The Ecclesial Status of an Ecumenical Council

Richard Gaillardetz has a fine article in America magazine reflecting on three of the important dynamics that were present at the Second Vatican Council.

But it’s the introduction to this article that caught my attention, in which he discusses the opinion of Yves Congar that

councils manifest a deeper reality fundamental to the church itself—conciliarity. In an essay that has been influential in postconciliar ecclesiology (“The Council as an Assembly and the Church as Essentially Conciliar”), Father Congar complained of the tendency to treat councils as mere juridical events. He insisted that councils were, in some sense, a representation of the entire church. They effected “a totalization of the memory of the church.”

Gaillardetz continues:

Every ecumenical council manifests or puts on display, to some extent, what the church really is. What happens at ecumenical councils is more than the writing, debate, revision and approval of documents. At an ecumenical council, saints and sinners, the learned and the ignorant gather together. They share their faith, voice their concerns, pray, argue, gossip, forge alliances and compromises, enter into political intrigue, rise above that intrigue to discern the movements of the Spirit, worry about preserving the great tradition in which their identity is rooted, seek to understand the demands of the present moment and hope for a better future.

Isn’t that a beautiful description of the messy, incarnate, human reality of the church?

I suspect that persons from churches with congregational or presbyterian polity would also recognize that mixture of dynamics in the meetings of their governing structures.

But Congar’s point, I think, is that this is not restricted to juridical, governing acts of those entrusted with church oversight (episkope). Isn’t it true that in every gathering of the church, wherever “two or three are gathered” in Jesus’ name, there are “saints and sinners, the learned and the ignorant” who share their faith, voice their concerns, pray, and do all the things that a living human community does, but inspired, enlivened, and animated by the Spirit?

What does it mean to be church? This is part of what it means.

At a time when the terms “church” and “ecclesial community” can cause ecumenical difficulties, I found this reflection on the ecclesiality of a council to be particularly refreshing.

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