Editor’s note: This essay, which originally appeared at CWR on May 31, 2020, is reposted in honor of St. John Paul II’s feast day.
“By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors” (CCC, 828). This is why it is profoundly fitting to make the recent 100th anniversary of the birth of St. Karol Wojtyła an occasion to praise God for what He accomplished in him.
The first and primary mission that God entrusts to everyone is to take responsibility for his own life. Wojtyła calls this self-determination. This is to build oneself up according to God’s plan—“Become what you are!”—through exercising one’s freedom in the truth. By assuming a human nature, the Son of God is the perfect man. He thereby fully reveals the truth about man as image of God and elevates the human vocation to self-determination to the supernatural order, so that all are called to be adopted children of God (Rom 8:15–16) and God’s friends (Jn 15:13–15). The celebration of St. John Paul II is the Church’s acknowledgement that God’s love, His grace, efficaciously brought him to the fulfillment of his human and Christian vocation in the realization of the call to holiness, the perfection of charity.
The Holy Spirit and Vatican II
The mission of the Spirit of holiness is to bear witness to Christ, in Sacred Scripture and the life of the Church, and to bring people to faith in this witness. As for all the saints, John Paul’s faith and holiness are the fruit this mission. Although in God’s plan of wisdom and love his pilgrimage of faith began well before Vatican II, his testimony makes clear the place of the Council in that pilgrimage. The Conciliar teaching on the Universal Call to Holiness in the Church (Chapter V of Lumen gentium) is especially important St. John Paul II. It is “the basic charge entrusted to all the sons and daughters of the Church by a Council which intended to bring a renewal of Christian life based on the Gospel.” The renewal initiated by the Council is realized above all in “saints [who] have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.” The revitalization of the Church’s mission, which is the goal of Vatican II, depends entirely on a new wave of saints, for “holiness is the hidden source and the infallible measure of her apostolic activity and her missionary effort” (Christifideles laici, 16, 17).
The Holy Spirit is the chief protagonist of the New Evangelization—the name for the Church’s mission revitalized by Vatican II—and saints are those who are most docile and responsive to His promptings. The same Holy Spirit who guided the participants in Vatican II to produce the written word about holiness made those words come to life in St. Karol Wojtyła. His canonization confirms that he implemented this Conciliar teaching personally, that He received this teaching, and the whole of the Conciliar magisterium, in faith, and that the Holy Spirit made the letter of the Council come to life in him.
In the lead essay of this series on St. John Paul II, George Weigel relates that the Pope told him of previous biographers: “They try to understand me from outside. But I can only be understood from inside.” These remarks reflect the saint’s life-long fascination with and reverence for the mystery of human freedom, conscience, responsibility, and self-determination—the anthropological foundations for man’s vocation to communion with God and with others in love. This present essay intends to accept John Paul’s invitation to understand him “from inside” by setting forth his testimony regarding his faith-relation to Vatican II. We will see that he also invites us to read Vatican II “from inside,” and that this reading is rooted in and is an extension of reading God Himself “from inside.” In this way, his invitation is to attend to his Catholic faith, for faith is the power to know man and God and His Church “from inside.”
St. John Paul II’s first and fundamental relation to Vatican II is not based on the fact that as a bishop he actively participated in the Council. Nor is it based on the responsibility of his office—first as Archbishop of Krakow, then as Cardinal-collaborator with Pope Paul VI, and finally as Pope—to implement the Council in the Church’s life. Rather, his primary relation to Vatican II is based on faith. By faith he sees the Council as the word of the Holy Spirit to the Church of our time. By that same faith he responds to that word, entrusting himself to God by conforming his thoughts, words, and actions to the Council’s teaching and directives. In this, St. John Paul II is a model of Catholic faith in the Holy Spirit guiding the Church. This is no abstract, merely theoretical faith, which affirms, on the one hand, that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, but on the other hand does not accept the Spirit’s historically concrete guidance of Vatican II. For St. John Paul II, Vatican II is a concrete, historical realization of Christ’s promise to be with His Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, it makes a claim on his faith.
Numerous biblical texts ground this faith-conviction. Very often, he refers to the refrain of Revelation, “Hear what the Spirit says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). As the apostle John writes to the Churches, so the apostles’ successors write to the Church of our age through Vatican II’s “letters.” With the Council Fathers, John Paul believes that Jesus’ words—“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16), and His mandate to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them …, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19–20)—resound anew through the Council. Through the Council, the apostles’ successors continue to be “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20), and by the sensus fidei the faithful are able to receive their teaching “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess 2:13). John Paul’s indefatigable promotion of Vatican II is an appeal to the whole Church, “do not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph 4:30) by allowing the Conciliar magisterium to be an occasion for division. Believing the Council to be the special grace for the Church of our time, John Paul made St. Paul’s exhortation his own: “we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6:1).
At Vatican II, the apostles’ successors were conscious of cooperating with the Holy Spirit, as were the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem, so that they can say that their final decisions “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). As the apostles prayed for the coming of the Holy Spirit prior to Pentecost, so the bishops at Vatican II began every session with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, that He “penetrate our hearts … guide our actions, indicate the path we should take … be our only inspiration … let not our ignorance induce us to evil, nor flattery sway us, nor moral and material interest corrupt us … unite our hearts to You alone … so that … we may be one in You and may nothing depart from the truth … [and] our judgments may not be alien to You ….” For the Council Fathers to proceed with humble yet bold confidence—the parrhesía of the apostles—in Christ’s promise to be with His Church through the Holy Spirit and the perpetuation of the apostles’ graces through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, would be a failure of faith.
Many histories of Vatican II look at the Council only “from outside,” neglecting Christ’s promises to the Church, the motives of faith among the participants, their prayer to the Holy Spirit, and the charism of truth of Holy Orders. To view the Council “from inside,” with faith, is to see that St. Paul’s expression of the grace of apostleship applies as well to the apostles’ successors united at Vatican II:
For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. (1 Thess 2:3–5)
To view the Council in faith, with St. John Paul II, is to see that at Vatican II the apostolic Church experienced anew the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit, Who “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). For this reason, “Obedience to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council is obedience to the Holy Spirit…. Obedience to the Holy Spirit is expressed in the authentic carrying out of the tasks indicated by the Council, in full accordance with the teaching set forth therein” (Address to the College of Cardinals, November 9, 1979).
St. John Paul II’s faith-vision of Vatican II has a Marian dimension, for Mary is the perfect model of all Christian virtues. John Paul holds that Vatican II’s “description of faith [in Dei Verbum, 5] found perfect realization in Mary” (Redemptoris Mater, 13). Imitating Mary, who at the Annunciation perfectly entrusted herself to God and was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill her vocation, the participants in Vatican II entrusted themselves to the Holy Spirit in faith.
With the Council, the Church first had an experience of faith, as she entrusted herself to God without reserve, as one who trusts and is certain of being loved. It is precisely this act of entrustment to God which stands out from an objective examination of the Acts. Anyone who wishes to approach the Council without considering this interpretive key would be unable to penetrate its depths. Only from a faith-perspective can we see the Council event as a gift whose still hidden wealth we must know how to mine. (Address to the Conference Studying the Implementation of Vatican II, February 27, 2000)
The result of Mary’s self-entrustment to God through cooperation with the Holy Spirit is the Incarnation. And as the humanity of Christ was the occasion for many to be scandalized by His claim to be divine, so with Vatican II: without faith, the Council’s human dimension is all one can see, and the claim that there is a divine dimension to the Council is a stumbling block, a claim to be set aside in the name of being realistic and reasonable, and studying the Council according to principles of rigorous historical science. Reducing the Council to its human dimension, to what can be known “from outside,” explains why so few Catholics have actually read the documents. Thanks to many histories of the Council, their preconceptions preclude the possibility that God Himself—the very God who “for our sake and for our salvation came down from heaven,” the very God who is love and who died to reveal that love—could be speaking to them precisely through the Conciliar texts.
But for the holy John Paul II, to speak of Vatican II as the gift of the Holy Spirit is to speak of love. The Holy Spirit, in fact, is the Person-Love, the Person-Gift of the blessed Trinity (Dominum et Vivificantem, 10). Because God’s word and love are efficacious—His word bringing about what it signifies and His love fulfilling what it intends—to believe that Vatican II is the gift of the Holy Spirit speaking to the Church necessarily entails the experience of being loved by Him through the Council’s teaching. This means that the proof of the Spirit’s assistance at Vatican II is a deepening, an enrichment of Christian faith, that is holiness. Holiness is the authentic fruit of Vatican II and definitive proof of its reception, made possible by the graces of the same Holy Spirit who assisted the Council Fathers. George Weigel puts it this way:
What is not contestable is that the parts of the Catholic Church that are living, vibrant, evangelically dynamic, and culturally consequential in the early twenty-first century are those that have embraced John Paul II’s interpretation of Vatican II’s purpose and teaching, while the moribund parts of the world Church are those that were in opposition to John Paul II during his life and remain so today.
In a similar vein, Joseph Ratzinger leaves it to the Holy Spirit to seal the Council’s work by making its letter become holiness of life.
Whether or not the Council becomes a positive force in the history of the Church depends only indirectly on texts and organizations; the crucial question is whether there are individual saints—who, by their personal willingness … are ready to effect something new and living. The ultimate decision about the historical significance of Vatican Council II depends on whether or not there are individuals prepared to experience in themselves the drama of the separation of the wheat from the cockle and thus to give to the whole a singleness of meaning that it cannot gain from words alone.… Despite all the good to be found in the texts it produced, the last word about the historical value of Vatican Council II has yet to be spoken. If, in the end, it will be numbered among the highlights of Church history depends on those who will transform its words into the life of the Church. (Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, 377–78)
The canonization of Karol Wojtyła, who explicitly bears witness to Vatican II mediating God’s word and call to holiness, invites us to perceive the efficacy of the Council in Christian virtues, joy, liturgical participation, Marian devotion, and apostolic zeal of those countless Catholics inspired by him.
With the eyes of faith, St. John Paul II sees that with Vatican II the Church entered into a new stage in her pilgrimage of faith, a stage marked by a deeper awareness of her own mystery, vocation, and mission. This is why he writes of his “sense of indebtedness” to the Holy Spirit, since “during the Council and by way of it, the word of the Spirit became particularly expressive and decisive for the Church” (Sources of Renewal, 9–10).
The bishops, members of the College, who inherited from the Apostles the promise made by Christ at the Last Supper, are bound in a special way to be conscious of the debt contracted “towards the word of the Holy Spirit,” since it was they who translated the divine message into human language. The latter, in so far as it is human, may be imperfect and capable of increasingly precise formulation, but at the same time it is authentic because it contains that which the Spirit “said to the Church” at a particular historical moment. Thus our awareness of the debt derives from faith and from the Gospel, which enable us to express the word of God in the human language of our time, endowing it with the supreme authority of the Church’s magisterium. (Sources of Renewal, 10)
John Paul’s dedication of his pontificate to implementing Vatican II flows from this sense of indebtedness, this awareness of having been gifted and loved by the Holy Spirit through the Council. It is an exercise of that responsibility for divinely revealed truth that he takes as an essential quality of authentic faith.
The Council as a Sign of Contradiction
John Paul thinks of the Council as an inheritance received in faith, and his understanding of this is anything but narrow. By faith he sees that this inheritance comprises the entire patrimony of faith. Clearly, John Paul sees the strictest continuity between the Church’s 2,000-year Tradition and the teaching of Vatican II. He calls this continuity the principle of integration. This means that “we can rediscover and, as it were, re-read the magisterium of the last Council in the whole previous magisterium of the Church, while on the other we can rediscover and re-read the whole preceding magisterium in that of the last Council” (Sources of Renewal, 40).
At Vatican II, the college of bishops acted like the wise “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven [who] is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52). “In the history of the church,” he states, “the old and the new are always closely interwoven. The new grows out of the ‘old,’ and the old finds a fuller expression in the ‘new.’ Thus it was for the Second Vatican Council” (Tertio millennio adveniente, 18).
We shall continue in the future to take special care to promote and follow the renewal of the Church according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, in the spirit of an ever-living Tradition. In fact, to the substance of Tradition properly understood belongs also a correct re-reading of the “signs of the times,” which require us to draw from the rich treasure of Revelation ‘things both new and old’ (Mt 13:52). Acting in this spirit, in accordance with this counsel of the Gospel, the Second Vatican Council carried out a providential effort to renew the face of the Church… (Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, Dominicae cenae, February 24, 1980, 13).
In the current ecclesiastical climate, the preceding claims are bound to provoke a variety of responses. For some, perplexity: How can John Paul II think this way about a Council that is so widely contested? For others, consternation: Is he oblivious to upheaval that Vatican II has caused, the damage to the Church’s faith and unity? For still others, condescending dismissal: his view of the Council is simply naïve and contradicted by historical facts. But the reaction depends on one’s prior conviction or stance regarding the Council. The real issue is to let oneself be challenged by this Saint’s faith and to re-examine one’s stance vis-à-vis Vatican II. If he, who was an eyewitness of the human dimension of the Council and as Pope was fully aware of the crisis of faith and Catholic identity in the years following the Council could still believe as he did, then what is preventing me from viewing the Council with faith?
Like Christ Himself and His Church, Vatican II is a sign of contradiction. There is no doubt that controversy has followed it. Nor is there any doubt that different parties claim it for their own interpretations. Is Vatican II the cause of controversy and division, or merely the occasion? The distinction is crucial for understanding the mission of Christ. His unanticipated way of fulfilling Old Covenant promises sparked controversy and divided the Jewish people. He even stated that He had come not for peace but for division (Lk 12:51–53). Is He the cause of division, or merely the occasion for the secrets of hearts to be laid bare (Lk 2:32)? Or, is there something inadequate or ambiguous about the Scriptures of the Old Testament that would account for the division that accompanies Jesus’ mission? Jesus, at any rate, looks to the heart. For Him the issue is faith, or lack of it, hardness or slowness of heart (Mt 13:15; Mk 16:14; Lk 24:25). His Church similarly interprets the history of heresies. The doctrinal conflicts that erupted in the Church’s early history are not due to presumed ambiguities in the apostles’ preaching or, as the canon of the New Testament takes shape, to obscurities in the apostolic writings. Rather, the cause of heresy and division is lack of faith. Yet, it is with the conviction as in a first principle that many today hold that ambiguities in the texts of Vatican II—due to compromise among the participants that the histories of the Council bring to center stage, because these are readily apparent to a view of the Council “from outside”—are the cause of the current crisis of faith.
For John Paul, as already seen, Vatican II was an experience of faith for the Church. One of the truly intriguing aspects of his strategy for implementing the Council flows from this. To complement all that he teaches about Vatican II and its continuity with Tradition, he thinks it necessary to initiate others—clergy, religious, laity—into that experience of faith. Whence the significance of his emphasis on “Conciliar initiation,” by which he understands not just instruction about what the Council teaches but “participation in a mystery,” precisely “initiation into the reality of the Council itself,” that is, participation in “the Conciliar consciousness of the Church.” It is precisely by promoting this initiation that John Paul “hopes to repay, at least in part, his debt to the Second Vatican Council” (Sources of Renewal, 11, 421, 422).
Thus, to implement Vatican II in his Archdiocese of Krakow, Wojtyła reproduces the experience of communio, of collegiality and co-responsibility, at the level of the particular Church. Just as the Scriptures of the New Testament are the fruit of the experience of Christ in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and cannot be known—in the biblical sense of knowing—apart from faith, which is initiation into that very experience, so the true understanding of the texts of Vatican II, fruit of a new Pentecost, cannot be grasped apart from a faith-participation in that experience of which they are the fruit. This strategy of initiation applies to all of the post-Conciliar assemblies of the Synod of Bishops and to the continental synods related to the Jubilee Year 2000.
John Paul’s indefatigable commitment to the strategy of initiation by reproducing the Conciliar experience for local and particular Churches is a vital aspect of knowing him “from inside.” With a constant reference to Vatican II as the objective reference of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the Church, St. John Paul II exercises his Petrine office in a way that is remarkably similar to the role St. Peter’s role of discerning the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the early Church, when he judges: “these people … have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47); “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us” (Acts 11:15); “God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us” (Acts 11:17); “God … bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us” (Acts 15:8). This biblical “as He did for us” points to John Paul’s driving missionary motive of loving others as he had experienced being loved by God—precisely through his participation in the Council. In this light, we see that his implementation of Vatican II is simply the fulfillment of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
St. John Paul II’s example of relating to Vatican II with faith is especially valuable at this time, when scholarly work on the interpretation of Vatican II suffers from a one-sided emphasis on historical-critical methodologies. This is not entirely surprising, since the same trend is characteristic of the interpretation of the Bible. It is well known that Joseph Ratzinger, both as theologian and as Pope, labored to identify the deficiencies of an exclusive use of the historical-critical method and to show the way to an adequate biblical exegesis that takes the Church’s faith into consideration. The principal point of reference for him, as for all scholars who address this question, is Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, article 12.
This text says that because the Scriptures have human authors, it is necessary to employ various methodologies that can be generally described as historical-critical. But the interpretation of God’s inspired word cannot stop there. Because the Holy Spirit is the Divine Author, “sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit through whom it was written.” This requires taking into account “the content and unity of Scripture … the living tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith.”
Because the texts of Vatican II are the fruit of collaboration between human authors and the Holy Spirit, these three criteria also apply to the interpretation of Vatican II. St. John Paul II exemplifies this faith-based interpretation. First, he reads individual passages in light of the entire Conciliar corpus, taking the four constitutions as fundamental and interpreting the decrees and declarations in light them. Sources of Renewal is ostensibly synthetic, as it develops various themes the run throughout the Conciliar corpus. Second, his multitudinous references to Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, previous councils, the liturgy, and saints serve to reinforce the continuity of Vatican II with the apostolic Tradition (his principle of integration). Third, John Paul’s magisterium is profoundly unified by what might be called a pastoral hierarchy of truths, based on the absolute primacy of God’s revelation of his love in Christ—thus the central importance of Gaudium et spes, 22 and 24 in his pontificate—as well as a conscience-centered anthropology of human dignity.
John Paul’s interpretation of Vatican II brings into focus a fourth aspect of reading the texts in the same Spirit in which they were written. This is the ultimate purpose of the documents, which is the same as God’s purpose in revealing and in the Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture, since Vatican II is “the word of God as it proceeded from that Council” (Sources of Renewal, 11). Among the things that God has revealed is His motive for revealing, namely, His love for man. The Council conveys this this way: “Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col 1;15, 1 Tim 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex 33:11; Jn 15:14–15) and lives among them (see Bar 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself” (Dei Verbum, 12).
The divine intention, that is, God’s love, is the key to John Paul’s view of the Council “from inside.” To view the Council “from inside” is thus a corollary of viewing God “from inside,” based on what He has revealed about Himself. The texts of Vatican II are the fruit of the successors of the apostles’ participation in the divine intention, in the pastoral charity of the Divine Shepherd. For John Paul, the decisive moments of the Holy Spirit’s guidance at Vatican II are the votes by the participants. This is the best criterion by which “one can best decipher the presence of a collegial and conciliar thought and its development. And it is precisely this collegial thought that, at the Council, falls under the special action of the Holy Spirit.” (Here, and in the following, I quote from a letter of Archbishop Wojtyła published in a Polish journal in April, 1965, entitled “The Council Seen from Inside.”)
The key moments during the Council are, for St. John Paul II, those moments of truth in the participants’ consciences when through the votes they expressed judgment about the conformity of a text with the apostolic Tradition. In other words, the votes are the means by which the participants bear witness to the apostolic faith. “It is by the results of the ballots that one can best decipher the presence of a collegial and conciliar thought and its development. And it is precisely this collegial thought that, at the Council, falls under the special action of the Holy Spirit,” which “can go unperceived and unappreciated from the outside.”
With this we arrive at the deepest depth of St. John Paul’s looking at the Council, with faith, “from inside.” The votes manifest each bishop’s judgment before God, that is, with conscience as witness, regarding the conformity of a text to the apostolic Tradition. This is entirely consistent with the place of conscience in John Paul’s Christian anthropology. He reads all of history in terms of conscience. “For history is written not only by the events which in a certain sense happen ‘from outside’; it is written first of all ‘from within’: it is the history of human consciences, of moral victories and defeats” (Letter to the Youth of the World, 1985, 6).
With all of the other participants, as we have seen, Bishop Wojtyła began every session of the Council with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, Who is the Spirit of Truth (Jn 14:7) and “light of consciences” (Dominum et Vivificantem, 36 and 42). This emphasis on conscience echoes the testimony of St. Paul: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 9:1). A faith-approach to Vatican II, like that of St. John Paul II, makes it possible to see this statement of St. Paul re-actualized at Vatican II, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
On the subject of conscience, John Paul’s self-disclosure upon assuming the Petrine office deserves special mention. Upon conferral of supreme apostolic authority in the Church, which is subject to no earthly authority, civil or ecclesiastical—and thus depending entirely upon the witness of His conscience before God—John Paul, clearly desirous to be known “from inside,” confides his first thoughts. “How, in what manner should we continue?” He seems to be asking: how can I be confident that the Christ is building His Church through my Petrine ministry? How can I proceed with confidence that I am fulfilling Peter’s mandate to feed the Lord’s own lambs and to strengthen my brothers? How, in other words, can he avoid leading the Church in a direction of his own devising?
His answer, again with reference to Peter: “Our spirit is set in one direction, the only direction for our intellect, will and heart is—towards Christ our Redeemer, towards Christ, the Redeemer of man. We wish to look towards him—because there is salvation in no one else but him, the Son of God—repeating what Peter said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (Jn 6:68)” (Redemptor hominis, 7). And he continues by specifying that the orientation towards Christ is historically conditioned, as it is in every age of the Church. Believing that the Holy Spirit has recently spoken to the Church and thereby pointed the way to Christ through the Second Vatican Council, John Paul decides to subordinate His supreme apostolic office and authority to God Himself, to the Holy Spirit, by subordinating it to the Spirit’s gift of Vatican II. That John Paul committed his pontificate to interpreting and implementing Vatican II can be ascertained by knowing him “from outside.” To know that he did so based on the faith-conviction that the Holy Spirit bears witness to Christ for the Church of this age through Vatican II is to know him “from inside,” based on his own testimony.
To hold that God’s motive in revealing Himself is love, and to be convinced that His love is efficacious, leads to the conclusion that the ultimate purpose of revelation is the Church: “The Church is the goal of all things. Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world,’ so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called ‘the Church’ (CCC, 760, quoting Clement of Alexandria). As every council mediates God’s word, the goal of every council, and thus of Vatican II, is to build up the Church, which by reason of her catholicity is missionary by nature. The Council’s strategy for revitalizing the Church’s mission is to emphasize the call to holiness, since saints are the most docile and responsive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who is the chief protagonist of mission. In this light, the Church’s catholicity and her holiness interpenetrate, so that to say that the Council’s main goal is holiness and to say that it is the revitalization of the mission of bearing witness to Christ are one and the same.
Understanding the Council in the light of faith
Interpreting Vatican II in the light of faith means to attend to the Council’s correlation between God’s love for man and man’s love for himself. For, man’s first and fundamental compliance with His creator is to seek his own fulfillment. Self-entrustment to God in faith only complies with God’s creative wisdom when it is free, and this means that coming to faith entails a judgment that by entrusting oneself to God in faith a person is in fact loving himself. It means that a person believes that in Christ he has found the definitive fulfillment of his fundamental human aspirations. (This understanding of faith can be seen to be rooted the Thomistic understanding of the role of the will in the act of faith.) This is the essential underpinning of Vatican II’s pastoral orientation and its commitment to dialogue. It is the Council’s updating of the traditional Thomistic understanding of grace presupposing, building on, and perfecting nature.
The Council intends to facilitate this discovery that “Christ fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et spes, 22) by assisting men and women in understanding their own fundamental dynamisms and experiences. For, only if they discover that Jesus Christ is the answer to their questions and the fulfillment of their aspirations can they freely come to faith and entrust themselves to Him—even as in the Gospels the blind and lame, lepers, and parents desperate out of love for their children, came to Jesus to fulfill their hope. This is why Gaudium et spes makes the truth about God’s love for man, fully revealed in Christ’s paschal mystery, the essential content of the Church’s dialogue with the world.
While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God’s kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass. For every benefit which the People of God during its earthly pilgrimage can offer to the human family stems from the fact that the Church is ‘the universal sacrament of salvation’ (Lumen gentium, 1), simultaneously manifesting and exercising the mystery of God’s love” (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 45).
This emphasis on divine love as the motive and central truth of divine revelation is the foundation for the pastoral character of Vatican II. The Council simply re-appropriates this dimension of God’s word for the Church of our time. It does this based on understanding God Himself “from within,” that is, based on what He reveals about His love for man. And this is why it is fitting to say that the Council is profoundly linked to Tradition in its focus on the paschal mystery and the Eucharist. Benedict XVI phrases it incisively when he speaks of the perfect symmetry between Jesus’ Eucharistic “for you” and St. Paul’s “for me,” “for all,” and “for the Church.”
In St. Paul’s Letters, the “for you” of the Institution of the Eucharist is personalized, becoming “for me” (Gal 2:20)—since Paul realized that in that “you” he himself was known and loved by Jesus—as well as being “for all” (2 Cor 5:14). This “for you” becomes “for me” and “for her [the Church]” (Eph 5:25), that is, “for all,” in the expiatory sacrifice of the Cross (cf. Rom 3:25). (General Audience, September 24, 2008)
While faith assents to the doctrines that are so many crystallizations of divine revelation, its foundation is the perception that all that God has revealed is “for our sake,” “for us men and for our salvation.” Like Mary (“He Who is mighty has done great things for me” [Lk 1:49].) and St. Paul (“The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” [Gal 2:20].), by faith St. John Paul II perceives the “for me” dimension of the magisterium of Vatican II. His dedication to implementing the Council, including his incessant invitation to the faithful to read the Council’s documents, should be seen his saintly fulfillment of the commandment to love his neighbor as himself, as he was loved by God, precisely through the Council. This is to know him “from inside.”
The preceding brings us to what St. Wojtyła identifies as distinguishing Vatican II as a pastoral council. The Conciliar magisterium is ordered to what he calls the enrichment of faith in the subjective sense (Sources of Renewal, 15–18), that is, a deeper personal appropriation of the content of faith, taken up into what “a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” (CCC, 2558), the fruit of a personal encounter with God. Vatican II presents the Church’s faith in a manner calculated to facilitate the discovery of its “for me” dimension. Prior councils clarify precisely how the Church understands particular doctrines of faith, leading to a development of doctrine in the sense of new precisions, clarifications, definitions of the content of faith. Vatican II’s project is to promote a more perfect personal appropriation of those very same doctrines. He is explicit about this:
It appears that the essence of progress is not limited to certain details that are materially “new,” but consists in an approach to revealed truth that is more complete. It is in this way that one best understands the conciliar openness: not in a “material” sense, but in an essential sense.
The emphasis, then, is not on new teaching—although the Council does contain elements of development of doctrine, for example, regarding the episcopate being the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders, clarifications regarding ecumenism and religious liberty, and the ecclesial status and mission of the laity. What characterizes Vatican II in relation to other councils is its emphasis on the foundations of faith. This is the Council’s response to the erosion of those foundations, as exhibited in a split between faith and life among an alarming number of the Church’s members (Gaudium et spes, 43).
This why John Paul can take a passage of Gaudium et spes as a virtual recapitulation of the Council: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et spes, 22). The Church “knows that her message is a fruitful synthesis of the human being’s expectation and of God’s response to him” (Address, February 27, 2000). The challenge that the Council accepted, which is the challenge of the New Evangelization, is to lead men to discover this synthesis in Christ.
The focus of Vatican II and St. John Paul II on the Good News of God’s love, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, as the foundation of faith, is no novelty. Often taking as his source the verse of St. John, “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19), St. Thomas Aquinas frequently asserts, almost as an axiom, that nothing can more effectively lead to loving someone than the experience of being loved by that person. Unfortunately, in the early years following Vatican II, a renewed emphasis on God’s love among theologians, homilists, and catechists, including parents, woefully disfigured authentic love by cutting it off from the truth. For many, enthusiasm for the social gospel and love of the poor virtually became the criterion of Catholic identity.
It is not difficult to understand the scandal of those who would hear and read outrageous claims, such as: “Prior to Vatican II, Catholics looked for Jesus and found Him in the Eucharist. Now they look for Him and find Him in the poor.” As if Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, in which He identifies Himself with the naked, the hungry, etc., and His words at the Last Supper, in which He equates Himself with the blessed bread and wine, are somehow mutually exclusive! The truth is that the Eucharistic Jesus “commits us to the poor” (CCC, 1397). Much of the post-Vatican II controversy swirls around the disjunction of truth and love. People would be right to look askance at the Council if it were the cause of this separation, but it is not.
The greatest proof of the divine dimension of Vatican II, perceptible only by faith, is the living synthesis of divinely revealed truth and divinely revealed love in the life of a saint, like St. Karol Wojtyła, whose holiness attests, by his own testimony, to the efficacy of the word of the Holy Spirit speaking to the Church of our time through the Second Vatican Council. This article has focused on John Paul’s faith in Vatican II as the word of the Holy Spirit for the Church of our age. In Verbum Domini, Benedict XVI teaches that “The most profound interpretation of Scripture comes precisely from those who let themselves be shaped by the Word of God,” and that “holiness in the Church constitutes an interpretation of Scripture which cannot be overlooked. The Holy Spirit who inspired the sacred authors is the same Spirit who impels the saints to offer their lives for the Gospel.” The same holds for the word of God mediated through Vatican II. We can say, then, that saints are the best interpreters of the Council. John Paul’s greatest contribution to the reception of Vatican II is that he lived his faith-understanding of the Council, bearing witness to the fact that God’s word is efficacious, producing what it says.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!