A Look Back at Vatican II: The Preparatory Commissions

COMMENTARY: In 1960, Pope John XXIII established 11 commissions and other preparatory bodies to lay the groundwork for the Second Vatican Council.

Pope John XXIII is pictured during prayer at the Vatican in 1963.
Pope John XXIII is pictured during prayer at the Vatican in 1963. (photo: Ansa Photo / AFP via Getty Images)

During the years of preparation for the Second Vatican Council, the Church faced a question that we could just as easily ask today: How can a group of bishops and other important ecclesiastics — necessarily restricted to men with a specific ministry of governance — represent the desires of the entire Church? 

In our time, marked by a deeper awareness of the importance of the laity as living members of the body of Christ, the idea of a meeting reserved to such a group might appear out of date.

But we could also turn that question around. How could any kind of meeting claim to represent an institution as large and diverse as the Church? In any age, and particularly in the 20th century, it would be impossible to convoke all the members of the Church in a fraternal gathering. 

So we can appreciate the Church’s wisdom in making use of persons who, through the special grace of their ministry, can serve as instruments for the entire people of God. In this way, a council can be an authentic coming together of the universal Church.


Commissions and Secretariats Established

With this hope, the Church began the Council’s preparatory phase on June 5, 1960, the Solemnity of Pentecost. This moment marked the end of the initial stage of preparation or “antepreparatory” phase, which had sought to gather suggestions from the entire world. 

Pope John XXIII established 10 preparatory commissions to study the topics he had chosen from the various antepreparatory contributions. Topics included the bishops, the clergy, religious and laity, as well as with the Church’s sacraments, liturgy, the missions and the Eastern Churches.

The first of these commissions, known as the Theological Commission, would have a particularly decisive importance, as it was entrusted with the various questions regarding Sacred Scripture, Tradition, doctrine and morals.

In addition, the Holy Father instituted three special administrative bodies, known as “secretariats” — one secretariat to deal with the media, another to help foster unity with Christians separated from the Catholic Church and a third to look after the economic and technical aspects of the Council. 

Finally, there was a Central Commission, presided over by the Pope, to oversee and coordinate all of this activity. (This Central Commission, with nearly 100 members from all over the globe, would be described by one cardinal as practically a “little council” in itself, exemplifying the worldwide scope of the Council.)


The Council’s Scope and Mission

In an address to the members of the preparatory commissions, John XXIII described the ambitious goal of the coming ecumenical council. The previous 15 ecumenical councils, he noted, dealt with specific circumstances that required the clarification of various points of doctrine. In the modern era, on the other hand, the Church faced a challenge of a wider scale: “the dangers of an almost exclusive pursuit of material goods,” which led to the neglect of supernatural and spiritual truths. 

In such circumstances, the Pope continued, the Church needed not to simply clarify one or another point of doctrine, but to look to the very sources of Revelation and Tradition, so as to present the very substance of Christian thought and life in a restored splendor. In other words, the Church was called to present the whole of her teaching in a new way, while remaining faithful to her perennial doctrine.

How could such a profound renewal occur in a world that, then as today, seemed to be ever distancing itself from God? Pope John had no doubt that the protagonist in this task would be the Holy Spirit, who ― as he commented in announcing the preparatory phase to a group of cardinals ― “visits and illuminates minds, filling with heavenly grace the hearts of men.” 

This divine action counted on the various commission members and experts who worked in the preparatory commissions. These bodies received a set of topics selected by the Pope, based on the study of the contributions sent from around the world during the initial preparation. The commissions, therefore, had clear guidelines; at the same time, John XXIII desired to leave his indications at a general level, so as to allow the committees freedom in their task. These commissions would produce the texts that ― with the approval of the Central Commission and the Pope ― would be debated during the Council and eventually become the conciliar documents we know today.


A Witness of Communion

In this hidden and silent preparatory activity, which ran from June 1960 to the summer of 1962, the entire Church was at work. As Pope John commented to members and experts of the commissions in June of 1961, “it is not just you that are here, but really it is the entire Church in exultant work; here your hearts beat for the well-being and joy of individuals and peoples.” The Pontiff wished to recall that the activity of the preparatory period had originated from the input offered by the entire Church during the antepreparatory phase; in this way the Council had taken into account the desires of priests as well as laity.

The total number of preparatory commission members and experts would be close to 900, from every continent and 70 countries. The Holy Father accomplished this broadening of perspectives while at the same time showing his trust in his closest collaborators in Rome; the heads of the preparatory commissions were for the most part the heads of the corresponding congregations of the Roman Curia.

The commission meetings would reveal strong disagreements about what the Council was supposed to do. Some put the emphasis on the condemnation of error. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Theological Commission, succinctly stated that the goal of the Council would be “to defend dogma, to defend the truth,” and thus guard the faithful against the errors of the time.

Others urged the commission to be more open to the contributions of recent theology and more attentive to the supernatural mystery of the Church.  

The preparatory work would not resolve all of the disagreements. Nonetheless, in the activity of the commissions there did emerge some means to help achieve the admirable consensus that would eventually come about in Vatican II. These means included the notion of a “mixed commission,” which brought together persons from different bodies to work out differences of opinion. There was also the possibility of voting in a way by which the commission members could express agreement but also suggest changes to be worked out in continued dialogue.

To the frustration of the press, the work took place behind closed doors — often in the special hall of the Apostolic Palace that had been renovated at the express wish of John XXIII — so as to provide the atmosphere of undistracted study essential for pondering the various issues. The media, indeed, would have a hard time grasping that the Council was not a political assembly or a theological debate, but rather a living representation of the universal Church.

This supernatural element was seen, above all, in the prayer for unity: Each meeting of the Central Commission began with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, also used during the First Vatican Council, which included an echo of Our Lord’s prayer for unity at the Last Supper.

In this way, 60 years later, the work of these commissions can remind us of the realities of fraternity and supernatural unity which the Church is called to continue living today. As John XXIII affirmed, the preparatory work was meant to spread “an atmosphere of truth, of hope, of mutual collaboration, of respect for the rights of the human person.” We can hope that we Catholics, in the midst of the various divisions present today, might offer a similar witness of communion.