Between-sessions labour developed workable agenda

February 25, 2013

At the end of the first session of the Second Vatican Council, the council fathers went home with a mixture of exhilaration and frustration. The bishops had come to understand their authority and responsibility for helping the Church to define itself and its mission to the modern world.

But my, it was tedious and taking a long time! They had given approval-in-principle to two documents, but 68 more lay ahead of them. This was looking to be a very long haul.

On Dec. 6, two days before the session ended, Pope John XXIII announced the establishment of a new coordinating commission, a "super-commission" some called it, that would crack the whip on the many commissions that were writing and revising documents. It would resolve disputes among those commissions and ensure that the documents reflected the aims of the council.

Blessed Pope John had allowed the council to set its own direction during the first session and for the bishops to find their feet. Now it was time for a more focused approach.

By the end of January 1963, the coordinating commission had reduced the number of documents to be considered at Vatican II to 20, then later to 17 and eventually to 13. When the council ended in December 1965, it had approved 16 documents.

Like so many things at the council, the task given to the coordinating commission was not universally popular. Those who had worked hard to prepare the documents for the first session still wanted to see those documents approved. They dragged their feet and otherwise undermined what was now being called the second preparation for Vatican II.

In his last months, Pope John XXIII seemed to be fired with an even greater energy.


In his last months, Pope John XXIII seemed to be fired with an even greater energy.

Indeed, one of the opponents of the second preparation, Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, chaired the coordinating commission. However, there were enough diverse views on the commission that its work was carried out speedily and efficiently.

In May, 11 revised schemas (documents) were mailed out to the council fathers. Two more were sent in July.


The commission drafted an agenda of the topics that would be discussed in the fall session - documents on the Church, Mary, bishops, laity and ecumenism. The second session dealt thoroughly with four of them, unable to begin work on the laity text.

The coordinating commission also attempted to unite several texts on contemporary society. The result would be Vatican II's most original contribution, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).

However, getting that document into an acceptable form would prove to be a torturous process. In the eyes of theologians, such as Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, even the final product was seriously flawed. That, however, is a story for later in this series.

Meanwhile, the pope was more assertive. On Jan. 6, he sent a letter to all the council fathers, making it abundantly clear that he was on side with those who made up the great majority at Vatican II. To some curial cardinals, this was actually a surprise.

Pope John urged the diocesan bishops to stay involved as best they could with developments that were occurring between sessions.


In late November 1962, Pope John had learned that he was gravely ill with cancer and would not live long. But instead of crawling into bed and awaiting the inevitable, he seemed to be fired with an even greater energy.

He relentlessly promoted the need for the council to seek an approach that was pastoral and more suited to the current times. Less than a month before his death, he issued a landmark encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) that helped pave the way for the council's pastoral constitution.

The global reaction to his last days as he clung to life and then succumbed on June 3 was unprecedented. Never before had there been such a worldwide outpouring of grief over one man's death.

The curial cardinals who had been stonewalling Pope John's council were taken aback by this global phenomenon. Hunkered away in the Vatican, they had no idea of the pope's great popularity or of the popularity of the council itself.

Between the direction given by the council and the activities and death of Blessed John XXIII, the council was now headed in a more organized and confident direction. The only missing link was a new pope who was committed to the old pope's vision of renewal.