Fifty years ago, some 2,800 bishops, hundreds of theologians, lay participants and non-Catholic observers from 116 countries gathered in Rome. This assembly, “quite possibly the biggest meeting in the history of the world” (O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II), was the twenty-first worldwide Council of the Church, more popularly known as the Second Vatican Council. Led successively by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, what emerged was an intense examination of the voice of the Holy Spirit that would lead to change the way members of the world’s largest Christian denomination viewed themselves, their Church and the rest of the world.
Vatican II radically shaped the way of living of the Catholic Church in the 20th and 21st centuries, and its documents are as relevant today as ever. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI declared 2012–2013 as the “Year of Faith” to mark the anniversary of Vatican II. This year, he said, will provide a “new impetus to the mission of the whole Church to lead men… to the place of life, of friendship with Christ.”
The incredible Council was convoked by the good Pope John XXIII who said frequently that he convened the council because he thought it was time to open the windows and let in some fresh air. Explicitly, he pointed out two purposes for the Council: the renewal or aggiornamento (getting up to date) of the Catholic Church and Christian unity. In brief, the goal of the council was to restore the Church’s energies for the apostolate and search for new forms best adapted to its present-day needs. The Church had to show herself alive and well in the midst of the challenges of the present world. That was the agenda of Vatican II, so we can ask to ourselves: has Vatican II really achieved its objective?
There are certainly substantial achievements. The most obvious result of Vatican II is the liturgical reform. In fact, priests started celebrating Mass in the language of the countries in which they lived, and they faced the congregation, not only to be heard and seen but also to signal to worshippers that they were being included because they were a vital component of the service. Vatican II “called for people not to have passive participation but active participation.”
Moreover, a nineteenth century Catholic would be amazed at the transformation of the papacy. For instance, pope Pius IX, who denounced democracy and progress would have been amazed at the thought of some of his successors travelling round the world and upholding human rights, democracy and justice.
In Catholic countries, where formerly the Church was ready to turn a blind eye to political abuses in return for a guarantee of its privileges and rights, with Vatican II, the Church is, or is expected to be, at the forefront of protest against the infringement of people’s freedom and rights. By her involvement in fight against injustice, oppressive economic and politic systems, the Catholic Church sent out the message that it was part of the modern world, “Not against, not above, not apart, but in the modern world”. In addition, the council documents say there must be a dialogue between the Church and the world. The Church, by its teaching and by its discipleship, has something to say to the world. At the same time, the world is saying something to the Church.
Similarly, what was once a fortress Church is now seriously engaged in dialogue with non-Christian religions as well as other Christian bodies. In fact, before Vatican II Catholics, somehow, looked down on other religions and thought of them as condemned to hell: “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus means” (outside the church there is no salvation). But one document from the council (Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian religions) brought a drastic change. It acknowledged that these disparate faiths had, somehow, a common belief in God. Perhaps the biggest of these changes came in the Church’s approach to Judaism. Pior to Vatican II, Jews were stigmatized as the people who killed Jesus Christ. That changed with the Council, when the Catholic Church acknowledged its Jewish roots and Jews’ covenant with God.
Finally, as Pope John Paul II has said, one of the most important achievements of the Council was the rediscovery of the charismatic dimension of the Church. The late pope also sees the new charismatic movements and communities as being an answer to Pope John’s dream of a new Pentecost. Of course, this unexpected phenomenon was not planned or predicted by Vatican II, but nevertheless it represents a concrete realization of the Council’s Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). In fact, at the heart of Lumen Gentium is the idea of communion between all the baptized whatever their state in the Church, whether clerical or religious or lay.
To conclude this little presentation, it’s wise to emphasize that although Vatican II was a catalyst for a great deal of change in the Church, it was neither about replacing what the Church is, nor about denying or condemning the Council of Trent or any other prior Councils. It was about helping the Church to be more vital, more in touch with the modern world. In short, Vatican II was about helping the Church to be more what God intended her to be: a Mother who cares for all her Children, including those who are still out.