Pope John XXIII surprised the whole world when on January 25, 1959, he announced the first Ecumenical Council to be called since 1870. After three years of intense preparation, the Second Vatican Council became a reality on October 11, 1962, and for the next eight weeks the eyes of Protestant and Catholic, believer and unbeliever alike, were focused on St. Peter’s Basilica. Universally acknowledged as the most important religious event of the twentieth century to date, this council owes the success of its first session primarily to the personality and concern of one who was at first expected to be little more than an interim pope. Even now, although the council is officially in recess until September 8, various theological documents are being prepared by theological commissions and studied by prelates all over the world in preparation for the second session.

Protestantism has undoubtedly paid more attention to this council than it did to the two others held since the Reformation, Trent (1545–63) and Vatican I (1869–70), both of which were highly significant for Protestants and Protestant-Catholic relations. The reason is obvious. For the first time since the Reformation, the Catholic Church is showing itself to be officially concerned about those millions of Christians outside its jurisdiction. The very presence of a number of Protestant observers in the council congregations is overt evidence that the Twenty-First Ecumenical Council will be of tremendous significance to Protestant Christians everywhere. Now that we are between sessions, it is perhaps apposite to engage in both a backward and a forward look at Vatican II.

What the Council Means

The most important aspect of this council is the fact that the Catholic Church recognizes ...

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