CNS PHOTO | GIANCARLO GIULIANI, CATHOLIC PRESS PHOTO
Pope Paul VI presides over a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica in this undated photo. The pope was embarrassed at the council when, after he praised a proposed document on the Church's missionary activity, the council fathers overwhelmingly rejected it.
The Second Vatican Council was, at its heart, a missionary council. Pope John XXIII had convoked the council, among other reasons, to discuss how to present the Church's teaching more effectively to the modern world.
To be sure, there were European or First World assumptions that underpinned this approach to the council. Nevertheless, there was also an assumption that Church teaching needed to be enculturated – presented in ways understandable to various cultures.
Further, a defining fact of the post-Second World War era was the end of colonialism and traditional forms of imperialism. Former colonies were gaining their freedom and felt the responsibility to speak in their own voices.
At the council, all of this came together to create great difficulty in formulating its document on the Church's missionary activity.
The original schema – proposed document – presented to the council fathers was traditional and narrowly focused. It focused on the organization of the "foreign" missions and the reform of canon law, urged the faithful to support those missions, and discussed the sacraments and liturgy.
It was a far cry from the holistic notion of evangelization expounded by Pope Paul VI in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, let alone Pope John Paul II's notion of the new evangelization that he began to put forward in the early 1980s.
Evangelii Nuntiandi maintained that evangelization should not only bring individuals to Christ and his Church, but that it should transform whole cultures with the spirit of the Gospel.
The new evangelization calls for missionary work, not only in what were traditionally non-Christian societies, but also in traditionally Christian nations where the commitment to the faith is being eroded.
These later insights were barely on the horizon at Vatican II.
By the time the first schema on the missions reached the floor of the council in November 1964, it was already the object of considerable criticism among the council fathers. It seemed clear that the schema was going to be rejected and sent for major revisions.
In that light, it was and remains perplexing that Pope Paul decided to make his only appearance of the entire council at one of its working sessions in order to speak in favour of the document.
The pope felt missionary activity was a matter of utmost importance. However, he seems to have been totally unaware of the strong opposition to the document that he was praising.
The pope spoke Nov. 6, 1964 and the following day, Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, Germany, no doubt aided by his theological expert Father Joseph Ratzinger, delivered the first of many speeches that day that were highly critical of the schema.
The document was criticized for having no theological foundation, for ignoring the experience of actual missionaries, for being overly hierarchical, as well as for other concerns.
By Nov. 9, the die was firmly cast and the council fathers voted overwhelmingly to send the document for major revisions. The vote was an unnecessary embarrassment for the pope. Later, Gerard Philips told his theologian colleague Yves Congar, "He (the pope) has been extremely mortified by the rejection of the schema on missions."
In fact, instead of major revisions, the document was rewritten from scratch. Congar was one of three theologians who spearheaded the rewriting while Ratzinger sent his notes on what he believed the document should say.
The new document that came back to the council on Oct. 7, 1965 was seen as both a vast improvement and far from perfect. It now taught that mission belongs to the essential nature of the Church and draws its impetus from the nature of the Trinity.
Over the next few days, 193 bishops spoke or sent written interventions calling for changes to the revised document. It was still seen as too hierarchical, ignoring the need for interreligious dialogue and giving short shrift to the need for deeper collaboration between missionary orders and local bishops.
With the end of the council now in sight, Congar, Ratzinger and others worked feverishly to revise the document to take into account the bishops' suggestions. On Dec. 7, it became the last document approved at Vatican II, by an overwhelming vote of 2,394 to five.
(The next article in this series will present a summary of the content of the Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity [Ad Gentes].)