'Vatican II'...What?

After citing the Second Vatican Council (i.e. ‘Vatican II’) in a few posts lately, I realized that I really hadn’t done much to outline what it means for something to be a ‘council’ of the Church. So, now I will.

Conveniently (for me), I am currently taking a Church history class as part of my theology studies, which happens to focus exclusively on the ecumenical councils of the Roman Catholic Church. The word “council” itself is synonymous with the Greek word, “synod”; both words have the same basic meaning—the gathering together of people. The word “ecumenical” also comes from Greek—“oikos,” meaning ‘house’—and refers to the nature of the gathered council, in that it is comprised of the entire world inhabited by the Church. In other words, an ecumenical council is a meeting with representatives from all the geographic regions of the Catholic Church.

The earliest ecumenical councils took place in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, gathering in Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon and other cities. Overall, there are seven ecumenical councils recognized as such by both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (which, before the Great Schism in 1054 AD, were simply one). The first and perhaps most notable of these was Nicaea I, which convened in 325 AD; from this council we get most of the ‘Nicaean Creed,’ which Catholics recite at Mass every Sunday and on feast days. The early council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, provided much work on the person of Jesus Christ, clarifying much that was in doubt about his truly human and divine natures. The other five early ecumenical councils dealt with similarly important issues, but their content really isn’t important to this post…

Church councils continued up through the medieval age (e.g. Lateran I—V, Lyons, Vienne, Constance, etc.), culminating in the Council of Trent, in 1545 AD, which was perhaps the most memorable council to date. Trent was a response to the Protestant Reformation, and provided much doctrinal and disciplinary teaching regarding the reform and virtually everything else in the Catholic world. (It is worth noting that the Council of Trent officially invited any Protestant who wished to come and present his case of reform for consideration, although few ended up actually coming.) After the council, Pope Pius V codified his own version of the Missal—the book of how to say the Mass—and for the next 500 years the Church celebrated his ‘Tridentine’ (from ‘Trent’) Mass. [N.B. See my post on Summorum Pontificum for more on this.]

I could go on for a while, but that pretty much sums up the basic history of the councils of the Catholic Church. It is important to see the tradition that councils come from in order to see their intended goals and implementation later on in history. Particularly, Vatican II, which stems from this tradition, cannot be properly understood without a reference to many of the earlier Church councils. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post a little more on the recent councils (i.e. Trent, Vatican I & II), and provide an even more in-depth—but not boring—look at what all the hubbub concerning Vatican II is really about. Stay tuned…

[A good book on the councils is Fr. Norman Tanner’s, The Councils of the Church. It’s short, and a great book for absolute beginners…and he happens to be my teacher!]