I don’t belong to any survivors’ network. In fact, I don’t even know if there is one that I can join. But, I am a survivor — a survivor of the Second Vatican Council.
By now, most of the people who attended the Second Vatican Council have gone on to their eternal reward. The council met annually from 1962 through 1965. Any bishop who attended the council would have to be now about 80 or older; any priests or lay experts would have to be now around 70 or older.
I had a very minor role in the council, as a kind of administrative assistant during the second (1963) and third (1964) sessions. It was a great privilege to be able to attend the daily plenary meetings in St. Peter’s basilica, listen to all the speeches, and study all of the working documents.
Above all else, it was an almost tangible experience of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.
The real survivors of the council are the great ideas, concepts and understandings that were born of the Spirit during those rich and fruitful years and that still perdure and revitalized the church today.
One of the most powerful of them has to do with understanding the very nature of the church itself.
The first draft of what was to become the dogmatic constitution on the church, prepared by experts of the Roman curia in preparation for the opening of the council in October 1962, was among the documents rejected by the council fathers.
A new draft was studied, debated and amended by the council fathers during the fall 1963 council session, and a final text was overwhelmingly approved by the council and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 21 November 1964.
There was one modest but incredibly significant change made in the text as a result of the 1963 deliberations.
The working draft presented to the council fathers in 1963, referred to the church of Jesus Christ and identified it with the Catholic Church, headed by the Roman Pontiff and the bishops in communion with him.
The draft was amended to introduce an important new concept, “subsists.” It stated that the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him.
This one little word unlocked a great door in Catholic theological understanding of the church. It implied a difference, albeit modest, between the church of Christ and the Catholic Church.
This seed notion, regarded as dangerous and almost heretical by many, has born fruit in the great ecumenical advances of the past decades. It has provided a foundation for the many declarations and actions of reconciliation that have blessed the entire church of Christ.
A new chapter of Christian history has opened. The tales of narrowly individual churches — Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical — denouncing the others and denying salvation to all but their own members have begun to fade into the past.
The process still continues. As the council also reminded us, the church of Christ is a pilgrim church, filled with imperfections. Yet it wends its way to the fulfillment of the divine plan, guided by the Spirit.
In spite of the misgivings, setbacks, misunderstandings, prejudices and apprehensions, the new understanding of the church is growing.
It’s a survivor.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern