There was need of a council not so much to oppose a particular heresy, as was the case in the early centuries, but rather to set in motion a sort of double process: on the one hand, overcoming the divisions in Christianity which had multiplied throughout the second millennium; on the other, reviving, as much as possible in common, the preaching of the Gospel on the threshold of the third millennium.
In light of this, as you rightly observe, the Second Vatican Council differed from earlier councils because of its particular style. It was not a defensive style. Not once in the Council documents do the words anathema sit appear. It was an ecumenical style, characterized by great openness to dialogue, a dialogue described by Pope Paul VI as a "dialogue of salvation."
This dialogue was not intended to be limited to Christians alone. It was meant to be open to non-Christian religions, and to reach the whole modern world, including those who do not believe. Truth, in fact, cannot be confined. Truth is for one and for all. And if this truth comes about through love (cf. Eph 4:15), then it becomes even more universal. This was the style of the Second Vatican Council and the spirit in which it took place.
This style and this spirit will be remembered as the essential truth about the Council, not the controversies between "liberals" and "conservatives"-controversies seen in political, not religious, terms-to which some people wanted to reduce the whole Council. In this spirit the Second Vatican Council will continue to be a challenge for all Churches and a duty for each person for a long time to come.
In the decades that have passed since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, we have been able to see how this challenge and this duty have been received under various conditions and at various levels. We saw this first with the post-conciliar synods-whether the general Synods of Bishops from all over the world convened by the Pope, or those of the individual dioceses or ecclesiastical provinces. I know from experience how this synodal approach responds to expectations of various groups and what it can achieve. I think of the diocesan synods which almost spontaneously got rid of the old unilateral emphasis on clergy and became a means for expressing the responsibility of each person toward the Church. The sense of communal responsibility toward the Church, felt especially by lay people today, is certainly a source of renewal. In view of the third millennium, this sense of responsibility will shape the image of the Church for generations to come.
In 1985, the twentieth anniversary of the Council's closing, an extraordinary Synod of Bishops was convened. I bring this up because from that Synod came the idea of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Some theologians, at times whole groups, spread the notion that there was no longer a need for a catechism, that it was an obsolete means of handing down the faith, and therefore should be abandoned. They also expressed the opinion that it would be impossible to create a catechism for the universal Church. These were the same groups that had earlier judged the Code of Canon Law, already called for by John XXIII, as useless and inappropriate. But the voice of the bishops assembled at the Synod painted an entirely different picture-the new Code had been a timely initiative which met a need within the Church.
The Catechism was also indispensable, in order that all the richness of the teaching of the Church following the Second Vatican Council could be preserved in a new synthesis and be given a new direction. Without the Catechism of the universal Church, this would not have been accomplished. On the basis of this text of the Church's Magisterium, individual groups could then go on to create their own catechisms according to local needs. In a relatively brief time the great synthesis was completed. The entire Church truly had a role in this. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, deserves particular credit in this regard. The Catechism, published in 1992, became a best-seller worldwide, proving the great demand for this type of text, which at first glance might seem to be of limited interest only.
And interest in the Catechism continues. We find ourselves faced with a new reality. The world, tired of ideology, is opening itself to the truth. The time has come when the splendor of this truth (veritatis splendor) has begun anew to illuminate the darkness of human existence. Even if it is too early to judge, if we consider how much has been accomplished and how much is being accomplished, it is clear that the Council will not remain a dead letter.
The Spirit who spoke through the Second Vatican Council did not speak in vain. The experience of these years allows us to glimpse the possibility of
a new openness toward God's truth, a truth the Church must preach "in season and out of season" (cf. 2 Tm 4:2). Every minister of the Gospel must be thankful and feel constantly indebted to the Holy Spirit for the gift of the Council. It will take many years and many generations to pay off this debt.