Seeing Things: The Council at 35

This month marks the 35th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. It was on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1965, that Paul VI officially and solemnly closed perhaps the greatest Catholic event in the last 100 years, declaring, “This immense and extraordinary assembly is disbanded.”

In middle age, like the rest of us, the council shows signs of both continuity with, and profound differences from, its enthusiastic youth. Both elements are worth a look because they tell us a great deal about what the council will mean in the larger time frame of the Church.

In the immediate emotion of the closing moment, the pope did something few recall: he emphasized both the universal (i.e., catholic) nature of the council and its embrace of the entire world. Comparing the Church’s message to the tolling of a bell, Paul made clear that his greeting went out “to each and every one of you. To those who receive it and to those who do not, it resounds pleadingly in the ear of every man. From this Catholic center of Rome, no one, in principle, is unreachable; in principle, all men can and must be reached. For the Catholic Church, no one is a stranger, no one is excluded, no one is far away.”

This vigorous combination of ecumenical outreach and Catholic self- affirmation at the conclusion of the council’s work is just one more surprise awaiting those of us who go back and study carefully what was actually said and done—as opposed to what we have been told was said and done.

That kind of reassessment is long overdue. Large-scale events have a tendency to grow haphazardly and dis-tract us from their central purposes. The Sydney Olympics, for instance, virtually buried the classical core of the ancient games—sprinting and distance races, the long and high jumps, and the shot put, javelin, and discus—under a mound of newcomers like softball and (Zeus forgive us) synchronized swimming. The old modern games had an antique feel that may not sell particularly well in the new hyperactive media climate, but to judge from the weak interest in the new, jazzed-up games, merely adding events that are supposedly popular is not a solution to lack of basic interest either.

Many of the council’s early enthusiasts tried something similar during and after the event. New initiatives were sorely needed to help the Church face new conditions. John Paul II, then a young bishop, understood that and helped create the new approach, which he has been developing further ever since. The long-standing debate over the true interpretation of the council continues, but we are in a position to see 35 years later that we always need what the tradition calls the “discernment of spirits.” In the rapid proliferation of groups and movements supposedly carrying forward the spirit of the council, its evangelical core became diluted and, not infrequently, dispersed. That is one of the reasons why religious orders in recent decades evaporated as members traded their historic charisms for psychological nostrums and social work.

Pope Paul clearly worried about the lack of such discernment. Asked whether the council’s own vision was merely a dream, he answered: “When we push our thoughts and our desires toward an ideal conception of life, we find ourselves immediately in a utopia, in rhetorical caricature, in illusion or delusion. Man preserves an un-quenchable yearning toward ideal and total perfection, but of himself he is incapable of reaching it, perhaps not in concept or much less with experience or reality. This we know, is the drama of man, the drama of the fallen king.”

And yet he recommended that the quest, for all its tragic dimensions, had to be continued. But Paul did not leave believers and other seekers without some guidance. He asked if the council had helped people advance in the ((mystery of God” and then gave a kind of summary of his view of the whole enterprise as telling the world:

that God exists, that he is real, that he is living, that he is personal, that he is providential, that he is infinitely good, our Creator, our truth, our happiness; in such a way that the strength to center our sight and our heart on him, which we call contemplation, becomes the highest and fullest act of the spirit, an act which today can and should place in order the pyramid of human activity.

If anyone over the past 35 years paid attention to Paul’s assertion of the primacy of contemplation in the council’s work, I have not noticed it. And it’s a shame, because it is clear that Paul, in line with the best in the tradition, did not emphasize contemplation instead of engagement with the world. Rather, he sees it as the central point and final culmination of a whole Christian life, which gives order and direction to the many other quite necessary worldly obligations that we all must fulfill. (The Council’s declaration on religious life also counseled commitment to contemplation.) But there is no confusion in Paul VI that somehow the mission to the world could replace or be put on an equal footing with our living relationship with God. The first commandment seemed to have set that point straight long ago; but he knew it needed repeating.

Of course those who believe the papacy of John Paul II is not a fulfillment of the council, but its virtual repeal, will see in Paul VI’s closing remarks just another instance of Roman reaction. But as things settle down more and more after the initial turmoil, Paul and John Paul’s vision of a contemplative core that energizes and so guides our action seems the return to the royal road of Catholicism.

If we’ve learned anything from the past 35 years, it is that the world does not need more social workers and activists who also happen to say prayers. It desperately needs contemplatives who understand that their love for God—and the graces they get in prayer—are the source and guide to their love of neighbor. That was the revolution Vatican II introduced into the modern world. As the council enters its maturity, that is the renewal we are all called to make real.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...