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Vatican II As Ecumenical Council:
Yves Congar’s Vision Realized

By Joseph A. Komonchak
in Commonweal

Noticing that the words “Vatican II” evoked no response in her high school students, an Irish nun recently told me she asked them what Vatican II was. After some time and with much hesitation, one of them asked: “Would that be the pope’s summer residence?”

That we have just celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) reminds us that there are now two generations of Catholics for whom that pivotal event was not a personal experience. One way to recreate the experience of the council is to read the journals of participants or observers; there the drama of that gathering of the world’s bishops may be caught, as it unfolds, scene after scene, before the last act is known. Just published in France is what must certainly rank as one of the most important of these contemporary testimonies, the council-journal kept by Yves Congar, O.P. For the thirty years before the council was called, Congar was one of the key figures in the theological renewal of Catholicism in the twentieth century. Besides hundreds of scholarly articles, Congar wrote major works on ecumenism, on reform, and on the laity that did as much as anyone else’s works to help Catholics recover long-neglected traditions and to derive from them inspiration for a more creative engagement with their own world. After laboring for decades under Roman suspicion, Congar was to see much of his vision of the church vindicated by Vatican II.

The journal covers his activities from the summer of 1960 to December 8, 1965, the last day of the council. Written for the sake of the historical record, it describes Congar’s indefatigable work despite the weariness and pain of an advancing neurological disease of the spine; it records incidents as they are rumored and as they occur; he paints portraits of many of the protagonists, sometimes with such brutal frankness that he left orders that his journal was not be published until the year 2000. If it shows him not reluctant to make judgments, he can also be quite critical of himself. Moving and inspiring glimpses are given of the spirituality that undergirded the work and that defined his life, as well as the sufferings he endured in the pursuit of his theological vision.

It helps, of course, if the reader knows that Yves Congar discerned a vocation to work for Christian unity while preparing for ordination to the priesthood in the Dominican order in 1930. In 1937 he published a path breaking book on principles for a Catholic ecumenism (translated as Divided Christendom: A Catholic Study of the Problem of Reunion). Almost immediately the book brought him under Roman suspicion for having argued that separated Christian communions had sometimes preserved elements of Christianity more vitally than the Catholic Church had, so that an eventual reunion would bring qualitative as well as quantitative enrichment to the church.

In 1950 Congar published another ecumenically significant work: Vraie et fausse reforme dans l’Eglise. A response to call for reforms that were part of the exciting postwar years in Catholic France, the book set out the conditions and criteria for reform without schism. This book, too, caused him difficulties, and translations of it were forbidden. In 1954 Congar was one of the French Dominicans ordered into exile because of their support for the worker-priest experiment. All his writings were subsequently subjected to prior censorship by his order.

The cloud of Roman distrust only began to lift in June 1960 when Congar was appointed a consultant to the theological commission that was to prepare doctrinal texts for the bishops to consider when they met. Reviewing the outlines of planned texts, he remarked that they might be appropriate to the world of the First Vatican Council, but not to that of the Second. In perfect character, on his own, he sent in sixteen pages of criticism of the official plans along with his suggestions for an agenda pertinent to the real world. Through the two years of preparation, his efforts had very little effect. It is clear that the purpose of the initial texts was to list and condemn errors in the modern world and even within the church. Where scant traces of ecumenical interest could be found, they presumed that the goal of ecumenical dialogue was for everyone else to return to Mother Church.

Of course, when the bishops finally gathered in Rome, Pope John called them to a broader and deeper vision of the church. Quite a different council unfolded than the one that had been planned. Congar’s reports and journal catch the ecumenical dimension of it all. Because he records events as they happen, Congar’s excitement and delight are palpable.

Pope John XXIII had included ecumenism among the goals of Vatican II, and some thirty-seven delegates of other Christian communions are in Rome as the council opens on October 11, 1962; among them are American Protestants, including the Lutheran George Lindbeck, the Methodist, Albert Outler, and the Congregationalist Douglas Horton. “Tears welled in my eyes,” Congar writes, “when I met the observers for the first time — here!” Of course, everything remains to be done: “But the essential thing is a fact: they are here!” They can attend the general sessions and meetings of committees; they can keep their communities informed; they can meet bishops and experts: “Who can calculate the influence which private conversations, frank and honest, could have even upon the orientation of certain debates? All the more because this is all surrounded by that profound prayer that really constitutes the atmosphere that ecumenism breathes. Praised be God!”

Pope John XXIII receives the observers three days into the council. Some of them find his opening speech quite inadequate. True, Congar notes, the pope hasn’t said anything significant on the level of theology or history. “But that’s not important. He is cordial, quite simple, Christian. And then, in any case, the monumental fact is that there was a speech, that there were observers, that the pope received them, that there is a council. Such facts have their own weight, and that’s enough. Who would have believed that all this would take place before I was sixty years old?”

As the first session unfolds (October 11 to December 8, 1962) the presence of the observers becomes one of the main elements of the conciliar experience. They watch debates that hold the promise of future dialogues. “For the first time,” says one of them, “the Catholic Church is washing its dirty linen before witnesses.” Congar admits “it will take generations to nurture the seeds of understanding miraculously sown. Ecumenical dialogue is at its beginning.” But that wondrous beginning has to be acknowledged: There is something miraculous about the new Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, about the participation of the observers, about commitments to ecumenism being made by the great majority of bishops. One of the Australian bishops notes how everyone there, including Protestants, is praying for the council (an “ecumencity of the invocation of the Spirit,” Congar calls it), and the fruits are apparent: “It’s extraordinary how the Australian episcopate has changed in a month.” The bishops of England and Wales, sensationally, make “an official declaration of conversion to ecumenism and to dialogue . . . I did not dare expect this.” (Years later, Congar’s continuing wonder at it all leads him to hyperbole. Some bishops came to Rome with only hesitant, half-guilty thoughts about ecumenism, but then in conversation discovered how many other bishops were thinking along the same lines: “When the bishops discovered that they were pretty much in accord, the Catholic Church converted to ecumenism in minutes, in hours at most, it was quite extraordinary.”)

At the second session (September 29 to December 4, 1963), the council begins discussion of the schema on ecumenism, a “historic day,” Congar writes in his diary, “a moment of grace.” He sits with the observers during the Mass beforehand “in order to be in communion of prayer with them. They feel it very much. It is a great moment for me.” A week later great personal loss evokes another dimension of the council. He receives word that his mother has died and he goes home for the funeral. He almost apologizes for mentioning this in his diary, which he intends as a testimony for history’s sake. Still, he writes, “If a mystical history of the council were ever written, my mother would play a large part in it. Throughout years of suffering, she never stopped praying for the council, for my own work. The council has been carried by the offering of many prayers and sufferings. But who knows, who could write this history? . . . My own wearying health, the total exhaustion that accompanies me during these two months, don’t these also play some part in the invisible and mystical history of the council? I believe so strongly in the gospel words: He who loses gains.’ I believe so strongly in the words of St. Paul, ‘When I am weak, then am I strong.’”

The third session (September 14 to November 21, 1964) sees two of the documents most dear to Congar’s heart near approval. Some incidents in the last days of the session threaten to diminish the sense of ecumenical progress and accomplishment. In the distress of the observers and of their hosts at the Secretariat for Christian Unity Congar discerns “a deep feeling of a certain community destiny. Doesn’t ecumenism begin precisely when we are aware that we have something to do, and therefore something to gain or to lose, together?” He criticizes himself for not having prayed enough: “I’m not waging the struggle enough on a spiritual level.”

Congar has no great love for pomp of Roman ceremonies and avoids it when he can; but he makes an exception for the ceremony at which the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on Ecumenism are to be promulgated. For “mystical reasons,” he goes to Saint Peter’s that day, “to take part in the grace and in the event of the council at its most decisive moment . . . I want to take part at the summit as I have taken part at the base — share in the splendor, as I have shared in the sweat and the tears.”

The council ends with its fourth session (September 14 to December 8, 1965). As the conclusion approaches, Congar attends an unprecedented ecumenical service of the Word celebrated at Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls. A Protestant, a Catholic, and an Orthodox read from the Scriptures; Pope John has been dead for two years and Pope Paul VI presides and leads the common prayer. (Some churchmen are heard to grumble about violations of the prohibitions of shared worship with heretics and schismatics.) Congar notes the warmth and sincerity with which Pope Paul tells the observers how much the council has learned from them, has benefitted from their participation, even in the formulation of texts. “We have come to know each other a little better.” the pope says, “We have begun again to love one another.”

As Congar leaves the ceremony, he stops and kneels over the tomb of Saint Paul: “I talk to him. I talk to him about Luther, who wanted to reaffirm ‘the Gospel’ for which Paul had struggled. I ask of him, I almost tell him he has an obligation . . . to intervene in this new stage, to guide the pope and us all.” It is fitting that the ceremony took place where it did: “John XXIII announced the council at Saint Paul’s, at the end of the week of prayer for unity. The council ends in the same place. John XXIII must be pleased.”

Three days later comes another memorable moment. On December 7, a joint declaration of Pope Paul VI and of Athenagoras I, Patriarch of Constantinople, is read out in which they “consign to oblivion” the mutual excommunications that split East and West in the eleventh century. “After nine hundred years!” Congar exclaims, “I feel the historic moment . . . What a reversal of history! The text was read at 10:20; the date 1054 begins to fade from the screen!”

That same day several documents on which Congar collaborated are approved with overwhelming majorities. As he leaves Saint Peter’s, a large number of bishops come up to him and congratulate and thank him. “It’s in good part your work,” they tell him. Well, yes, he writes later that day: “Looking at things objectively, I have done a lot to prepare for the council, to work out and to spread ideas which the council has consecrated. At the council itself, I did a lot of work . . . I have emerged from a long period of suspicion and difficulties.”

In some detail he lists the paragraphs for which he is largely responsible; they are parts of the dogmatic constitutions on the church and on divine revelation; of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World; of the decrees on ecumenism, on the missions, and on the ministry and life of priests; of the declarations on religious freedom and on non-Christian religions. “So that, this morning, what was read was in very large part written by me.” But at once he cites a phrase from the Gospels: “Servi inutiles sumus. We are useless servants.” The words, recall, end one of the parables of Jesus: “When you have done everything that was commanded of you say, ‘We are useless servants’‘ we have done what it was our duty to do.”

The sentiment typifies Congar’s spirituality. He writes: “I have spent my whole life in the line and the spirit of John the Baptist, the friend of the Bridegroom. I have always thought that one should never grab at anything but be happy with what one has been given. It is this that, for everyone, is his ‘logike latrei,” his spiritual sacrifice, his way of sanctification. I have, therefore, taken what was given me; I have always striven to do well what has been asked of me.” When some bishops tell him of rumors that he will be named a cardinal, he writes: “I’ve never sought anything other than to place myself wherever God wants me to serve him.” And he makes his own Pope John’s motto: “Obedience and peace.”

There are fewer and fewer of us now who can remember what the church was like before Vatican II, what a breeze of fresh air Pope John XXIII was, what it felt like to witness from near or from afar the drama of the first session and the less dramatic but effective realization over the next three sessions of hopes for reform and renewal in the church. To know what Vatican II did and said one has to consult the sixteen documents which it produced, yes; but to give a sense of what Vatican II was as experienced and what it means as an event, the documents are inadequate. One has to turn to the people who helped make Vatican II what it was and in few people is the quality of the council as a turning point more completely embodied than in Yves Congar.

“God has fulfilled me,” he writes. “He has given me gifts in profusion, infinitely more than my literally nonexistent merits deserve.” We may hope that even greater gifts have now been given him, that this “useless servant” has heard those other Gospel words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your Master’s joy.”