Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with a prayer to the Holy Spirit to “renew your wonders in our day as by a new Pentecost.” What did he mean and how does this idea of a new Pentecost help explain some of the motivation behind the council?

We are still living today in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Debate and discussion continues about the nature of the council, its inner workings, and the interpretation of the documents it produced. Spend enough time in the online Catholic world and you know this to be true. Some people, for instance, believe that this council was the opportunity to actually change some of the church’s long-held doctrines in a more progressive and liberal direction. Other people, who tend to identify as conservative or traditional, believe that this progressive goal was actually achieved to the detriment of the church and that the state of the church today is a direct result of the Second Vatican Council.

This is, obviously, an enormous topic and there are no easy or simple answers to the questions that plague us (nor are the categories of “progressive” and “liberal” very helpful past a certain point). However, having just celebrated the Solemnity of Pentecost, it seems an opportune time to explore once again precisely why Pope John XXIII convened the council with a prayer for “a new Pentecost”. Maybe there is something in the dynamic of the Pentecost event that helps explain some of the impulses behind the council.

Particular insight into this issue is given by Peter Seewald in his recent biography of the young German theologian Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI). Joseph Ratzinger was a key player at the council and had a decisive influence on the direction of its documents. As a powerful insider, his thought is indispensable in helping us understand this event in the life of the church. One of the chief accomplishments, in Ratzinger’s opinion, was the movement from a “negative orthodoxy” to a “positive orthodoxy”.

A positive orthodoxy

Seewald writes: ‘Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church had been on the defensive. In the battle against liberalism, socialism and communism it was anti-modernism that dominated its image.’ [1] In fact, originally the plan was for nothing to change in this regard. Those in charge of drafting the initial documents thought the council would be an open and shut case of having the world’s bishops gathering and voting for the schemas they had drafted.[2] These schemas were largely concerned with addressing the presence of atheistic communism on the world stage.

Alas, it was not to be. There was one particular moment that was widely seen as a breakthrough, even by Ratzinger. It came in November 1962 when the document on Divine Revelation was proposed (long before it became Dei Verbum as we know it today). The original draft for this had no intention of inviting renewal in the church’s understanding but simply wanted to remain on the defensive. It was unanimously rejected for its defensive posture and antiquated language.

In a speech written by Ratzinger, the prominent Cardinal Frings said:

I think the voice that can be heard is not that of a mother or guide, not that of the Good Shepherd who calls his sheep by name, so that they hear his voice. Rather, it is the language of a schoolmaster or professor, which does not nourish or stimulate.’[3]

And Ratzinger himself, reporting on that session, wrote: ‘The bishops were no longer the same as they had been before the Council opened . . . Instead of the old negative “anti”, a new positive hope emerged to abandon the defensive and to think and act in a positively Christian way. The spark had been lit.’[4]

In fact, this is what was meant when the council was referred to as “pastoral” in nature. It was not about compromising essential truths or concealing them in order to come across as relevant (although this was how it was interpreted by many in the wake of the council). Instead, it was about putting forth the faith of the church in a compelling and positive way.

Ratzinger explained this:

[The word pastoral] should mean: formulated with positive concern for people today, who are not helped by condemnations. They have been hearing long enough about everything that is wrong, everything that they must not do. Now they want to hear at last . . . what positive message the faith can give for our time, what it positively has to teach and tell them.’[5]

It is precisely in this achievement that we can see the dynamic of Pentecost at work.

Away from the Upper Room

George Weigel has called it a move to a more “evangelical Catholicism”.[6] The Pentecost event is a decidedly evangelical one: instead of being huddled away from fear of what lay outside, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles it gave them precisely what Jesus promised it would give them: power to become witnesses to Jesus ‘throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). Such was their fervour and excitement that people thought they were drunk (2:13). Peter was boldly able to stand before the crowd and preach the good news that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, had been raised from the dead, and now the forgiveness of sins and life in the Holy Spirit was possible (2:38).

For Weigel, the recovery of this evangelical spirit was one of the intentions of the Second Vatican Council, as well as to speak in a language that was intelligible to people. As Bishop Robert Barron is fond of saying, it was intended to be a “missionary council.” The person of Christ as the incarnate logos of God was the central figure around which everything turned for the council. Communicating him was everything.

In his book The Day is Now Far Spent, Cardinal Robert Sarah urges people to return to the documents of the council ‘without a guilty conscience’ and instead with a ‘peaceful and joyful spirit . . . as grateful heirs’.[7] As we reflect upon our own role in evangelisation and our life in the Spirit, maybe we can let this be a reason why we do.

[1] Benedict XVI: A Life, 2020. 347. ^ Back to top

[2] Benedict XVI: A Life, 2020. 340.

[3] Benedict XVI: A Life, 2020. 402.

[4] Benedict XVI: A Life, 2020. 404.

[5] Benedict XVI: A Life, 2020. 406.

[6] Evangelical Catholicism, 2013, 4.

[7] The Day is Now Far Spent, 2019. 96.