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Holy Spirit Interactive: Vatican II: Currents of Renewal before Vatican II

Vatican II - Currents of Renewal before Vatican II

by Fr. Francis Jamieson

The picture so far sounds quite bleak, but in fact between 1920 and 1960 there was an attempt by many scholars to return to the sources of Catholicism: Scripture, the Fathers of the Church (these are the bishops and writers of the first five hundred years of Christianity), the liturgy, and philosophy. These attempts gave rise to a renewal that reshaped the face of Catholicism at the Second Vatican Council.

The Modern Biblical Movement

This was made possible in Germany by the critical, historical, and literary methods of investigating biblical texts. For example, using these studies, it became clear that Moses did not personally write the first five books of the Bible; that the book of Isaiah was not written by one person; that the Gospel of Matthew was not the first one to be written.

The Catholic Church was suspicious about these studies, but the turning point came in 1943, when Pope Pius XII wrote an encyclical called Divino Afflante Spiritu. In this, the Pope gave Catholic scholars the freedom to use the methods originating in Germany that they had formally been forbidden to use. Catholic biblical scholarship began to flourish.

The Liturgical Movement

This was an attempt to try to recover the liturgical riches of the Church. Its roots are to found in the Benedictine monasteries of Germany, Switzerland, and France, which had begun to encourage a more active participation in the Mass by the laity. The studies produced in this subject were to bear fruit in the Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

The New Theology

For too long the Catholic theology favoured in Rome had been limited to the philosophy and theology inherited from the Middle Ages. The Modernist 'crisis' at the turn of the 20th. century was an attempt to break out of this narrow approach and enter into dialogue with modern thought. Some scholars in France and Germany in the 1930's, '40's, and '50's tried to look at things in a different way.

A wide range of scholars like Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, and Marie-Dominique Chenu in France; Karl Rahner and Otto Semmelroth in Germany; and Hans Urs von Balthasar in Switzerland, all tried to return to the biblical and liturgical sources that had formed the Church's understanding in its first thousand years. They were not appreciated by Rome, and a number of them were disciplined: that is, they were prevented from teaching. Nevertheless, some attended the Second Vatican Council, where their work was to help shape a number of the Council's documents.

Pope John XXIII

The death of Pius XII ended an era. Few suspected that a new era in the life of the Church was about to begin. Most of the Cardinals wanted someone who would continue Pius XII's strong, conservative leadership. But there was deadlock and a compromise was finally reached. 76-year-old Angelo Roncalli was elected. The idea was that he would be a transitional Pope because he was too old to do any damage. He became Pope John XXIII.

He looked like a peasant, but in fact was a shrewd and sophisticated churchman. Most of his career had been spent outside the Vatican in the papal diplomatic service, but most of all he had the heart of a pastor. Shortly after his election to the papacy, while talking to his Secretary of State about the problems facing the world and the Church, he said that he was going to call a Council. This Council was going to change the Church radically.

Next: The Second Vatican Council: 1962 - 1965


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