Aggiornamento (a commonly used Italian word meaning updating) was made popular by Pope JOHN XXIII, who used the term to indicate a program of change, renewal, and modernization in the Catholic Church. Aggiornamento was to become a hallmark theme of his pontificate. In his announcement of the coming ecumenical Council of Vatican II to the group of cardinals gathered at the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on January 25, 1959, the PONTIFF declared that there can be no genuine Catholic renewal in the twentieth century without a serious pursuit of Christian unity. Authentic aggiornamento also required a new openness to secular culture that would enable the Church to present the GOSPEL message in a way that is more intelligible and appealing to modern people. At the same time the POPE assured his audience that this program of updating and “adaptation” to the secular world was never to be at the price of endangering the purity and integrity of the Church’s teaching. For Pope John XXIII his call for aggiornamento and renewal was based on a deep pastoral concern for an effective preaching of the Gospel. At the same time any dialogue with modernity, he insisted, must remain totally loyal to “the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers.”
During his opening speech to the Council fathers on October 11, 1962, he further elaborated on the implications of aggiornamento by encouraging theologians and church scholars to make use of “the methods of research” and the “literary forms” of modern thought. To dispel any confusion about this task, Pope John carefully distinguished for his audience the “the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith” from “the way in which it is presented.” On this basis he proposed new forms of theological expression, provided they did not in any way dilute doctrinal substance. But even in matters of erroneous teaching, the pontiff urged the Council fathers to prefer “the medicine of mercy” to the “severity” of condemnations. These papal directives reflected the pastoral spirit with which Pope John intended to guide the Council.
Pope John XXIII had from the start attributed his decision to convoke the Council to a special “illumination” of the Holy Spirit. In contrast to those he referred to as “prophets of gloom,” he believed that Divine Providence was leading the world to a “new order of relations,” requiring a new openness on the part of the Church. He saw this openness as an opportunity for a more positive dialogue with the secular world and envisaged the coming Council as the beginning of a “new Pentecost.” The council’s task, he insisted, would be to “read the signs of the times” and to guide the Church to respond responsibly to the special challenges and possibilities of the modern world. Aggiornamento (renewal and modernization) was to be the Church’s answer to the challenge.
Despite Pope John’s consistent attempts at clarification and assurance, the Council fathers from the outset held sharply conflicting views and valuations of aggiornamento. While some saw it as an ingenuous and dangerous accommodation to the secular culture, others understood it to signify a deep spiritual renewal of the Church for the sake of the Gospel. These differing views continue to prevail in the Church of the twenty-first century.
As the Council progressed from the 1962 opening, its view of aggiornamento crystallized around the triad of inner Church renewal, dialogue with the modern world, and the promotion of unity among the Christian churches. Pope John XXIII, after having successfully steered a large, pluralistic group of sometimes hesitant fellow bishops through the first session of the ecumenical council, died in June 1963, before the second session began.
In his opening address at the beginning of the second session, John’s successor, Pope PAUL VI, enthusiastically embraced the task of completing the Council and reiterated his commitment to the Council’s goals. While some critics were not convinced that the new Pope consistently supported Pope John’s modernizing vision through the rest of the Council sessions, Pope Paul’s closing address on December 8, 1965, plainly reflected the spirit of aggiornamento, as he sent the bishops forth Page 24 | Top of Articleto spread the “good news” to the world “in a language accessible to all people.”
Similarly, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, ascended the papal throne as JOHN PAUL II in October 1978, he immediately expressed his determination to continue the work of the Council. He even took as his papal name both John and Paul, to express his continuity with the two conciliar popes. His book Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of Vatican II (1979) recognized the Church’s special debt to the Holy Spirit for the great gift of the Council. In his Apostolic Letter of 1994, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, in preparation for the millennial Jubilee celebration, he described the Second Vatican Council as a providential event and called for a communal examination of CONSCIENCE on the Church’s fidelity to “the authentic spirit of Vatican II.”
Social scientists, theologians, and historians have varying assessments of how consistently Church leadership has continued on the path of aggiornamento since the end of Vatican II. History suggests, however, that Church renewal and reform are never completed tasks— ecclesia semper reformanda.
Anthony M. Barratt, “Interpreting Vatican II Forty Years On: A Case of Caveat Lector,” Heythrop Journal 47 (2006): 75–96.
John XXIII, Festività della conversione di san paolo, Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (Homily, January 25, 1959), available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/homilies/1959 (accessed June 8, 2008).
John XXIII, Gaudet mater ecclesia, Address on the Occasion of the Solemn Opening of the Most Holy Council (Speech, October 11, 1962), available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/speeches/1962 (accessed June 8, 2008).
John Paul II, Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of Vatican II (San Francisco 1979).
John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, On Preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000 (Apostolic Letter, November 10, 1994), available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_10111994_tertio-millennio-adveniente_en.html (accessed June 8, 2008).
John W. O’Malley, S.J. “Reform, Historical Consciousness, and Vatican II’s Aggiornamento,” Theological Studies 32 (1971): 573–601.
Raymond F Bulman
Professor of Systematic Theology
St. John’s University, New York (2010)