Otto Hermann PESCH.  The Second Vatican Council – Pre-history, Event, Results & Post-history, (Translated by Deirdre Dempsey) Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2014. Pp 412. $35.00 pb.  ISBN 978-1-62600-702-4.  Reviewed by Francis BERNA, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA 19141

December 8, 2015 marks the Fiftieth Anniversary of the solemn closing of the Second Vatican Council.  Likewise, at the direction of Pope Francis, it marks the beginning of a Holy Year centered on the theme of Mercy.  The juxtaposed events call to mind Karl Rahner’s common enough statement that every ending marks but a new beginning.

            Otto Pesch refers to and directly quotes Rahner frequently throughout his text.  The reader can sense that Dr. Pesch who died the year of the book’s publication in English not only valued Rahner’s contribution to the Council, but with Rahner would share convictions about the work remaining to be done.

            In this very well-organized text the author treats key documents as well as the Council itself according to his schema of Pre-history, Event, Results, and Post-history.  The reader gains a clear sense of the work that set the stage for the Council and its most significant teachings, as well as what the Fathers were actually able to put into writing.

            Marking the anniversaries of the Council and particular documents has brought other texts to market.  A few words of comparison will highlight the particular contribution of the current text.  Certainly following the trajectory of the Council’s history would be John O’Malley’s two books, Tradition and Transition and What Happened at Vatican II?  The second text provides a fuller treatment of the historical perspectives, and often gives a “behind the scenes look” at some of the key personalities at work.  Yves Congar’s My Journal of the Council offers a real insider’s view to the incredible work put into writing and editing the texts as well as his personal observations regarding key players.

            This, of course, raises a question, “why bother with another historical overview?”  One immediate response concerns the audience.  Pesch offers the perspective of Germany, and to a lesser extent Europe, with the text fashioned from lectures given to a largely Protestant audience.  Given the audience, he provides clear explanations of technical terms along with specific examples with clarity.  These characteristics prove helpful not only for Protestants, but also for Catholics who are not old enough to remember, or who have perhaps “conveniently forgotten” Roman Catholic life prior to the Council.  One such example consists of a solid description of the Sunday Mass as well as a typical Sunday schedule for a parish.

            Of greater significance would be Pesch’s frequent correlations with Lutheran belief.  Pesch also details the contribution of Lukas Visher from the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.  Visher circumvented protocol and forwarded a “schema for the modern world” to Bishop Guano who headed the commission drafting Gaudium et spes (297-298). Guano then forwarded the schema to commission members and the Pope.  Neither O’Malley nor Congar make note of this detail.

            A continued comparison with other recent books would have to include the work of Masssimo Faggioli – Vatican II, the Battle for Meaning and True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in “Sacrosanctum Concilium.”  Again, Pesch compares well particularly along the lines of “results” and “post-history.”  Both authors recognize the ongoing challenges of implementing the Council’s teachings.  Pesch takes on the perspective of “restoration.”  Like O’Malley, Faggioli focuses more on the theme of development regarding Council teachings.  Pesch tends to concentrate on identifying what has not be done.

            In the concluding chapter Pesch writes of his hopes and some of the dynamics of the Council that cannot be turned back.  He again makes reference to Rahner to identify a critical reform left undone.  Returning from the Council Rahner provided a lecture which Pesch attended as a student.  There Rahner made a point frequently enough noted in his subsequent writings.  At the Council, the Church did not “crossover to the third epoch of its history.”  While things were in place to become a “world church” concerned with “worldwide humanity”, particularly as evidenced in the Council’s implementation, the Roman Church has largely remained rooted in western culture.  But, as Pesch proposes, the faithful will not return to an exclusively “top down” exercise of authority, nor en masse embrace a return to a pre-conciliar liturgy.  So too, perhaps, the Spirit will continue to push forward an authentic crossing over to a new way of being Church.