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History of Vatican II
Volume I: Announcing and Preparing Vatican Council II-Toward a New Era in Catholicism

Edited by Giuseppe Alberigo
English edition edited by Joseph A. Komonchak
Orbis/Peeters, 527 pages, $80

In his November 1994 apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente , John Paul II suggested that the Second Vatican Council was a “providential event” by which the Holy Spirit, in ways that could not be fully grasped at the time, began “the more immediate preparation” of the Church “for the jubilee of the second millennium.” It is an intriguing”and distinctively Wojtylan”perspective on Vatican II. But according to the history minutely reconstructed in this book, the event of the Council itself, and the preparations for it that are the subject of this volume, were also marvelous reminders that the Holy Spirit works (overtime, on occasion) through the secondary causality of those earthen vessels which make up the Church militant between Pentecost and the Parousia.

Announcing and Preparing Vatican Council II is the first of a projected five-volume history being prepared by an international team of scholars led by Giuseppe Alberigo, an Italian layman affiliated with the Istituto per le Scienze Religiose in Bologna. Five lengthy chapters, and a conclusion contributed by Professor Alberigo, take us from January 25, 1959, when John XXIII stunned the Christian world by announcing a general council for the universal Church, to the threshold of the Council’s first period, which began on October 11, 1962. (The location of the announcement, at the famous basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on the Via Ostia, led to a mercifully short-lived proposal to style the council “Ostiense I.”)

While never uninteresting, the chapters are of uneven quality. By far the most satisfying is Joseph A. Komonchak’s 189-page rendering of “The Struggle for the Council During the Preparation of Vatican II (1960-1962).” In this masterpiece of research and exposition, whose wealth of detail richly illustrates the drama of the Council’s preparatory phase, Father Komonchak (who teaches at the Catholic University of America) painstakingly traces the process by which the Curia-controlled Theological Commission (led by the redoubtable Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani) and the newly created Secretariat for Christian Unity (guided by the Jesuit biblical scholar and former confessor to Pius XII, Augustin Cardinal Bea) struggled for control of the Council’s agenda.

In less scholarly hands, this delineation of the main combatants in the “battle for Vatican II” would quickly have melted down into the familiar “Xavier Rynne” hermeneutics of “intransigent conservatives” (read: “bad guys”) versus “open-minded liberals” (read: “good guys”). But Komonchak demonstrates beyond reasonable argument that “the history of the preparatory period was not simply an institutional tug-of-war but also a struggle over the definition of the nature and mission of the Church in the modern world””which is to say that the Council cannot be understood primarily as a contest over bureaucratic turf, but only as an ecclesial and theological event in which Catholicism sought to renew its understanding of the Word of God that called it into being as a distinctively ecclesial communio .

The person and personality of Pope John XXIII rightly dominate the first volume of any conciliar history. It was this putatively interim Pope who, a mere ninety days after his election, announced an ecumenical council in what a French journal aptly called, at the time, “a gesture of serene boldness.” It was John XXIII who insisted from the outset that the renovation of the Church’s “evangelical presence in history” (as Professor Alberigo puts it), rather than the promulgation of doctrinal formulae, was to be the Council’s principle work, and that one of the chief components of that renovation would be the urgent pursuit of Christian unity. It was Papa Roncalli who sought to ground the renewal of Christian life in what several theologians (who had fallen out of favor during the latter years of Pius XII) would call ressourcement: aggiornamento , the “updating” of the Church’s proclamation and witness, would be undertaken through a deeper appropriation of the “sources” of Christian self-understanding, especially Holy Scripture and the theology of the Fathers of the Church. And it was John XXIII who made the crucial “process” decision during the Council’s preparatory phase that the bishops of the Church were to be sent an open”ended letter requesting proposals for the conciliar agenda, rather than a curially”crafted questionnaire which would, inevitably, have restricted the input of the world episcopate.

Klaus Wittstadt’s description of John XXIII, in his chapter “On the Eve of the Second Vatican Council,” is yet another caution against interpreting the event of Vatican II in excessively politicized terms. The Pope, whose mortal cancer began to manifest itself two weeks before the Council’s solemn opening, told Belgium’s Cardinal Suenens that he knew what his part in the Council would be: “It will be to suffer.” Roncalli’s was an intensely Christological piety, which sprung, as Professor Wittstadt puts it, “from an encounter with the crucified Jesus and a decision for him.” Out of that encounter would come, Pope John believed, a “new Pentecost”; and, as indicated above, John XXIII’s third successor, who played a major role in the Council and whose election would have been inconceivable without John XXIII’s initiative, is inclined to agree.

Announcing and Preparing Vatican Council II is also full of interesting Council trivia, including the fact that there were two bomb attacks inside St. Peter’s during the months before the Council fathers convened. The importance of the two coffee bars erected in the basilica”“Bar Jonah” and “Bar Mitzvah,” as episcopal wags quickly dubbed them”is duly noted. It will be interesting to see how subsequent volumes in this series deal with the crucial “secondary Council” of informal conversation and personal encounter symbolized for many Council veterans by these two ecclesial cafes. The tangible “product” of Vatican II was, of course, its sixteen documents. But the Council also produced a different way of “being Church” than had obtained in the previous century or so, and the “secondary Council” that took place on the periphery, or even outside, the conciliar aula was central to that experience.

The density of detail in this volume (not to mention its extravagant price) will quite likely limit its audience to scholars and interested laity with access to a good theological library. And it remains to be seen whether the temptation to “read” the Council through the standard liberal/conservative lens”a temptation that some of the contributors are far more successful in resisting than others”will distort subsequent books in the series. I hope not. For the dramatic “form” of the Council, which Professor Alberigo and his colleagues are eager to recapture, is itself the best testimony to the futility of trying to tell the history of Vatican II as a tale of political intrigue.

George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is at work on a biography of Pope John Paul II.