Although it has been seen primarily as a “pastoral” council, Vatican II had a dramatic impact on ordained ministry. It restored the permanent diaconate and it called on the Church to rethink the ministerial priesthood.
The effects of this were nothing if not mixed and has provoked in many circles a variety of reactions.
In the early Church deacons were ordained to serve the Church under the local bishop. From Apostolic times, the Acts of the Apostles report, as the Church grew the ministries of oversight, preaching and presiding at the Eucharist, and what we would today call social work (caring for the poor) became too great for one person to perform alone. The Acts recounts how seven men were chosen and consecrated for social service. This was the origin of the order of deacons.
As the Church expanded, deacons became increasingly important; some even were elected popes in the first five centuries of Christendom. By the 20th century however, the permanent diaconate had disappeared—men chosen to share and assist the bishop in proclamation of the Word and celebration of the Sacraments (priests) were ordained deacons in transition to priesthood.
By the 1960s, once again, the shortage of ordained ministers in many parts of the world (notably Latin America) was acute. When the Council convened there arose a call from the Americas to find new ways to resolve the vocation crisis. One solution proposed, and accepted, was the restoration of the permanent diaconate.
Lumen Gentium (1964) kick-started—more accurately restarted—the diaconate. In paragraph 29 it stated that given the needs of the Church in many areas, “it will be possible in the future to restore the diaconate as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy”.
Within a few years of Vatican II the first permanent deacons—most of whom, as in the early Church, were married men—were ordained in Germany, Cameroon and the United States. Within a few decades married permanent deacons could be found throughout the Church, including South Africa.
Spurred on by the acceptance of married deacons, some bishops at the Council (mostly Latin Americans again, but with some African bishops concurring) called for the end to compulsory celibacy for diocesan priests ordained in the Latin Rite.
Pope Paul VI withdrew the issue from discussion however, saying that he would issue a statement on it later. In 1967 he ruled, despite growing calls for reform, that the obligation of celibacy should remain.
Celibacy remains in force despite ongoing calls for change and a small but steady number of departures of priests from active ministry in order to marry.
The issue of married priests, and subsequently the question of women’s ordination, remain neuralgic points in the Church. Where one stands on these issues has become almost a litmus test of orthodoxy.
For those priests seeking advancement they are subjects best ignored in conversation, least of all examined in print.
One priest, the Sri Lankan Fr Tissa Balasuriya OMI, was excommunicated in 1997 in part for his support for women’s ordination (it was rescinded a year later); and many South African Catholics believe that the late Archbishop Denis Hurley was never made a cardinal because he sympathised with both a married priesthood and women’s ordination.
Whatever one thinks of the latter issues, no matter where one’s sympathies fall, it would be a mistake nonetheless to think that Vatican II didn’t change the way the ministerial priesthood was understood. Two important documents, Optatem Totius and Presbyterorum Ordinis (both 1965) called for a new understanding of priestly formation and the priesthood itself.
With regard to the formation of priests (Optatem Totius) the Council called for a revamping of seminary formation. Seminarians should be properly formed in all areas of theology in a way that more adequately prepared them for ministry in an increasingly complex society.
Apart from doctrine they needed a far more solid grounding in Scripture, so that they could more effectively preach the Word to contemporary people.
They also needed a decent grounding outside theology in disciplines such as psychology and sociology, so that their future ministry would be more in touch with the real challenges faced by people to whom they ministered.
In Presbyterorum Ordinis the traditional understanding of priesthood was confronted, too, with the needs of a contemporary Church. The people of God needed priests who were more in touch with the lives they led. Priests, too, were understood to be in a more collaborative relationship with their bishop than before. A more apostolic rather than monastic-contemplative spirituality was envisioned.
As we know, the post-Vatican II period proved a hard time for priests. Many left, some because they could not face the more egalitarian tone of parish life: too much changed, too fast!
Others left because they expected far more change than materialised, including a relaxation of the discipline of celibacy.
Those who remained had to struggle between change on one hand (and often further expectations of change from laity and some priests) and movements of resistance and reaction on the other.
Wherever one stands on these reforms, and whether one is a priest or deacon who lived through the Council or a “John Paul II cleric”, for whom the Council is a page in history, the Council changed the face of ordained ministry.
Perhaps what we can all learn from it is the ongoing issues facing ministry (married priests, women’s ordination) should be addressed in a manner befitting the way the Council was run: civilly, openly, and with a spiritual generosity that presumes good intent on the part of all taking part in the debate.