Cardinal Roger Etchegaray speaks with CNA in Rome on Oct. 17, 2014. / Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

Rome Newsroom, Oct 12, 2022 / 07:20 am (CNA).

Few remember today, 60 years after Vatican II, that one of the outcomes of that monumental event was the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences. 

The CCEE originated from a discussion among European bishops at the Second Vatican Council. Its own story today is one of an ecclesial institution that shares in telling the story of Europe.

What first was an informal network of bishops was formally established by Pope Paul VI.

The idea of the CCEE came about in a “simple note” written by Monsignor Roger Etchegaray, then general secretary of the French Bishops’ Conference. 

Running over two short pages, this typewritten document covered several brief points and summarized the thoughts of those days.

It was this note that inspired the formation of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences, a network of presidents of bishops’ conferences that today looks to a united and visible Europe from a Christian perspective, from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains.

The council as a place of gathering 

When Pope ​​John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, he shared the vision of a place of gathering, fostering exchange and engagement.

This builder of bridges, formerly an apostolic delegate to Bulgaria and Turkey and nuncio to Paris, understood the dream of European humanism like few others. 

John XXIII also thought of an ecumenical council as an opportunity for encounter, for a renewal of the Church from the ground up, but not — and this is an overwhelming fact — in a political or doctrinal sense. 

The idea was not to change sacred doctrine but to rebuild the Church, beyond walls and divisions, to reconcile her with the world in the light of the Gospel: a world in which the Church could belong to everyone, and everyone could belong to the Church.

In this open climate, there was space for many meetings around the four council sessions. Here, in this space, was a genuinely synodal Church. For Europe’s bishops, there was room to meet, exchange views, and share experiences. 

Europe at that time

It was a time of turmoil in Europe. The Second Vatican Council helped with new ideas. 

In 1965, Polish bishops sent a letter of reconciliation to German bishops. The letter was conceived by Cardinal Boleslaw Kominek, himself a Silesian and archbishop of Wroclaw. 

Across the continent, many new initiatives were springing up:

  1. There was the “worker-priest” movement, mainly in France and Belgium.

  2. There was the development of the ecumenical movement, seeking the unity that Jesus Christ desired.

  3. There was the experience of the so-called “Churches of Silence” beyond the Iron Curtain.

In this climate, the French cleric and later cardinal Etchegaray took the initiative. 

Etchegaray was the organizer of the first prayer meeting among religions in Assisi in 1985. He opened the way for a papal trip to Cuba at the end of the 1980s, and Pope John Paul II sent the experienced diplomat to Iraq in an effort to avoid the Second Gulf War.

How a ‘simple note’ inspired the CCEE

Etchegaray’s note is dated Nov. 4, 1965. In those two pages, the cleric highlighted the diversity of exchanges that were taking place in Europe. 

He underlined the need, arising from various conversations, to seek pastoral collaboration between the episcopal conferences of Europe.

Etchegaray wrote that the note did “not pretend to be exhaustive” or seek “to be exclusive.” He hoped “a genuine effort” could be made to interest as many bishops’ conferences across the continent as possible. 

Europe was here considered a geographical — not a political — entity, from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains.

At the same time, the inspiration to launch such an initiative was made possible by a decree of the Second Vatican Council. 

Vatican II’s document about the pastoral office of bishops in the Church, Christus dominus, states: “Wherever special circumstances require and with the approbation of the Apostolic See, bishops of many nations can establish a single conference.”

In what he calls “a pastoral note,” Etchegaray thinks of “two practical measures”: First, the establishment of a composite commission with delegated bishops, and second, a regular exchange of information between bishops’ conferences.

Etchegaray also made an overview of the situation in Europe at the time. 

He noted the rise of European institutions after World War II and the creation of European officials. He wrote that the free movement of workers would allow for “the multiplication of European trade,” but that 45 million “Europeans always on the go” would also create a “Europe of holidays” that should not be underestimated. 

In that “suggestive” note — as Etchegaray writes in another passage — there is also the intuition that European broadcasting contributed to European culture, together with the so-called European schools, which sprung up in various places, including Luxembourg, Italy, and Belgium.

The note is almost prophetic regarding some of the social and political challenges arising. 

There is a point about “human, social, religious problems arising from the migration of workers.” There is mention of problems deriving from a “contemporary atheism born of a technical civilization.” And again, Etchegaray mentions “tourism and the mixing of peoples,” together with other factors.  

Etchegaray also highlights the “opportunity and risks of the increasingly massive presence of the Muslim world in Christian Europe.”

It was an innovative thought at the time — and today is extraordinarily current.

At the same time, Etchegaray lists a series of European initiatives that had already developed in those years, from conversations and symposia on topics as diverse as parishes and tourism to the Catholic Information Office on European Problems in Strasbourg, France. 

These were all starting points for an effort of “concerted pastoral care,” wrote Etchegaray.

At the same time, the French cleric warned of “creating a superstructure” and placing everything in the universal Church’s perspective.

The roots and role of the CCEE

From this note, a series of meetings took place until, in 1971, Pope Paul VI gave an institutional form to the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe.

Over the past five decades, the CCEE assisted in giving bishops from all over Europe a voice in times of great crisis but also of great inspiration.

The presence of the CCEE today suggests that the Second Vatican Council’s great fruits are made possible by felicitous encounters and by pastors sincerely interested in evangelization.

The Europe of today is very different from the Europe of the time of Vatican II. It was a simple note, borne not from the formal sessions of the council but the informal meetings of those years, that helped to bring about the role this important institution plays today, sharing in telling the story of Europe.