Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenans, one of the presidents of the Second Vatican Council, spoke frequently about “surprises of the spirit,” of which there were many surrounding the council.
The first and greatest surprise was Pope John XXIII’s decision to convoke an Ecumenical Council. Equally surprising with the decision to call the council was the pope’s decision to invite non-Catholic Christian denominations to be present at the council as observers, but their willingness to accept. Some representatives of other Christian denominations were invited to the First Vatican Council but they all either declined or ignored the invitation. Not so at Vatican II, when more than 100 observers from non-Roman communities served as observers.
Among those named was Dr. Albert Outler, a professor of patristics at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, who attributed his being chosen to represent the World Methodist Conference to the fact that there were not many Methodist theologians who understood Latin. In a 1980 television series produced by the Archbishop Sheen Center, Dr. Outler spoke of his experiences.
“We had the best seats in the house,” he recalled. “They placed us in the Tribunal of Saint Longinus, only the council presidents had better seats. We soon styled ourselves as the Brotherhood of Saint Longinus.” The “Brotherhood” grew during the council from about 50 to nearly 100, allowing for substitutes from time to time; it is estimated that nearly 200 representatives of Protestant and Orthodox denomination joined the brotherhood.
Observers could not participate in the council’s debates, but they were invited to smaller group meetings where they could speak but not vote. “Our views were sought particularly in the discussions on the Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on Religious Liberty,” he said. “Of course there were a lot of informal discussions during breaks at the Bar Jonah, which is where coffee and refresh¬ments were served.
“There had been very limited official contact between the Catholic Church and non-Roman Christian,” Dr. Outler said, “but a very active ecu¬menical underground existed, including Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox biblical scholars and theo¬logians who would get together to share views.” He went on to say, “the ecumenical underground recognized that this was a God-given opportunity and they began to prepare for it.”
“We were still very far apart and profoundly ignorant of each other and our respective heritages,” Outler recalled, “but there was a growing confi¬dence that something important was beginning to happen and nobody knew how it was going to happen and by what means.”
Groundwork for the participation was laid by Cardinal Augustin Bea “who proposed to the pope that non-Roman Christians be brought to the council. Prior to the council the church had no way of communicating with us and Protestants had no access to the Vatican. Cardinal Bea suggested the establishment of the Vicariate for Christian Unity which opened up communication between the papacy and the Protestant world.”
Dr. Outler’s contributions during the council were recognized by Pope Paul VI who invited him to speak on behalf of the observers at the closing ceremony at St. Paul outside the Walls. He was also invited to provide non-Catholic commentary on the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church when the Documents of the Second Vatican Council were first published in English.
At the closing ceremony for the observers the pope announced that the work of the council with other denominations must continue and established the Institute for Advanced Theological Studies at Tantour, a village midway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
“For those who were at the council,” Dr. Outler said, “it was a transformational process. When the bishops returned home they found those who had not been through the process had not been transformed and found it difficult to escape the bonds of institutional inertia.”
After the council, when he returned to Dallas, he invited many of the key figures from the council to give presentations at SMU, where his conferees referred to him as “our Methodist monsignor.”