“Why, after four hundred years of living out the decrees and rubrics of the Council of Trent, did Vatican II occur? How did the modern Church succeed in initiating such sweeping reforms? Why now? Why these particular reforms? How did it all start? On one hand, the answer is plain: nothing less than the entire history of the Church set the stage on which this council unfolded. All of the previous twenty worldwide could, all of the other regional and local councils and synods over the centuries. All of the theologians, reformers, popes, and leaders throughout the ages. All of the saints. All of the scandals and corruption. All faithful people, hungering for the deposit of the Christian Faith. All of it, the people and the events of the Church's history, formed the backdrop of this council. Nothing less.”1

2. “Trembling a little with emotion but at the same time humbly resolute in my purpose, I announce to you a double celebration which I propose to undertake: a diocesan synod for the City [Rome] and a general Council for the universal Church.”2 - January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII announces his decision to convoke a new Council, doing so less than ninety days after being elected as successor to Pius XII.
1 Bill Huebsch, Vatican II in Plain English: The Council. Ch 2 (Thomas More: Allen, Texas, 1997) p. 51. 2 Giuseppe Alberigo, Joseph A. Komonchak, History of Vatican II: Volume I Announcing and Preparing Vatican Council II Toward a new Era in Catholicism. Ed. Giuseppe Alberigo. Ch 1.I.1 (Orbis: Maryknoll, Peeter: Leuven, 1995) p.1.

3. “On January 24, 1960, in his address at the opening of the Roman Synod, the pope took occasion to say, with regard to the idea of calling an ecumenical Council, that “someone, speaking with feeling suggested to Us: 'Holy Father! The idea of an ecumenical Council is a fine one, but why not think first of all of the immediate needs of Rome by preparing for a diocesan synod for the City that is the centre of Christianity...?'” If the Pope did not hesitate to let it be known that the idea of Roman synod...had

been proposed to him by others, we may conclude that the decision to convoke the Council was entirely his own.”3

4. “Once the Roman synod was completed and its statues promulgated, preparation of the upcoming council could get under way. The first step, a technical one, was to declare Vatican I officially closed. It had been adjourned because of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and the siege of Rome by Italian nationalists, but it had never been officially closed.”4

5. “A great many people thought the historical situation unsuitable for the calling of a great assembly of

churchmen. The announcement was unexpected and unforeseen and a surprise to almost all circles, dominated
3 Ibid. p.3 4 Huebsch, p. 55.

as they were by the climate of the “cold war” and comfortable in their acceptance of a Catholicism rendered immobile by its certainties. But in the same January allocution the pope had referred to “ages of renewal”; in his view, the Church, and this meant, first of all, Catholicism, was on the threshold of an extraordinarily important historical juncture in which it would be

necessary “to define clearly and distinguish between what is sacred principle and eternal gospel and what belongs rather to the changing times.”5

6. “To the extent that “we are entering upon an age that can be called one of universal mission”, we must, “make ours the recommendation of Jesus that one should know how to distinguish the 'signs of the times'...and...see now, in the midst of so much darkness, a few indications which auger well,” as the Pope would later say in the Apostolic Constitution convoking the Council. In other words, Pope John placed the decision for a Council in an epochal context, assessed on the basis at once of historical judgements and of intuitions of faith, the conclusions of which significantly coincided.”6


“We should bear in mind that, due in part to his personal experience

of diplomacy over a thirty-year period, Roncalli was sensitive and attentive to the signs of the developing world situation, which was marked by the
5 Ibid. pp. 3 – 4. 6 Ibid. p. 4.

increasingly rapid ending of colonialism...and by the imminent, although still unnoticed, pass of the cold war. ...the confrontation between the Soviet and Wester blocs was always on the brink of turning into a conflict...The world seemed locked into a stalemate with no way out...there [was] the spread of a new stage of industrialisation and a corresponding cutback in the agricultural sphere, and the progressive domination of the mass media; while in the continents that had largely been under colonial control, the agitation for independence and the rejection of economic exploitation [was] growing ever more intense.”7


“In heavily Christian areas the widespread view that the churches had

no choice but to support the anti-communist commitment of the western bloc was being challenged by a growing unrest, fed by the conviction that the longstanding mutual support of political institutions and churches...was definitely on the wane. The modern version of “Christendom” was less and less a relevant and convincing model.”8


“The way chosen for announcing Vatican II differed from those

followed for the major Councils and especially those of Paul III in the sixteenth century [Council of Trent] and Pius IX [Vatican I] in the nineteenth for the two most recent Councils. In antiquity the action of the emperor depended on the political situation, on existing cause for concern in the Church, and, from a certain point on, the consent of the Patriarch of the West. Later on, in the Middle Ages, the popes acted with complete independence in exercising their authority to convoke Councils.”9
7 Op cit. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid. p. 16.


“But why has the infallible Pontiff chosen to have recourse to a council

rather than to act on his sole responsibility? There can be no doubt that the humility which is among the most evident of his personal characteristics is at least partially the reason for his reason, but it is due, as well, to his deep conviction...that, now, more than ever, the Church must function a [sic] community, as a fraternity which is at unity with itself. It may be asked whether that sudden insight to which, again humbly, His Holiness...has ascribed the decision which he has taken, has not been prepared for, as is natural to so large-minded a man, by antecendent thought, by that kind of soul-searching which opens the way for the entry of God's grace.”10

10 Henri Daniel-Rops, The Second Vatican Council: The Story Behind the Ecumenical Council of Pope John XXIII. Trans. Alistair Guinan. Ch 1.11 (George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd: London, New York, 1962) p. 59.