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Vatican II, 40 years on

FORTY years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, the deep transformation it set in motion continues to reverberate through the Church at every level, from the halls of the Vatican to parish pews.

The council’s four sessions from 1962-65 and its 16 landmark documents modernised the liturgy, renewed the priesthood and religious life, enhanced the role of lay Catholics, opened dialogue with other Churches and non-Christians, and identified the Church as the “people of God” attuned to the problems and hopes of the world.

Although the council defined no new dogma, Catholics who lived through the Vatican II era will never forget the changes – some of them abrupt – that visited their Church communities in the mid-1960s.

Altars were turned around so that priests faced the people. The Mass in Latin gave way to Mass in the vernacular.

Other sacraments were updated and simplified. Men and women religious adopted a more modern form of dress.

Not all the changes were immediate, however. Church leaders began a long and sometimes contentious process of revising nearly every area of pastoral life, from the teaching of religion to lay ministries.

“The council represented a Copernican revolution for the Church, which challenged itself by asking how it could reopen a dialogue with the modern world,” said Fr Dario Vitali, who teaches Church history at Rome’s Gregorian University.

“Through the council, the Church drew closer to contemporary men and women and made the Gospel meaningful to them.

“If there had been no Vatican II, I think the Church today would be a small minority, closed off in rites incomprehensible to the modern mentality,” Fr Vitali said.

Not everyone in the Church sees the council as a positive thing. Some Catholics are still nostalgic for the old ways of worship, and at times some Church officials – including several in Rome – have criticised the way Vatican II has been understood and implemented.

In many cases, the ongoing debate reflects issues that were argued heatedly on the floor of the council.

December 8 marked the anniversary of the close of the council in 1965, and Rome and the Vatican have been hosting several commemorative encounters to reflect on how far the Church has come over the last four decades.

Pope Benedict XVI participated in the council as a theological expert.

Although he has criticised some post-conciliar changes, the Pope has made it clear that Vatican II will be the “compass” of his papacy.

The Pope also has emphasised that implementation of the council is an ongoing task in the Church, not just something that happened 40 years ago.

One goal is to make sure Vatican II is not viewed as ancient history by young generations of Catholics.

“Younger Catholics may not be as intellectually aware of the council, but they are continually experiencing its effects,” said Alberto Melloni, a Church historian of the Vatican II period.

“Thanks to the council, young people have been taught to see the world not simply as a threat to Christian life, but as an opportunity to announce the Gospel.”

The theological ferment of the mid-20th century helped lay the groundwork for Vatican II.

Pioneering theologians like Dominican Father Yves Congar and Jesuit Fathers John Courtney Murray and Henri de Lubac were trying to build bridges between Christianity’s ancient truths and the contemporary world.

All three were silenced in some fashion by the Vatican during the 1950s, but re-emerged to become important voices of the council.

Pope John XXIII surprised almost everyone when, after only three months as pontiff, he announced he was convening the council.

The pope spoke of the need to update the Church and promote Christian unity. Above all, he said, he wanted to show the modern world that the Church had been transformed and intellectually reinvigorated.

Pope John said the world was marked by spiritual poverty and needed the Church’s vitality. But, as he later told the council, the Church wanted to offer the modern world the “medicine of mercy” and not severe condemnations.

Preparation for the council took almost three years, and Pope John, already diagnosed with cancer when it began, presided over only the first of four annual autumn sessions in 1962.

The invitation to Protestants, Orthodox and other non-Catholics to attend had already made Vatican II a historic event.

Pope Paul VI guided the completion of the council’s work, presiding over the other three sessions and directing the important follow-up work in areas of liturgy, ecumenism, religious life and evangelisation.

Between 2000 and 2500 bishops attended each Vatican II session, and participants have said the debates ranged from free-wheeling to finely tuned, with verbal skirmishes not uncommon.

From the beginning, bishops recognised that their task was not just updating Church practices but also a process of “ressourcement”, or going back to the sources of the faith.

There was a sense among participants that they were indeed making history, said Bishop Frank Fernando of Chilaw, Sri Lanka, one of a handful of still active bishops to have participated in a session of the council.

“The debate was very systematic, with a great exchange of ideas. The documents would come back again and again with amendments, which the bishops would study. That’s why these are very polished documents – it was not just a matter of bringing them in one day and passing them the next.”

In the end, the council issued four constitutions – on the liturgy, the Church’s structure and nature, on the Church in the modern world and on divine revelation. It produced nine decrees – on the Church and the media, ecumenism, Eastern Catholic Churches, bishops, priestly formation, religious life, the laity, priestly ministry and missionary activity.

It issued three declarations – on non-Christian religions, Christian education and religious freedom.

Most experts list the council’s biggest achievement as a new way of understanding the Church – as the “people of God” and not simply a hierarchical structure, and as a “sacrament” to the world with an active mission in all sectors of human society.

Lumen Gentium presented the Church as a mystery and a communion of baptised believers moving toward heaven as one body that is holy, yet imperfect while on earth.

Although organised hierarchically, the Church as a communion is a living body whose individual members are called to holiness and who each have specific roles, rights and responsibilities, the document said.

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) was written more for the average reader and was approved in 1965, during the council’s last vote.

Bishop Fernando remembers the moment well.

He said he considers Gaudium et Spes as the most important thing to come out of the council. He said many bishops thought the council had spoken in previous documents primarily to experts and specialists and wanted this document to communicate a message to the whole world.

Gaudium et Spes called on the Church to engage in dialogue with contemporary society and its problems, bringing Church teaching and moral values to bear on a world too often torn by hatred, war and injustice.

In the years after its close, the renewal outlined by the council was refined and codified in a number of decrees, norms and changes in canon law.

The Church witnessed countless changes:

  • The new Roman Missal was issued in 1970, with a new cycle of readings designed to offer a richer selection of Scripture. The liturgical calendar was simplified. The rites for sacraments were revised, emphasising the communal aspects of their celebration.
  • The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was revived and reformed. As the changes took places, active liturgical participation increased dramatically in many local communities.
  • Lay ministries multiplied. Lay readers and lay ministers of Communion appeared during Mass. Laity were represented on parish councils and diocesan boards, and lay men and women replaced clerics in administrative Church positions.
  • Throughout the Church, there was a renewed attention to Scriptures, in liturgy and in individual spirituality.
  • Eastern Catholic Churches were encouraged to return to their own traditions, ending a period of Latinisation and opening a new appreciation of variety within the universal Church.
  • Ecumenism flourished, in formal dialogue between Catholic officials and other Christian Churches, and in prayer and fellowship encounters at the local level.
  • After the council acknowledged the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, dialogue also began with other religions.
  • Religious life changed dramatically, as religious orders adopted Vatican norms and rewrote their own constitutions, taking a new look at issues of authority, community and identity.
  • The council restored the permanent diaconate as a ministry and allowed married men to be ordained deacons. Today, there are more than 29,000 permanent deacons around the world.
  • The council’s teaching that the pope and bishops together form a single collegial body led to a new appreciation for bishops and bishops’ conferences. The Synod of Bishops was formed to meet regularly and advise the Pope.
  • Theology was revitalised, especially moral theology, which focused increasingly on biblical sources and the individual conscience, and less on Church law or authority.
  • The council underlined the Church’s solidarity with humanity instead of its separation from the secular world, and this led to a mushrooming of social and charitable activities. Church leaders spoke frequently about the Church’s identification with the poor and suffering, and the Pope became a strong human rights advocate.

At the same time, the Church experienced some worrisome developments, including a dramatic drop in vocations and an increase in the number of priests and religious seeking laicisation. Mass attendance fell in many places, many Catholics abandoned the Sacrament of Penance, and dissent on certain teachings, such as birth control, was widespread.

All that has helped fuel a 40-year debate over the proper reading and realisation of the council.

Pope Benedict has been a sometimes critical voice in this debate. But he always distinguished between the council and its implementation, saying that what hurt the Church in the decade following Vatican II was “not the council but the refusal to accept it”.


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