Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Our Church, by Cardinal Suenens


Vatican II in relation to the past

The Second Vatican Council marked the end of an epoch. Or if one wishes to look back even further, it marked the end of a series of epochs. It closed the age of Constantine, the age of medieval Christianity, the era of Counter-reformation, the period of Vatican I. It marked a turning point in the history of the Church. Yet looked at from the point of view of the first half of our century, it appears not so much as a terminal point as a synthesis. Vatican II was the heir of those great movements of renewal which were and are stirring in the heart of the modern Church; the biblical, liturgical, patristic, theological and pastoral renewals. The Council caught and channelled these currents, and, under the influence of the Spirit, made of them mighty rivers whose strong currents caused the waters to penetrate deeply into the heart of the sea. When he opened the Council, John XXIII wanted it to be a springtime for the Church; his wish was amply fulfilled. But as with every springtime, the renewal of the Church experiences some unseasonable weather. There is no denying it: because they did not notice the slow theological maturing of the last thirty years, and were not aware of the rising sap which the Council perceived and diffused in many directions, many Christians were confused by certain breaks with the past. They were surprised by the debates at the Council which questioned beliefs and practices once considered to be beyond question but which, all at once, presented a welter of problems under a light that seemed to distort them.

Many people find it difficult to distinguish the unchangeable religious tradition of the Church from human or sociological traditions.

In growing things, the full potential of springtime is never reached except at the price of a certain pruning; but the pruning shears and the saw must be handled wisely. It is difficult to look at a tree, newly cut and shorn of its branches, and believe that this bare thing will give birth to a renewal of life; that from this winter, spring will come. As the years go on, we will see ever more clearly that Vatican II was a Council of the greatest importance. We will understand that it pruned away some foliage only to allow the tree to blossom.

Vatican II in relation to the future


However, to grasp the full meaning of the Council, it is not enough to view it only in relation to a past which it concludes. We must also consider it in the light of those forces of the future which it contains. It is, in its own turn, a point of departure, as Pope Paul VI forcefully reminds us:

The conciliar decrees are not so much a destination as a point of departure toward new goals. The renewing power and spirit of the council must continue to penetrate to the very depths of the Church's life. The seeds of life planted by the Council in the soil of the Church must grow and achieve full maturity.(1)

Here the Pope invites us to see Vatican II in its relation to the future. The Church is a Church on the way, a pilgrim Church. It never has the right to stop; it pauses only to prepare itself for new steps on its journey. Under certain aspects the Church is always 'passing' John XXIII used to love to say, 'They speak of me as a transition pope, and he then would add, 'That is true, but the continuity of the Church is made from transition to transition'. Henry Bergson once wrote, 'What has struck me about Jesus is precisely this mandate to go on always toward the future. So much so that it could be said that the stable element of Christianity is the order never to stop'.

Whether we wish it or not, we are at the moment en route towards some Vatican III, whose character must remain vague and which will take place in a tomorrow as yet undefinable. This Vatican III will have to discern and strengthen what Vatican II possesses only as seed, as potential, as riches for the future.


Certainly Vatican II had its limitations; it neither approached nor resolved all problems. Nevertheless, we must recognize that it has opened up immense horizons. It has sown, in the field of the Church, seeds which give promise of maturity at harvest time. If we were to be asked what we consider to be that seed of life deriving from the Council which is most fruitful, we would answer without any hesitation: it is the rediscovery of the people of God as a whole, as a single reality; and then by way of consequence, the fact implied in this that every member of the Church shares in the responsibility for the development of the Church's life. Our Church

In presenting the Church as the people of God, the Council immediately took a stand, more fundamental than the organic and functional distinction between hierarchy and laity, and considered that which is common to all, baptism. 'One Lord, one faith, one baptism': all of a sudden this affirmation of scripture assumed its full importance. It is the same baptism which makes all Christians children of God, brothers in Christ, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Whether they be members of the hierarchy or not, all Christians are first and foremost 'the faithful' in the deepest meaning of this word, that is, 'the believers'. We can never meditate enough on the fact that the whole life of the Church is based on baptism, this primal mystery of Christian existence, which unites in one decisive act the acceptance of the Lord, the profession of the gospel, the purification from sin, the active presence of the Spirit, and entrance into the community of the faithful.

The sacrament of baptism is the gateway to Christian life. The other sacraments suppose that we have already 'entered'. Their outlook is different. Baptism is the root of the whole of Christian and religious life, be it structured or not. It is that point from which all vocations, functions and charisms originate. In the Church of God, this fundamental equality of all is the primary fact. There is no superbaptism, there are no castes, no privileges (Galatians3:28). We must always be aware of these fundamental truths, for they are essential to the life of the Church, and govern all our choices and attitudes. For too long a time and too frequently, we have confused the terms 'layman' and 'faithful'. The pope or a bishop or priest is not a layman, but he is one of the faithful by the very fact that he is baptized and a Christian. The greatest day in the life of a pope is not that of his election or coronation, but the day on which he receives that which the Greek fathers call the holy and unbreakable seal of rebirth in baptism. His first duty, like that of all of us, is to live the Christian life in obedience to the gospel. His own proper mission derives from this duty.This primacy of baptism entails as an immediate consequence the primacy of community. Each one must live and insert his personal responsibility in and with that of all the other faithful. Vatican II asks us to accept all the consequences of the co-responsibility of Christians at every level.

It is possible to differentiate individuals and groups within the people of God on the basis of divinely conferred function or charism, and to discuss co-responsibility in terms of these groups. But, in regard to all these distinctions, we must bear in mind the fundamental principle enunciated by St Paul, that all these gifts contrive toward the building up of the 'perfect man' (Ephesians, 4:13). This principle is applied to the distinction between laity and hierarchy, and is beautifully expressed in the Constitution on the Church when it says, 'For the distinction which the Lord made between the sacred ministers and the rest of the people of God entails a unifying purpose, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need.' (art. 32)


The renewal of community in the Church, which ultimately derives from faith, naturally finds its place within the progress of a world moving more and more in the direction of democracy. It could seem that as we stress the role of the laity we deny the hierarchical character of the Church. But this is not true, provided that we understand how the Church accepts democracy within herself, and the historical context in which, not authority itself, but its way of being exercised has come about. The incarnation of the Word took place at a given point in space and time. Christ's personality bears the mark of his place and time of birth. The Church carries the same marks; as a human society it bears the imprints of the time in which it lives.

History shows us how, through the course of ages, the way in which authority is exercised in the Church at all its levels has developed. The manner of ruling in the secular world and in the Church inevitably influence each other. The Church therefore has had rulers of the type of Constantine, the feudal lords and enlightened despots. Today most developed countries have adopted a democratic form of government. Of course none of this belonged to the essential nature of the Church. It was brought by the fickle winds of history. It is precisely in this realm that we find a real uneasiness in today's Church. There is a crisis in confidence, not in authority as such, but in the government of the Church as a human system and structure. We meet in books and magazines criticism of the way the Church is being governed, independent of any particular personalities. These criticisms are special in that they often come from priests and lay people, devoted children of the Church, whose loyalty cannot be doubted, and who suffer from the situation which they deplore. The directing bodies, they say, have a way of functioning which is no longer in accordance with the atmosphere of our time. They lack the spirit and customs with which we are all familiar in democratic regimes. Expressed in this way, such criticism is ambiguous and requires greater clarification. But let us say straight away: the categories in which we think are never adequate to express, much less to enclose, the profound mystery of the Church. To wish to catalogue the Church under the label of monarchy, oligarchy or democracy is a futile task. The Church's reality is too rich and too complex to fit within human categories. There are within the Church elements which are monarchical, others which are oligarchical, and others which are democratic. The papacy, the bishops, and the laity could be invoked as illustrative of these elements. Within the Church there is at one and the same time one principle of unity (monarchy), a pluralism of hierarchical responsibilities (oligarchy), and a fundamental equality of all in the communion of the people of God (democracy). All of these must mutually integrate with one another since they are all essential to the truth of the Church. The Church makes no exclusive reliance on any one facet, whether it be papism, episcopalism or conciliarism. The papal primacy has aspects about it which are monarchical, but the papacy is unintelligible except as integrated within a universal episcopate, and in living connection with the whole body. The episcopacy for its part is not a self-sufficient oligarchy, but reaches out in both directions in a twofold living relationship: one, with its leader the pope, and the other with the whole presbyterate and laity.The vocabulary of a given time must be constantly corrected so that it does not prove false to the reality for which it stands, Having made this reservation, we can now say that the Second Vatican Council certainly was characterized by a move in the direction of 'democratization' because of the accent it placed on the people of God, by the stress it laid on the hierarchy as a service, and by its creation of certain institutions within the Church, favouring democratic methods of government.

History teaches us that, while the structure of the Church is hierarchical by the very will of its founder, the ways of exercising authority in the Church have changed throughout the centuries. It is possible to trace a long history of these changes caused by historical circumstances, whether it be a matter of an election of a pope, the appointment of bishops or practically anything else. All of this was expressed from age to age according to the conditions in which the Church found itself. It is natural, then, that the democratic tendencies of our age would also influence the Church. It is right that this should happen. It can help a lot in making it more able to guide our contemporaries.

Obviously the same is not true of doctrines which belong to the faith: a creed is not established by a majority vote. The divinity of Jesus Christ, his resurrection from the dead and his presence in the eucharist are not things decided by ballot. The Lord entrusted to the apostles the mission of expressing and passing on the content of faith. And it is to their successors, the bishops united with Peter and under his authority, that the Lord has assigned the continuance of this task, and has promised the special assistance of the Holy Spirit. The problem, then, is not to know what men desire to hear today, but rather what the Lord wishes to reveal to them.

Every bishop accomplishes his mission in a partnership of shared responsibility with the whole body of bishops united to its head. Doubtless, the magisterium must take account of the common belief of the faithful before making a pronouncement. But the body of bishops has not only the mission of recording this faith as it is lived, it must also discern the elements of this faith and pass judgment on them. And this judgment is binding on the consciences of the bishops as well as upon the faithful. In the context of these clarifications, the question of a greater or less democratization in the method of the Church's government remains a valid one. The solution to this question is bound to influence the status of the layman in the Church of tomorrow.


The layman who assumes his co-responsibility for the prophetic mission of the Church can bring to his task specific contributions which have great consequences for the life of the Church itself. His training, his professional competence, his wide range of interests can greatly enrich and develop the role of the Church in the world. The attitude of the layman in regard to the Church should be active and ready to collaborate, rather than passive and inert. The words of John Kennedy to the youth of America expressed this approach: 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country'. The layman should ask himself this kind of question about the Church. For the Church is not something external to him, confronting him from the outside, something which he can meet and help at times. The Church is himself, he is the Church. It was the understanding of this identity that inspired the council to create in every diocese in the world a diocesan pastoral council, composed of priests, religious and laymen in order to use and express the reality of their co-responsibility. All too often in the past, one appealed to the laity specifically in regard to financial matters, where their skill was obviously valuable. But the field for partnership is immeasurably greater than this. Lay people must help in elaborating the general directions of Christian activity within a diocese, an area of life or a parish. Because of their professions and their daily experience, laymen know how to draw the best results from teamwork. They know its practical problems and how to update institutions which are proving ineffectual. We need the skill of our administrators, the knowledge of those engaged in law and teaching, the talent of our writers, the sense of social justice of our labour leaders. We wish to be helped by the practical insights of our sociologists, as well as the professional skill of our city planners and architects so that our Christian effort in our ever growing urban areas may be genuinely effective. And we await the wisdom of our doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists in bringing God's teaching to bear on the modem problems of family, marriage and education. Briefly, the Church stands in need of a widespread exercise of apostolic co-responsibility on the part of the laity.


Resolutely using all the gifts that God has given to his people, the Church will become more authentically than ever the Church given life by his Spirit. The Spirit of God animates the Church with a view to renewing constantly its youth. A young Church is by that very fact adapted to the young world, the birth of which we experience. The young Christians of today who will play their part in making the world of the year 2000 are growing up in a climate of widespread renewal. The world which will be theirs will not be merely a new phase of an old world, but, if we can believe all the signs, it will be a truly new world. The Church must be receptive to the values of the future, to the genuine wealth of this world that is coming to birth, so that Christ, who is the king of ages, may transform these realities. Someone once said that young people are a radar set helping us to see what is coming. It is most important that the Church should enter into dialogue with the young, and understand their new awareness. As Paul Valéry has said, 'Youth prophesies by its very existence, being what it will be'. Because of this contact the Church will understand better that it must renew its style of life in order the better to hand on the word of life entrusted to it. The more the Holy Spirit lives in each one of us the more he will be able to reveal the youth, the freshness and the power of the gospel to the men of tomorrow. The more profoundly he will be the creator-Spirit who renews the face of the earth. The impulses which animate the younger generation are expressed sometimes in ways which are unacceptable, and which reflect 'growing pains' and a lack of maturity. But a certain excessive outspokenness found in some types of literature should not prevent us from grasping the vast undercurrent of renewal present there, and from appreciating its truth. Reactions against the present set-up or an inability to respond to new situations are a way of appealing for a Christianity lived out with greater truth and courage.

Whatever awakens us to an active, mature and loyal co responsibility is a grace for the Church. The fact that we are called to be guardians of tradition does not mean that we are dedicated to immobility. Authentic tradition ought ceaselessly to free us from purely human traditions, and provide us with fixed navigational points. We are on the march toward the future 'until He comes'. As we await the return of the Master, we must press forward to meet him. He does not ask us to wrap the past in an aura of perfection. Jesus said that anyone who would go with him must press on without looking back, leaving the dead to bury the dead. The attitude of a Christian must be of one who looks toward the kingdom which is at once already present and still coming In God, and because of him, we are men of today and tomorrow. Our apostolate is inspired by the virtue of hope, and is its practical expression. This fundamental attitude of openness allows us to learn from other people and hence to fill out what is incomplete in ourselves.

Having stepped inside, as it were, and understood with sympathy all that is of real value in the demands and impatience of the younger generation, we should now speak to them of certain vital truths which run the risk of being obscured because of a one-sided insistence upon other values. We should have a sense of 'things that exist together', to use Claudel's expression. For truths to be truthful, they have need of their harmonic counter-positions: their power derives from their interior balance and integral accuracy. As Henri de Lubac once said, 'One truth balances another, not by diminishing its force, but by putting it into context'.

A Sense of God

The younger generation have a profound sense of man, and this is a great asset. However, they could be tempted to be not quite so open to a sense of God. They love Christ, he who was 'a man for others'. But they must understand that Christ was a man for others, a man at the service of others, because he was a man at one with the Father. He came in order to do the will of the Father, to 'be busy with his Father's affairs', to 'tell us of the Father', to teach us the 'Our Father', And when on the evening of Holy Thursday, at the hour of the Easter sacrifice, he prepared to leave his disciples, 'loving them unto the end', he said to them, 'Come now, let us go, that the world may know that I love the Father'. Christ is completely given to men because he is completely given over to his Father. Younger people today may be tempted to forget all this, if they do not discover for themselves the primacy of God, the need for the prayer of adoration, and a sense of contemplation amid the hubbub of daily life. If an apostle does not realize the value of a silence filled with God, his activities will be philanthropic, noble social work, but they will not be a Christian apostolate, the extension of the unique priesthood of Christ.

A Sense of the Church

Our younger people must also have a living and affectionate love for the Church. Too often one hears ruthless criticism. It is too easily forgotten that, even if men are what they are and if every human structure falls short of the ideal, Christ himself is always present and active within the heart of his Church which is and will remain 'our mother, the holy Church'. People willingly recall the errors and abuses committed by men of the Church, and point out how many great theologians today were but yesterday the objects of suspicion. This is true, but we must not block from our view the nobility of soul and the depth with which these same theologians knew how to accept silence and suffer for and from the Church. Someone like Henri de Lubac was able to write unforgettable passages about the mystery of the Church during the very time that he was beset by difficulties and obstacles arising from that Church (2). Sad to say, there are Christians who have left the Church because they were too bruised by its structures. The Church seemed to them too human to be a sacrament of God. But has not the Church from the very beginnings of its history been made of men of flesh and blood, beset with weakness and mystery just like the rest of us? From the pope down to the least of us, do we not all say that we are sinners and ask God's forgiveness? Have not these Christians read the gospel? Look at the stuff the apostles were made of. Who was this son of Jonas called Peter, the rock? A weak man, inconsistent with himself, to whom Jesus said one day, 'Get back, Satan!' – a man who denied his master, and left him on Calvary. Peter, the leader of the Church, who after the Council of Jerusalem gave in to the pressure of the judaizers to such a degree that Paul had to contradict him face to face. All of this was part of that side of Peter which is shadow and weakness. But Peter has another aspect, where there is light and inner truth. He was the first to acknowledge 'the Christ, the Son of the living God'. It was he who dared to walk on the water; and it was Peter who stood before the crowd on the morning of Pentecost, as a fearless witness to the resurrection, and who finally died witnessing to his faith. This is the kind of human stuff that Christ uses to mould the hierarchy of his Church. No one should be surprised if God is pleased to take such poor instruments as we are and do great, even very great things. Then, too, 'Consider, brethren the circumstances of your own calling: not many of you were wise, in the world's fashion, not many powerful, not many well born. No, God has chosen what the world holds foolish, so as to shame the wise; God has chosen what the world holds weak, so as to shame the strong' (I Corinthians 1, 26-27). No amount of disappointment can be a legitimate excuse for leaving our mother, the Church. It is to this mother even today that humanity owes what is best in itself. The Church and those who remain faithful to her have, through the centuries, carried the torch of the gospel, thus enabling others at times to see better than we do by its light.


  1. Letter of Paul VI to International Theological Congress of Rome, 21st September 1966.
  2. Cf. H. De Lubac, The Splendour of the Church, New York, 1956, especially chapter 8, 'Our Temptations Concerning the Church'.

Nihil obstat J. M. T. Barton, DD LSS censor

Imprimatur + Victor Guazzelli Vic Gen Westminster 3 viii 70