A Look Back at Vatican II: The Initial Preparation

COMMENTARY: To fully understand the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary to examine the earliest stage of its preparation

Public session during the Second Vatican Council.
Public session during the Second Vatican Council. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain )

Nowadays we are likely familiar with the “listening sessions” held in preparation for the Synod of Bishops. By such meetings, the Church aims to get a feel for what ordinary Catholics are thinking. 

While the specific format of such sessions is relatively recent, we can find a basis for this kind of information gathering in the Church’s Tradition, and particularly in an earlier period of preparation: that which preceded the Second Vatican Council. 

Following John XXIII’s announcement of the council on Jan. 25, 1959, the remote preparations for an ecumenical council began. While the Holy Father recognized the idea for the council to be a heavenly inspiration, he also had the firm conviction that he was in need of advice and collaboration. 

At that initial announcement to a small group of cardinals, the Pope had expressed his desire to receive their thoughts and suggestions regarding his proposal. A few days later, the Pope’s secretary of state and trusted aid Cardinal Domenico Tardini sent the text of John XXIII’s words of Jan. 25 to the 74 cardinals then existent. About one-third of them responded, many expressing their gratitude and appreciation for the Pontiff’s initiative. 

Of particular note was the response that Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, sent to his diocese. Cardinal Montini noted the profound echo that John XXIII’s announcement had created among Catholics, separating Christians and the entire world. 

Cardinal Montini affirmed that the coming ecumenical assembly would be a historic event of the greatest importance — not an event of hatred or terror, as in the case of so many significant events of the century, nor purely an event belonging to earthly history. The council would be a great event, he said, for being great in peace, in truth, and in the spirit — “great today, for tomorrow; great for people and for human hearts, great for the entire Church and for all humanity.” 

These words expressed the longings of many upon hearing about the coming council. But how would the future assembly respond to such grand ambitions? 

Just days after the Jan. 25 announcement, arrangements began for the initial phase of preparation for the council, a phase known as antepreparatory, meaning “before the preparatory.” This early period offered an opportunity for the Church to gather insights and suggestions from the entire Church, so that the work of the future council might adequately respond to the desires of the People of God. On the Solemnity of Pentecost, May 17, 1959, John XXIII established an Antepreparatory Commission composed of 10 cardinals of the Roman Curia, with Cardinal Tardini as president. 

We might consider this commission to be the first “listening” committee for Vatican II. The commission had the task of collecting the advice and suggestions of the bishops, the dicasteries of the Roman Curia and Catholic universities. Having received all of these contributions, the commission would have the task of proposing the general themes to be dealt with in the council.

In keeping with the grand scope of the council, the antepreparatory stage was a truly groundbreaking event. Never before had the Church sought to gather the reflections of the universal Church on such a large scale. 

Vatican I was the only council to have had such a consultation, though at a much smaller magnitude. In addition to this wide scope of participation, John XXIII desired the future council fathers to express their desires for the council with complete liberty and sincerity. He rejected an initial proposal to present the future council fathers with an extensive questionnaire, which would have channeled the suggestions for the council along the terminology familiar to past councils, such as: errors to be refuted, ways of maintaining purity of doctrine, the need to promote an attitude of obedience and reverence in the Church, and ways of bringing separated Christians (referred to as “dissident brothers”) back to the Roman Church. All of these were certainly laudable goals and were in line with John XXIII’s desire to maintain continuity with the Church’s Tradition.

Given this context, it is all the more surprising that Pope John decided to do away with the extensive questionnaire; here the Pope departed from the precedent of Vatican I. Instead, Cardinal Tardini sent a brief letter to the future council fathers, in which he stated that the Holy Father desired to give greatest importance to their thought. 

For this reason, Cardinal Tardini asked these future council participants to express, “with all freedom and sincerity,” the “observations, advice, and wishes” that their pastoral concern and zeal for souls would suggest with regard to the material to be discussed in the council. 

By this solicitation, John XXIII wanted the council fathers to be able to freely express their thoughts and desires for the coming ecumenical assembly, without being tied to a rigid structure. The responses were, however, supposed to be in Latin. The work of the council would of course be a moment for the Church to recognize the value of using the native language of each people to express the faith. However, the council would also be a confirmation of the importance of Latin as an expression of the Church’s unity and universality. 

The Holy Father’s petition for ideas for the future council was met with a strong response, with more than 2,000 separate contributions. 

As Étienne Fouilloux describes in his historical study, the Antepreparatory Commission went through a painstaking work of analyzing the various proposals by means of large-sized cards, used to classify the various contributions according to their subject. This categorization inevitably brought about a certain simplification of the responses. Nonetheless, this method was crucial for allowing the commission to synthesize the many observations coming from all around the globe. Something similar happens today, as the delegates of the Synod of Bishops seek to give expression to the many insights offered in the countless listening sessions held all over the world. 

The result of the Antepreparatory Commission’s work was an immense body of information, which would be used in the more immediate work of getting ready for the council. A lengthy index, known by the title Analyticus Conspectus (“analytical view”), provided an extensive list of the various topics that had been proposed by the future council fathers. A set of reports summarized the various responses according to specific geographic areas. Lastly, there was an attempt to condense all the information into an 18-page document known as the “final synthesis.” 

Today, perhaps all of this extensive labor of gathering suggestions can seem to be of little importance. We can tend to overlook it in light of the later events of Vatican II. It is certainly true that the council fathers would see the need to make significant revisions and additions to the texts which would arise from the antepreparatory and the later preparatory stage. However, the council would not ignore this earlier work. 

An examination of the many contributions of the antepreparatory phase gives us a panoramic vision of the challenges and desires of the Church of the time, which the later work of the council would respond to. A large number of future council fathers during this earlier period perceived the need to offer a more complete vision of the Church. They desired to look beyond the role of the pope — a key theme of Vatican I, a council cut short by political circumstances — to see the Church in her fuller perspective, including the ordained ministry, the religious and laity. These desires would receive a fitting response in the document that absorbed the greatest part of the council’s attention, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. A survey of the antepreparatory contributions manifests the way in which the future council fathers, during this initial phase, recognized other key themes that would come to the fore during Vatican II: for example, the need to formulate a Catholic perspective on Sacred Scripture, an openness to ecumenism, the longing for a reform in the liturgy, and the wish to present the Church’s teaching on areas of social concern. 

An adequate appreciation of the antepreparatory phase, then, is essential for a full understanding of the meaning of the council. As in the case of today’s synodal listening sessions, this inaugural stage reminds us that the council, while necessarily limited to bishops and other specific ecclesiastical authorities, was never a closed group. 

A council always draws from the life of the universal Church and is ever at the service of this greater communion. Such was the magnanimous vision which John XXIII continually depicted in the months following his announcement of the council. He urgently appealed to the entire Church to feel the need to cooperate in the council, especially through prayer. 

The Pope voiced his fervent hope that the coming ecumenical assembly might be a new Pentecost, in which the Church would receive abundant grace to respond to the demands of her mission in the contemporary world. Commenting on this ideal to a group of university students from Asia and Africa in April of 1959, he added: 

“All must cooperate to obtain such an immense gift.” 

While the initiative for the council belonged to one man, the early months of the council would manifest the way the entire Church was profoundly involved in this new and monumental endeavor.