian Unity Secretariat was also present.
However, the observers made no attempt to present a common front, the differences among them were so great. "We lived together, but we never made any effort to identify ourselves as a distinct group," said one observer.
Nevertheless, they did contribute. The council duly took note of suggestions that the document on the Church could be improved if greater emphasis were placed on the role of the Holy Spirit and the Church's connection with the Eucharist.
As well, the observers were pleased that the document spoke of a universal call to holiness and did not try to establish one ethic for priests and religious, and a less demanding one for the laity.
However, some suggested that an early draft of that chapter was overly moralistic and lacked a proper foundation in the Bible and in Christ. Holiness, they believed, was presented too much as a human accomplishment and not enough as the gift of God to the sinner.
One Lutheran representative was pleased that the nature of the Church had been discussed "with surpassing fairness to other Christians." However, George Lindbeck, a leading Lutheran theologian, felt the Decree of Ecumenism treated the Roman Catholic Church as "the exclusive possessor of the fullness of unity."
Indeed, Catholics and Protestants especially did not see everything through the same set of eyes. When, in a gesture of reconciliation, Pope Paul VI returned some relics of St. Andrew to the Orthodox that had been stolen during the Crusades, it created uneasiness among Protestants who viewed the veneration of relics as morbid and superstitious.
Also, when the pope made changes to several documents that had already been approved, including the Decree on Ecumenism, several observers felt that move meant a regression in the Church's ecumenical commitment.
J.N. Thomas, a Presbyterian observer, criticized the papal interventions, especially the pope's declaration of Mary as the Mother of the Church, as an indication that the direction of the Church and the council was solely in the hands of the pope. Although Vatican II had endorsed the concept of collegiality, that concept was not affecting its daily decisions.
Overall, the observers were pleased and surprised by the role they played in the council. Their role was not purely passive as they had expected, but they had collaborated in the decision-making process even if they did not agree with all of the results.
Their fear as the council concluded in 1965 was that the ecumenical enthusiasm of Vatican II was a passing fancy and that the Catholics would soon return to their exclusive bastion. They feared that the council had renewed the Catholic Church internally, but created no lasting opening to the rest of the Christian world.
Fifty years later, we can see that that fear was both misplaced and well-founded. Ecumenical openness was not a passing fancy; it has become a permanent part of the Catholic reality. However, we remain, to a large part, focused on our own Church.
The non-Catholic observers at Vatican II had played a crucial role in breaking the ice. But the journey to fuller ecumenism is not something accomplished overnight.
(Information for this article came from each of the five volumes of History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo.)