This feast seems unusual to our modern sensibilities. It makes little sense until we listen to the topiarion which proclaims the Council Fathers as “illuminaries on earth guiding us and all things to the true faith.” The kontakion continues in a similar vein: “The apostles’ preaching and the fathers’ teaching confirmed the church in a single faith.” The early history of the church is developed through synodal and conciliar structures. By these means our Christian faith grows. An explanatory passage is found in the fifth council, Constantinople II in 553:
The holy fathers – dealt with heresies and current problems by debate in common, since it was established as certain that when the disputed question is set out by each side in communal discussions the light of truth drives out the shadows of lying.
The truth cannot be made clear in any other way when there are debates about questions of faith, since everyone requires the assistance of his neighbour.”
Hence the importance of discussion and consent within the church.
The first two councils: Nicea I in 325 and Constantinople I in 381 resolved a good deal of the Arian controversy regarding the nature of Jesus Christ in relation to God the Father. The Nicean Creed also emerged from these councils. Ephesus in 431 defended Mary as Theotokos or God Bearer thus laying down the foundation of Christian devotion to Mary and emphasised the divinity of Christ. Chalcedon in 431 asserted Christ’s humanity. The following two councils, Constantinople II and III extended the work of Chalcedo by exploring further the relation between the humanity and divinity of Christ.
Councils, usually of a more local nature have continued to be held in the churches of the East and the West. It is an irony that the Roman Catholic Church has held historic councils from the medieval period until the present. The great Roman Catholic Councils of the modern period included the sixteenth century Council of Trent, the first Vatican Council of 1869-70 and the Second Vatican Council of 1962 – 1964 which re-established collegiality in Roman Catholic ecclesiology. There were other important councils such as those held in Latin America at Medellin, Puebla and Aparecida. The irony is that more than fifty years after Vatican II there is still dispute over its teaching, most especially over collegiality.
Perhaps that is the reason why today’s feast has been assigned the gospel reading from John 17. It is known as the priestly prayer of Jesus. It takes the form of a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer. In it Jesus prays for himself as he is about to return to his heavenly father. He also prays for his disciples who now inherit the mission of Jesus to the world in which we live. He prays for the unity of all which we so much need.
Fr Brian Kelty