It Must Be the Holy Spirit

Cardinal Franz König


Webmaster's note:

Cardinal König is the emeritus Archbishop of Vienna and was one of the leading figures at the Second Vatican Council.  His article is reprinted with the kind permission of The Tablet, published in London, from the December 21, 2002 issue.  It was the last article in a series entitled, "How Vatican II Changed the Church."  Please visit The Tablet's website at:

John XXIII was and called himself a simple man, a peasant’s son, and yet he set the signals for the council. He triggered what was to prove a momentous episode in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. It was he who set in motion the transformation of the Church from a static, authoritarian body that spoke in monologues, to a dynamic, sisterly Church that promoted dialogue. As a man of dialogue himself, he re-emphasised its importance both with the world and within the Church.

In January 1959, while he was still finally making up his mind whether he should call a council or not, he seemed at times to be amazed by his own courage. Soon after he had announced that he was summoning a council, he confided to me in a private audience how, during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity in January 1959, the idea suddenly came to him. “My first thought was that the devil was trying to tempt me. A council at the present time seemed so vast and complicated an undertaking. But the idea kept returning all that week while I was praying. It became more and more compelling and emerged ever more clearly in my mind. In the end I said to myself, ‘This cannot be the devil, it must be the Holy Spirit inspiring me’.”

It was a bolt out of the blue even for those of us who realised that reform was necessary. I remember thinking, “How will a general council ever work? Will it deal only with inner-church reform, or will it reach out to questions that concern the whole of mankind? Will bishops from all over the world ever be able to reach consensus?”

Remember what the Church was like before the council. On a visit to England as a young curate in the Thirties I was fascinated by the different Christian Churches and beliefs. Unlike in Austria, where almost everyone was Catholic, here one encountered Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Reformed, Quakers. I was staying with a Roman Catholic parish priest in southern England when I discovered that there was a convent of Anglican nuns nearby. When I told my host that I wanted to pay the nuns a visit, his immediate reaction was: “No, no. You must be careful. No communicatio in sacris”. “All right”, I thought sadly, “but why?” The priest’s reaction was typical.

Later, on my pastoral visits as a bishop, I soon became aware that many Catholics found it hard to accept the denunciation of non-Catholics and longed for a change in the Church’s stance on ecumenism. Many of them were married to non-Catholics or worked with them in the same concerns. Although there was already a strong ecumenical movement outside the Roman Catholic Church, we Catholics were discouraged from taking part and were not supposed to go to ecumenical meetings or discussions on the subject. We were in a fortress, the windows and gates of which were closed. The world was out there and we were inside, and yet we were supposed to go out and take the Gospel message to all nations. But although we often shook our heads, we accepted the status quo and all those rules and regulations. And we had absolutely no inkling of how those walls could be removed.

Soon after the council was announced, I heard that every bishop attending could take a theological adviser, a so-called peritus, with him. I immediately rang the Jesuit Karl Rahner, whom I knew well, and asked him to accompany me to Rome. I knew that Rahner was convinced that it was our mission to go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel message, and not to keep the faith locked away behind closed doors. But Rahner was aghast. “What are you thinking of?”, he said, “Rome has considerable misgivings about me and my writings already. Imagine what they would say if I turned up as a council theologian!” And with that he declined. I asked him to think about it and said I would ring again later. When I did, Rahner said: “All right, in God’s name, but you must take the responsibility! Who knows what will happen when Ottaviani sees me!”

I had already got to know Cardinal Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was still called then, under Pope Pius XII. I remember bumping into him once, soon after Pius XII first allowed evening Masses. He came up to me and said, “What do you say? One can now celebrate Mass in the evening. Don’t people laugh when you announce an evening Mass?” It took me a little time to see what he meant, but it was a typical Ottaviani reaction. There is a fixed order of things which must never be changed – Semper idem was after all his motto. As change was inconceivable to him, it seemed also in a strange way ludicrous.

I was, therefore, somewhat worried about what Ottaviani would say to my bringing Rahner. So on my next visit to Rome I informed him privately. “Rahner”, he muttered, shaking his head, “how will that work?” He wasn’t against it, just worried. Not long after the actual council had begun, however, I saw Cardinal Ottaviani and Rahner strutting up and down St Peter’s together, deeply absorbed in conversation. Ottaviani was against change, but he was far more flexible than his right hand, Fr Tromp SJ. Tromp was utterly convinced that the concept of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ was the apogee of theology after which there could be nothing new.

Rahner scanned for me the numerous drafts and propositions that were sent out in the preparatory phase of the council, and was sometimes highly critical. “The authors of this text have obviously never experienced the suffering of a distraught atheist or non-Christian who wants to believe and thinks he cannot”, he once commented. And on another occasion he said, “These drafts are the elaborate theses of churchmen who are confusing self-confidence with firmness of faith. They are simply not up to today’s situation.” But there were also, of course, texts that Rahner approved of.

I was asked to sit on the Preparatory Commission, which was made up mainly of bishops and was supposed to prepare possible subjects for discussion at the council. I soon noticed that a significant number of bishops from Rome with strictly traditional views were determined to stop any move forward. They were not interested in Pope John’s aggiornamento, as they considered it a danger to the faith. After all efforts to stop the Pope from calling a council had proved in vain, there was this strong tendency within the Preparatory Commission to quash the council. But this was not at all what I and Cardinals Frings (Cologne), Döpfner (Munich), Alfrink (Utrecht) and Suenens (Mechelen-Brussels) wanted.

I will never forget the opening day of the council. As the relatively young Archbishop of Vienna, I proceeded with two and a half thousand other bishops down the Scala Regia towards the entrance of St Peter’s. The Pope was carried into the basilica, but then got down from his portable throne and walked along the aisle between the rows of bishops. He was not wearing the papal tiara, but an ordinary mitre. And then came his path-breaking address in which he bade the bishops not to listen to the “prophets of doom”, but to tackle present-day problems joyously and without fear. As I looked around me, I saw that all the tension and scepticism had given way to joyous surprise.

To my mind Vatican II set in motion four trail-blazing, creative and lasting stimuli. First, it established the Church’s universality. At the council sessions, and above all during the discussions in the intervals, one could see bishops of every colour and nationality in lively debate speaking many different languages. This multitude of different nationalities and cultures changed our awareness. The Church laid aside its European attire, which many of us were so familiar with, and some even identified with the Church itself, and became aware that it was a global Church. That is why Latin could no longer be the universal language of the liturgy, and the vernacular was introduced.

The second breakthrough was the council’s support for ecumenism. Pope John had spent years in Turkey and Bulgaria and had good contacts with the Orthodox and Old Oriental Churches. The initial decision to invite non-Catholic observers to the council came from him. Soon after Easter in 1960, he took an indicative and most significant step. He set up the Secretariat for Christian Unity, a small but high-powered body, to handle ecumenical matters, and appointed as its president Cardinal Bea, an eminent scripture scholar and rector of the Biblical Institute in Rome.

Bea’s role at the council cannot be rated highly enough. He and his secretariat took over the responsibility for inviting and looking after the observers, who were by no means passive, as their designation might suggest, but played an increasingly influential role. Most of them were non-Catholic Christians. They had eye-contact with the cardinals as they sat directly opposite them in St Peter’s, and although they could not speak at the sessions, they took an active part in the numerous discussion groups and conferences that took place during the coffee breaks and after the session debates. At the beginning there were about 40 observers but by the end of the council there must have been close to 100. Their presence immediately had a positive influence on the ecumenical climate and their role grew as the council progressed. They got to know many of the council bishops, council documents went through their hands and their opinion was sought and valued. They were also able to rectify misunderstandings and bring in new aspects, and their opinions found their way into several council decrees.

This was ecumenism at work, and it was first and foremost Cardinal Bea’s achievement. I had frequent discussions with several of the observers and we often found ourselves in agreement on fundamental matters of faith, even if the actual formulation or wording was different. Already after the first session in 1963, Lucas Vischer, a Lutheran member of the World Council of Churches with whom I had frequent discussions, compared what was happening at the council to the “bursting of a dam”. And Oscar Cullman, Protestant professor of New Testament studies at Basle and Paris, whom I knew well, agreed. After the council was over, he said: “Our expectations, except in a very few cases and in so far as they were not illusions, were fulfilled and even surpassed on many points.”

But, of course, there was opposition from the conservatives. They were particularly touchy as they thought ecumenism posed a threat to papal primacy. The conservatives were not a fixed group. Their numbers fluctuated according to the subject under discussion.

The third important breakthrough was the council’s emphasis on the importance of the lay apostolate. Before Vatican II the Church was often perceived as a two-class system with the hierarchy on one side and the laity on the other. This view in part corresponded to the structure of society at the time, which sharply differentiated between those who ruled and those who were ruled. But that was hardly the Gospel view. Vatican II stated clearly that the Church is one communion. All the baptised are the pilgrim People of God and all share the responsibility for the Church.

And fourthly I come to Nostra Aetate, the briefest of all the council declarations but in my eyes one of the most, if not the most, important. This declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions underlines that the Church “rejects nothing of what is true and holy” in other religions and stresses the importance of dialogue. The last three pages of Nostra Aetate, which concern the Church’s relations to Judaism, was one of the most disputed.

This briefest of declarations owes its existence to three people without whose determination, dedication and patience it would never have come about. They were Pope John himself, Cardinal Bea and Fr Johannes Österreicher, an Austrian priest and convert from Judaism who had fled from Austria to the United States before the Second World War. John XXIII was determined to put an end to accusations that the Church was anti-Semitic. He had done a great deal to help Jews when he was Apostolic Delegate in Istanbul in the Forties. Shortly after his election, he asked Cardinal Bea to consider how the Jewish question could be incorporated into the council. I was invited to join this small circle early on, and thus experienced at close hand the many crises and continual ups and downs the declaration went through. It is indeed almost a miracle that it was ever passed at all.

Rumours that a declaration on the Jewish question was on the agenda began circulating almost as soon as the council opened. The mere fact that the question was to be discussed at all immediately met with violent opposition from the Arab world, the Eastern Churches and from a small but vociferous conservative group of council bishops around Archbishop Lefebvre. I greatly admire Pope John, Cardinal Bea and Fr Österreicher for persevering despite fierce opposition, intrigue and sometimes outright slander.

Right up to the end of the council this opposition mobilised the mass media and evoked diplomatic protests from the Arab states. I received sacks of letters, many of them from Christians in the Middle East, begging me to prevent a declaration on the Jewish question. Some of the pamphlets that were circulated were positively malicious and defamatory. When the small group of council bishops which was so against any declaration on the subject saw that they could not prevent it, they tried to water it down and continually lodged complaints so that the drafts had to be changed at least three or four times. Finally, however, on 28 October 1965, Nostra Aetate was passed: there were 2,221 votes in favour, 88 against and three abstentions. It had taken four years to reach agreement on a few hundred words! For Karl Rahner, “the wording and inner dynamism” of Nostra Aetate was “unique”.

Future generations will come to a more just appraisal of Paul VI’s role at the council and appreciation of what he did will grow. For me he was the martyr of Vatican II. Although he did not convoke the council or begin the reform process, he continued it and saw it through. This was not easy, especially for someone who, unlike John XXIII, did not have the charm to stir people with a single smile. But Paul VI had the tenacity, perseverance and willpower to soldier on. And he also had that strength which comes from great humility to step back and make himself small when faced with an overwhelming task. The great work of church renewal, however faltering, hesitant, inhibited and obstructed it may sometimes seem to us, would have crumbled if he had not persevered. The council proceeded, albeit with small, faltering steps – and at times it even came to a standstill – but there was no change in direction and the aim was never lost sight of. Pope Paul picked up what his predecessor had triggered and translated it into action.

I will never forget the solemn ecumenical service in St Peter’s on 7 December 1965 which marked the end of the council. I was one of a small group on the altar with Pope Paul VI. After asking the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to join him there, the Pope announced that the Papal Bull of 1054, which had declared the Great Schism between the Western and Eastern Church, was now null and void. I can still hear the thundering burst of spontaneous applause with which this announcement was greeted. For me this highlight signalled that the impulses set off by the council were already at work. The crucial process of reception, that all-important part of any church council, which can take several generations, had begun. It continues today.