There is so much barbarism and tragedy in the world today. Why, then, am I blogging again on the Second Vatican Council? Simple. Others far more competent and knowledgeable than I are already offering their own insights. I also believe that the Council, fifty years on, continues to offer us a point of view — a hermeneutic, if you will — through which to confront today’s pastoral challenges.
With that in mind, I recently came across an interview given fifty years ago by the influential young Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Austria, Franz Cardinal Koenig. Before turning to the interview itself, however, it will be helpful to know something about the man himself.
Franz Koenig was born in 1905 into a farming family, the eldest of five children. At the age of fourteen he entered the seminary for the diocese of Sankt Pölten, Austria. He studied ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy and humanities; he drew and painted and wrote poetry and drama. He continued his education in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he obtained a doctorate in philosophy in 1930. He was ordained a priest in 1933 and earned another doctorate in theology in 1936. Throughout his time in the university he took courses on experimental psychology, biology, mineralogy, physics, chemistry and languages, but he wasn’t finished yet. He continued post-doctoral studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome (old-Persian religion and languages) and then obtained a fellowship for two semesters at the Faculty of Sociology of the Catholic University of Lille, France, where he obtained a diploma. He spoke German, English, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian and Latin, and could understand Syriac, ancient Persian and Hebrew. His language skills would later prove invaluable on his many missions as a papal representative.
In 1937, he returned to his home diocese and took on a variety of pastoral ministries, often involving the youth of the diocese. Due to the Nazi regime in Austria, Fr. Koenig’s activities in teaching youth in defiance of Nazi law, made him a target of the Gestapo. After the war, he was sent back to school in preparation for an academic career. In 1945, when the University of Vienna reopened and he took courses in law, finance and economics, statistics, political science, linguistics, Syriac texts, ancient and modern history, modern philosophy, comparative anatomy, methodology of botany, morphology of plants, and more. He served as Professor of religion at the College of Krems from 1945-1948. In 1947, he also became a lecturer on the Old Testament and on comparative theology at the University of Vienna. Finally, he taught moral theology at the University of Salzburg from 1948 until 1952, when he was ordained a bishop at the age of 47. Within four years, at the age of 50, he became the Archbishop of Vienna and was one of the first Cardinals named by St. John XXIII in 1958. When he died in 2004 at the age of 98, he was last remaining Cardinal made by Pope John. Cardinal Koenig was a close friend of Pope John’s, and his duties as Cardinal involved outreach to non-Christians and to a variety of locales around the world. He was a strong proponent of outreach to all peoples, once saying that “As chaplain in St Pölten, I learned that I have to go to the people, that they must know me before we can have any meaningful talk,” he said. “So when I came to Vienna, I had no great political strategy or concept. I simply felt that I wanted contact with people of every persuasion. . . . I wanted a dialogue with all people, and that included the leading political figures.”
In 1964, the Council was in its Third Session. Cardinal Koenig granted an interview which focused on the work of the Council as it was beginning to see the final directions various issues were going to take. The Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) had already been promulgated at the end of the previous session (1963), and work was nearing completion on the landmark Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium). Much work remained, but the end was in sight, even if it would take a fourth and final session to complete everything. And at the beginning of the interview, Koenig offered a wonderful insight about the work of the Council: “The switches are now thrown in the right direction.” The metaphor is most apt, emphasizing that the impact of the Council itself will only truly be known in the decades following the event of the Council. The Council was putting the institutional Church on a particular course, and only in the years to come would the results of those “thrown switches” be known.
He continued the image by saying, “We must appreciate the overall influence emanating from these deliberations, the impact resulting from them and we should realize that the gears certainly cannot be thrown into reverse anymore.” Citing the work going on with dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium)and the document on the pastoral responsibilities of bishops (the Decree Christus Dominus), Koenig observed that “easily 80% of the council Fathers are fully behind the innovations now proposed, especially in regard to what has been called the collegial principle, which in practice implies a decentralization and internationalization of the Church.” He was being very conservative in his estimates. By the time the final voting on these documents took place, Lumen gentium was approved by a vote of 2,151 placet to 5 non placet, and Christus Dominus by a vote of 2,319 placet to 2 non placet.
Throughout the interview, Cardinal Koenig keeps to his theme that the Council is only the beginning of reform. Citing world hunger as one example, he says, “We should face [it] realistically by expressing our concern for it and thereby inaugurate the sort of collective initiatives which eventually lead to tangible results.”
For we who serve fifty years later, I suggest that this long-range view remains essential in our own approach to ministry and the terrible pastoral needs of the world today. How practical and yet how humble is the attitude expressed by so many of the Council Fathers, as we see in this particular case. They fully accepted that the problems of the world would be best served, not merely by trying to devise immediate, tactical responses, but rather to place the Church on a proper course and to “inaugurate” strategic initiatives which might only bear fruit years later.
As we serve today, focused on the immediate needs of our people, do we also allow ourselves to be long-range thinkers and dreamers? How might we “throw switches in the right direction” so that parishioners fifty or one hundred years from now will benefit, long after we are gone? What will be the long-range implications of what we do today? Certainly there are matters that cannot be left for the future: barbarism, terror and violence demand immediate attention! And yet, in addition to thinking tactically, how might we also plan strategically?
 The full interview may be found at Placid Jordan, OSB, “Interview with Cardinal Koenig,” in Council Daybook: Vatican II: Session 3, September 14 to November 21, 1964 (Washington, DC: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1965), 181. All quotations in this column are taken from that interview.