The Potlucks of Vatican II

by | Nov 22, 2023 | Faith & Politics

‘‘The Council’ is an abstraction and as such cannot be allowed to obscure the mix of forces and personalities that marked the Council.’’ 1


In What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley, SJ, he mentions that “council” is a bit of a misnomer. I suggest that the term “potlucks” is an accurate way to capture many of the dynamics of Vatican II, more so than ‘‘council.’’ Rather than a single event or meeting, these ‘‘potlucks’’ were spread over several years, with planning beginning in 1959 and the final session closing in 1965.  Here are ten ways the “Potlucks of Vatican II” operated just as you might expect at your local parish or neighborhood potluck.

1) (Un)predictability

A Potluck is not a visit to your favorite restaurant where you’ve memorized the menu of your favorite dishes. O’Malley puts it in the case of Vatican II: ‘‘No one knew what to expect.’’ That is, ‘‘the Council’’ moved in a direction no one could have predicted. Liturgical changes are one example. Veterum Sapientia, the Apostolic Constitution Pope John XXIII issued on February 22, 1962, eight months before the Council opened, reaffirmed the role of Latin in the Church and was interpreted as a discouragement for introducing the vernacular into the Mass. O’Malley asks, ‘‘Was it even conceivable that the tradition of the Latin liturgy could be changed? In 1962, most bishops who arrived at the Council probably thought not.’’

In the first papal encyclical devoted entirely to the liturgy, Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII acknowledged that the liturgy ‘‘grows, matures, develops, adapts, and accommodates herself to needs and circumstances.’’ Melkite bishops insisted at Vatican II that Latin was not the language of the universal Church but the language of the Western expression of the Church.

The truth is that, in regard to using the vernacular during Mass, the Council was carrying forward work that had already begun many years prior. For instance, in 1932, Joseph F. Stedman, a priest of the diocese of Brooklyn, published an inexpensive and easy-to-use volume that translated the Missal into the vernacular for Catholic Massgoers. It quickly became a bestseller. As Maximos IV, the Melkite Greek patriarch who attended Vatican II,  pointed out in one address to the bishops, ‘‘All languages are liturgical, as the Psalmist says, ‘Praise the Lord, all ye people . . .”  

2) Coordination

Rather than a restaurant with a clear organizational structure and team, the potlucks of Vatican II were a collection of tables or committees, each with their own recipes. This meant that one might question who was ultimately in charge since no pope took part in the working sessions of the Council, nor (with only one exception) was one ever in the basilica during them. This continues to be a troubling topic for the Church at large, as evidenced by the trend of people who consider themselves Catholic but doubt the legitimacy of Vatican II. 

Heads of commissions sometimes acted as if they were to give direction to the Council rather than receive direction from it. Cardinal Fringe corrected this notion by asserting that commissions were but instruments of the Council whose job was to carry out the will of the Council rather than bodies with particular access to a truth hidden from everybody else.  

3) Development

Each with its own dish and recipes; it may seem difficult to change much in any one potluck, but development did take place over time. Doctrine did not change so much as progress. ‘‘Not change but progress in practice and in the very doctrine of the church’’ is made through the Holy Spirit, as Pope Paul VI would assert in his 1967 Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum Doctrina. At the same time, there remains an element of timelessness. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Yet, the Church must always find the best way to share Christ in any given time and culture.

4) Novelty

Going to a potluck without being introduced to a new dish would be unusual. As for the Potlucks of Vatican II, another unique component was that there was substantial media coverage for the first time in the history of church councils, which seemed keen on picking up ‘‘the novel character and heavy consequences of some of the Council’s decisions.’’ 

Any cook might write notes in the margins of a cookbook or notecard of improvements or observations while making a dish, and the same was true of attendees of the Council. The diary of Henri Fesquet, for example, numbers over 1,250 pages. These would be more appropriately thought of as personal cookbooks, not to be shared, at least not immediately or with anyone outside of a trusted circle. 

5) Large Attendance

Like any good potluck, there was a crowd, and, for the first time, not all of them were Catholic. As O’Malley notes, the very presence of the observers in the basilica during all the sessions ‘‘influenced, at least occasionally, the tone of the debates.’’ The number of observers was hardly marginal, reaching 182 by the end. Even though all the observers weren’t Catholic, they were all Christian and they came by invite-only, not by any self-determination.

6) Lack of Technical Background

Potlucks generally do not have professional chefs in attendance, and the fact is that theologians played a less significant role at Vatican II than before, such as at Trent. O’Malley points out that most bishops came without much background in the technicalities and complexities of the issues at hand. Rather than professional chefs, these were people with experience earned in their own home “kitchens.” 

Given the lack of expert theologians involved, perhaps it should not have been too big a surprise that speeches were often ‘‘repetitious, sometimes banal and off-the-point.’’ To give an impression of the extent such presentations would include, the “People of God” chapter of Lumen Gentium involved thirty-nine group votes on alternative wordings of specific sections, and only then a vote on the chapter as a whole. The potluck analogy fits in terms of its comparatively amateur status or experience, or at least lack of technical expertise. O’Malley points out that Pope Paul VI ‘‘acquired more confidence in his theological skills than his training warranted.’’

7) Encounter with the World

It is not hard to see then how the trips of Pope Paul VI to both the UN and the Holy Land paired with Gaudium et Spes and its assertion that the Church needs and learns from the world. In this case, the Church can be understood as a potluck, ready more to explore than to instruct, more so than as a single culinary institution, ready to instruct only. It states, ‘‘The church is faithful to its traditions and at the same time conscious of its universal mission; it can, then, enter into communion with different forms of culture, thereby enriching both itself and the cultures themselves.’’ Also telling was that ‘‘sincerity, courtesy, and concern for justice’’ would be the desired manifestation of holiness as shared in Presbyterorum Ordinis. It is consonant with human nature for citizens to play an active role in the political community and to exercise the right to vote. The documents of Vatican II are evidently coherent with one another.

8) Emphasis on Horizontal or Familial Relationships

For the first time in ecclesiastical documents, the horizontal dimensions of a bishop’s relationships with those over whom he presided were stressed. The documents of Vatican II emphasized the fundamental equality of all members of the church, with a shift in the earlier vocabulary of church members as ‘‘subjects’’ to “the People of God.’’ Not only the Council but the Church itself was described more as a potluck than a hierarchy. 

Perhaps the inherent informality of a potluck is what ought to be captured in an accurate description of Vatican II. After all, as stated in De Ecclesia, even the non-baptized who sincerely follow their consciences are joined to the Church and saved.

‘‘Family’’ might be an appropriate word to summarize the Council’s intent in how it hopes to approach the world. The first intervention in the Council by a layman spoke of initiating a ‘‘family dialogue’’ between the hierarchy and the laity. As the ordering of the chapters of Lumen Gentium would come to symbolize, the first reality of the church is horizontal and consists of all the baptized without distinction of rank. Only then comes the vertical reality of hierarchy. 

It is no accident then that the word ‘‘monarch’’ does not appear a single time in any of the final documents of the Council. On a more local level, Archbishop Francois Marty of Rheims described how priests should bear themselves in relationship to the laity ‘‘not only as pastors and teachers but also as brothers dealing with brothers.’’ Family language would also be included in the title of Mary as Mother of the Church.

Just as a mother knows the preferences of her children, as De Smedt would point out, ‘‘the church is more our mother than a juridical institution.’’ Home recipes were needed more than government nutritional guidelines and pyramids. As Cardinal Frings stressed, “Catholic” meant taking into account the length and breadth of the tradition of the church, Eastern as well as Western, rather than only the past hundred years. He asked if it was Catholic in the sense of Greek Katholon, which means what embraces the whole and looks to the good of the whole. Perhaps it should be no surprise that Pope Paul’s first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, would use the word ‘‘dialogue’’ seventy-seven times.

9) Leftovers

Any potluck will likely have leftovers, and Vatican II proved no different. There was plenty left to be chewed on in the days and years to come. Unitatis Redintegratio, for its part, would remind Catholics that ‘‘change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the heart of the whole ecumenical movement.’’ Again, the potluck analogy fits with the suggestion of something happening within the home and heart of the individual Catholic rather than simple reliance on weekly parish worship, with someone else doing the cooking. Individual Catholics were to have some skin in the game.

With plenty of leftovers, it would be the years to follow that would see the implementation and experimentation of what was written. As various examples show, the digestion continues to this day. Also important to note are the dishes that never did make it to the table, such as that of celibacy, out of fear that its discussion would ‘‘generate more heat than light.’’

10) Timing

Timing is another final way the potluck analogy proves appropriate in its description of Vatican II. Rather than a restaurant where each table determines when to arrive and depart, when to proceed from appetizers to entrees, and then to dessert, at a potluck, there is a more community feel. This would help explain why many had expected to return home well before Christmas of the first session. There would be no easy, clear, agreed-upon end time. 

The Pope, with the help of Cannon 222, would come to serve as the closing manager of sorts; he had the Council ‘‘firmly in his hands.’’ With an unreformed Curia and a pope that ensured that ‘‘The time for debate is over,’’ perhaps one can see how Vatican II came to a screeching halt, eager to disembark in ‘‘the light at the end of the tunnel.’’ The very language of the Council documents, though, suggested that the final documents were not “final” in establishing an end-point beyond which there would be no further movement.

Indeed, the Apostolic Letter, In Spiritu Sancto, which urged that ‘‘everything the Council decreed be religiously and devoutly observed by all the faithful,’’ would prove easier said than done. While decisions may have surpassed what the majority at the beginning of Vatican II had any right to hope for, they fell short of the much higher expectations entertained once the Council got underway. After all, as O’Malley summarized, ‘‘The Council was held in the center, named for the center, operated to a large extent with the equipment of the center, and was destined to be interpreted and implemented by the center.’’



  1. John W. O’Malley, SJ, What Happened at Vatican II, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008, pg. 102.

Patrick Hyland, SJ   /   All posts by Patrick