“It was completely unexpected, like a flash of heavenly light, shedding sweetness in eyes and hearts,” Pope John said about the inspiration to call a council. “And at the same time, it gave rise to a great fervor throughout the world. …”
Pope John experienced in 1959 — and called upon the universal church to be — what Bishop David Ricken called our parishes in the Green Bay Diocese to do in his 2011 pastoral letter, “Holy, Fully Engaged, Fully Alive.”
“Let’s dream about our parishes fully alive and our people fully engaged,” Bishop Ricken wrote.
In many ways, Vatican II was the result of that sort of dream. It was the 21st ecumenical council of the church. “Ecumenical” derives from a Greek word, oikein, which means “to inhabit” and has, since ancient times, been used to refer to “the entire world.”
An ecumenical council gathers the entire church, represented by their bishops and gathered with the pope. Pope John XXIII, quoting St. Cyprian, a third century bishop and martyr, explained councils this way: “The church, surrounded by divine light, spreads her rays over the entire earth. This light, however, is one and unique and shines everywhere without causing any separation in the unity of the body.”
Where did it start?
While tradition does not call it an ecumenical council, the first gathering of the leaders of the Christian Church was the Council of Jerusalem held around 50 A.D. Correctly “an apostolic council,” this gathering is noted in the Acts of the Apostles in Chapter 15.
The Council of Jerusalem gathered under the leadership of James the Just because of a dispute arising in Antioch. Attended by the 12 apostles, as well as Paul and Barnabas, the council decreed that Gentile converts to Christianity did not need to first become Jews, or to later abide by Jewish religious laws.
The first “official ecumenical council” came later. It was called in 325 in Nicaea (modern-day Turkey) to deal with questions of the faith and about Christ, and it gave us the Nicene Creed we say at Sunday Masses today.
In the centuries that followed, ecumenical councils have been called for various reasons:
- To deal with heresy (many early councils, besides Nicaea, addressed heresies regarding the divinity and humanity of Christ);
- To address points of theology (the Council of Ephesus  proclaimed Mary as Theotokos, the God-bearer, not just the mother of Jesus’ human body);
- To formulate rules for papal elections (Lateran III in 1179);
- To formalize liturgical and sacramental rites (Trent in 1545-63);
- And, like Vatican II, to study the church’s place in the world. Vatican II’s last document was called “The Church in the Modern World.” (Gaudium et spes means “Joy and Hope.”)
Now it’s only the pope
While canon law now limits the calling of ecumenical councils to popes (canon 338), the first councils were called by the Roman emperors, starting with Constantine in 325 A.D. (One empress, Irene of the Byzantine Empire, called the Second Council of Nicaea in 787). The Council of Nicaea (325) dealt with the Arian heresy that was disrupting the church, addressing the nature of Christ. Not only did it result in the Nicene Creed, it also set the date of Easter and the primacy of the See of Rome.
Ecumenical councils exercise supreme authority in church matters. This is granted them by Christ and is guided by the Holy Spirit. As church law states, “The college of bishops exercises power over the universal church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council” (can. 337).
Blessed John XXIII said he didn’t call Vatican II for theological discussion. “What is needed at the present time,” the Holy Father said, “is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith. … What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives.”
Bishop Ricken said much the same nearly 50 years later: “We are called to go forth into the world and to introduce others to our very best friend, Jesus Christ and to his body the church.”
We never know where that introduction will lead.
As the late Bishop Aloysius Wycislo of Green Bay, one of the fathers of Vatican II, said of that 20th century ecumenical council: “We had no idea how significant the Second Vatican Council would be. None. No, we were neophytes. … The road ahead was absolutely unknown. We never realized we would have accomplished what we did. … When I look back, I keep saying to people that I talk to, that I’m convinced the Holy Spirit was with us. He inspired us to do the things we did.”
All 21 ecumenical councils remind us that the Holy Spirit, as it has been since the dawn of creation when “the Spirit of God moved over the waters” (Gn 1:2), is active in the work of revealing God’s Kingdom. And that makes us holy, engaged and fully alive.
Sources: Diocesan archives; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Catechism of the Catholic Church”; Bishop Ricken’s 2011 pastoral; 1983 Code of Canon Law; catholicculture.org; catholic-forum.com.