Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, we live in the light of its teachings. The
Council opened a new—and extremely significant—page in the Churchs long history.
Ecumenical councils are rare in the life of the Church. In the last 400 years there have
been only three: Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II. This article attempts to clarify how,
through Vatican II, the Church came to a deeper understanding of its own identity and its
relationship to the world.
I am well aware that this article will be read by three different groups of people. First,
there will be those who were adults before the Second Vatican Council and who knew a very
different Church from the one they now experience. Second, there will be those who, as
adults and teenagers, lived during the Council and shared in the enthusiasm that it generated,
as it offered a new and exciting vision of Church. Finally, there exists a whole generation
of Catholics for whom the Second Vatican Council is just something they have heard about
and who, therefore, never experienced the excitement and euphoria it engendered in the
Let me illustrate with a brief story. A little girl and her mother were on their way to
church one Sunday. The child was planning a valentine party for some of her little friends.
She asked, Mommy, could we stop and get the candy hearts for the party? Well do that
after Mass, the mother replied. At the preface the priest said the usual prayers. When
he invited people to Lift up your hearts, the little girl cried out, We cant, Father,
we didnt get them yet!
Engagement in Celebration
That story could not have happened in the all-Latin, pre-Vatican II liturgy. I tell it
because it is probably true to say that what comes to mind for most people when they think
of the Council is the dramatic effects it has had on what they do when they go to church
on Sunday. This is especially true of Catholics who were adults before the Council and
who therefore remember a Sunday Mass quite different from what they now experience.
The Mass of yesteryear took place on one side of the Communion rail, with parishioners
on the other side. The removal of the Communion rail in most churches is a strong symbol
that the Mass must no longer be thought of simply as something the priest does, with the
laity as interested spectators. The Mass is the worship action of the whole community of
The priest presides at the liturgy, but it is the whole community that celebrates. It
is the priests responsibility, as the leader of the eucharistic community, to see to it
that people understand clearly their role in liturgy. The Constitution on the Sacred
Liturgy stresses this when it tells pastors that it is their duty to ensure that the
faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and
enriched by it (#11).
Lest there be any doubt as to the full meaning of this charge given to those who preside
at the liturgy, they are told, It is very much the wish of the Church that all the faithful
should be led to take that full, conscious, and active part in liturgical celebrations
which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy... (#14).
In the 40 years since the Council, we have seen how, in varying degrees, this call to
participation has been achieved. What needs to be stressed is that the differences we experience
are not just changes in what we do, but changes in the way we think about
ourselves and about Church.
For so long a time, the word church had two meanings for most people. It was either
the building where they went to attend Mass or the world (or universal) Church headquartered
in Rome of which they were somehow members.
Vatican II, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and also in the Dogmatic
Constitution on the Church, offers a new and more fundamental meaning of Church. It
affirms that, for the laity, the most immediately pertinent meaning of Church is the
local community: the ordinary Tom, Dick and Mary, their friends and neighbors who gather
to celebrate their parish Eucharist together. This is what the word Church meant originally:
Gods people gathered together in one place called there by God. Both the Greek and the
Latin words for Church mean neither a building nor an organization, but rather a calling
together of people by God.
It is at the level of the local Church that we experience the reality of Church. It
is in the local Church that the saving activities of Church take place. It is in the local
Church that the Gospel is proclaimed and Baptism and Eucharist celebrated. It is in the
local Church that the presence of Christ and his love are experienced, that we gather to
remember his death and resurrection.
I remember years ago catechizing a group of third-graders. After class, one boy asked, Hey,
Father, what time is church? I chided him for not putting the question correctly. I told
that he should ask, What time is Mass? Now many years later I am still searching for
that lad. I have come to realize that I owe him an apology. His question was good theology.
What time is church? While the Church exists at all times, it achieves its highest actuality
when Gods people gather, at Gods call, to celebrate in the Eucharist the death and resurrection
of the Lord Jesus. That is why the liturgy document also says: ...[T]he liturgy is the
summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the source from
which all its power flows (#10).
This document makes it very clear that the Mass is made up of two parts (the Liturgy of
the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy), so closely connected with each other that they
form but one single act of worship (#56). Gone for good is the old-time division of the
Mass (that some readers may remember) into three principal parts: the offertory, the consecration
and the Communion. It was a division that accorded no place at all to the Scripture readings.
How things have changed!
of the Scriptures
Vatican II opened the pages of the Bible to the Catholic faithful. The document on liturgy
said that it is essential to promote that warm and lively appreciation of sacred Scripture so
important in the liturgies of both the Eastern and Western Churches (Constitution on
the Sacred Liturgy, #24).
In that same document, the Council called for more plentiful and varied readings from
the Bible than had been customary in the Mass. The treasures of the Bible are to be opened
up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of
Gods Word (#51).
We have seen the fruition of that call in the wonderful distribution of Scripture readings
at our Sunday liturgies. Catholics from pre-Vatican II days will recall that then there
were only two readings: an epistle and a Gospel, both read in Latin, with the Gospel also
read in English but only on Sundays. Moreover, the readings assigned for each Sunday were
the same year after year. The homily often had little or no relationship to the readings;
it was generally a sermon on some point of Catholic doctrine.
Vatican II, on the other hand, led to the introduction of three readings into the Sunday
liturgies, arranged over a three-year cycle: a move that would guarantee that richer fare of
readings from the Bible at our Sunday worship. More than that, the sermon was made an
integral part of the liturgy: It was to be a homily reflecting on the readings and the
way they could enrich our daily lives.
The homilys importance is underscored by another Vatican II document, the Dogmatic
Constitution on Divine Revelation, which insists that in order to provide healthy
nourishment for the congregation the liturgical homily should hold pride of place among
all the various forms of Christian instruction offered to Gods faithful people (#24).
Scripture was also given an honored place in the daily life of Catholics. The same document
urges us to learn by frequent study of the Scriptures the surpassing knowledge of Jesus
Christ (Philippians 3:8). It quotes the words of St. Jerome: Ignorance of the Scriptures
is ignorance of Christ and those of St. Ambrose: We speak to him when we pray; we listen
to him when we read the divine oracles (#25).
With Real Presence
Catholics have always strongly defended the truth of the Real Presence of Jesus in the
Eucharist. Vatican II considerably widened our understanding of Real Presence.
One of the documents issued by Pope Paul VI to implement the Councils liturgical directives
states that the faithful should be instructed in the principal ways in which the Lord
is present to his Church in liturgical celebrations. First, he is present in the community
as they gather for worship; second, he is present in the Word, for it is he who speaks
when the Scriptures are read in the Church; third, he is present in the priest who presides
at the liturgy; finally, he is present under the species of the bread and wine. This presence
of Christ under the species is called real, not in an exclusive sense, as if the other
kinds of presence were not real, but par excellence.
For all too long, the prevailing attitude in the Church had seen the laity as second-class
members expected to live the commandments but not called to lives of holiness as were priests
and religious. In the years before the Council, there were efforts fermenting in the Church
that sought to emphasize the call to discipleship that came from Baptism. I recall being
involved in the late 40s and 50s in the family renewal movement. This involved groups
of married couples who gathered twice a year for prayer, reflection and discussion on their
lives as married people.
For the first time, many of them came to the realization that their married life was a
vocation from God. Heretofore, they had been led to believe that vocation meant priesthood
or religious life. What a joy it was for them to let go of this restrictive notion of vocation
and see themselves as equally called by God.
The Council embraced this much wider notion of vocation. The Dogmatic Constitution
on the Church makes abundantly clear that the call to holiness of life is addressed,
not to a select few, but to all followers of Jesus. All Christians in whatever state
or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of
charity (#40). Thus, married couples, for example, are invited with faithful love,
[to] support one another in grace all through life (#41).
Share in the Mission
Catholic Action, a movement of Catholic laity strongly encouraged by Pope Pius XI in his
labor encyclical of 1931 (Quadragesimo Anno), called for the participation of the
laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy. Many groups of lay workers and students eagerly
joined in this movement. Its watchword was: Everything by the layperson, nothing without
the priest. It was always clearly spelled out that the apostolate belonged only to
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church goes beyond this understanding and sees
the lay apostolate as a sharing in the Churchs saving mission, to which all are appointed
through Baptism and Confirmation (#33). The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity states
that they exercise their apostolate therefore in the world as well as in the Church (#5).
They cooperate with their pastors and bishops for the good of the local parish and the
In this context, they have, as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church says, the
right, even at times the duty, to speak up and express their position in matters in which
they are knowledgeable and competent (see #37). In a special way, they witness to the gospel
in the temporal order, working with their fellow citizens for the common good, as they
seek to penetrate the world with the spirit of Christ and to work effectively for the goals
of justice and peace.
We All May Be One
Pope Benedict XVI, in his talk to the cardinals after his election, said that the quest
for full visible Christian unity would be the primary commitment of his pontificate,
calling it his ambition and compelling duty. He pledged himself to do all in his power
to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism and to cultivate any initiative that may
seem appropriate to promote contact and agreement with representatives from the various
churches and ecclesial communities.
This ambitious resolve is very much in keeping with Vatican IIs Decree on Ecumenism.
This decree broke new ground in the way that Roman Catholics spoke about other Christian
communities. Catholics respect and take joy in the truly Christian endowments of our
separated brothers and sisters, endowments that come from our common heritage (#4).
Ecumenical dialogue between competent persons of various Christian communities is now
seen as essential. The dialogue must recognize the need for all Christs followers to turn
away from infidelities. It is important also in the dialogue not to sweat the little
things, for in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since
they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith (Decree on Ecumenism,
It remains true, though, that this decree does not abandon the Churchs belief that it
is the one true Church of Christ. On the other hand, it is fair to say that its major focus
is on pilgrim people moving toward deeper obedience to Christ and striving to open their
hearts to the Spirit who alone can make possible what Jesus so ardently prayed for at the
Last Supper: that they may be one (John 17:11).
to the World
Previous Church councils concerned themselves largely with internal Church affairs: doctrines
and discipline. If they spoke to the world at all, it was, all too frequently, to criticize
or condemn. Vatican II spoke to the world in a new language—one of openness, compassion
and even a sense of identification.
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, entitled Gaudium
et Spes (Joy and Hope), affirms the Churchs readiness to respond to [t]he
joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those
who are poor or afflicted (#1). This document is discussed elsewhere in this issue,
but I would like to quote from the moving words of its final article: Christians can
yearn for nothing more ardently than to serve the people of this age successfully
with increasing generosity (#93, italics added).
This call to serve embodies a dominant thrust of the Council documents. Father Yves Congar,
one of the theologians involved in preparing the Council documents, when asked to sum up
the intent of the Council, responded with a single word: Service.
Msgr. William H. Shannon, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, is professor
emeritus of religious studies at Nazareth College in Rochester. Msgr. Shannon’s interests
include not only Church history but also the life and work of Thomas Merton. Among his
more recent books is Here
on the Way to There: A Catholic Perspective on Dying and What Follows, published
by St. Anthony Messenger Press.
Council's 16 Documents
by Michael J. Daley
By the close of the Second Vatican Council in December 1965, the Council had issued
four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations, totaling about 1,000 pages—more
than twice the length of the documents approved at the Council of Trent (1545-63).
Constitutions describe doctrinal matters, decrees address possible reforms on a topic
and declarations focus on the Churchs current teaching about a topic.
First Session: October 11-December 8, 1962
The bishops elect their own members to the Councils various committees. They begin
debating rough drafts of texts and calling for new documents, but issue no texts.
Second Session: September 29-December 4, 1963
Two documents are promulgated on December 4:
• Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) seeks to encourage
and bring about full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy. Open to change regarding nonessentials,
it leads to the reintroduction of the vernacular.
• Decree on the Mass Media (Inter Mirifica) recognizes the great potential (and possible
abuse) of media forms: newspapers, movies, radio and television. It sees the media as a means to communicate
Third Session: September 14-November 21, 1964
Three documents are promulgated on November 21:
• Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) envisions the Church as a sign
and sacrament of God. It speaks of the hierarchy as serving the entire Church, the People of God, and
calls the whole Church, rather than just the ordained, to a life of holiness.
• Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) desires the restoration of union,
not simply a return to Rome, among all Christians. It admits that both sides were to blame for historical
divisions and gives guidelines for ecumenical activities.
• Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum) expresses an appreciation
for these Churches and urges a renewal of their institutions, liturgies and traditions.
Fourth Session: September 14-December 8, 1965
Five documents are promulgated on October 28:
• Decree on the Bishops Pastoral Office in the Church (Christus Dominus) speaks
of the rights and responsibilities of bishops, both in union with the pope and as applied to their particular
dioceses. In addition, it revives the ancient practice of episcopal conferences.
• Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis) asks
that religious return to their vision and, when appropriate, adapt themselves to changing culture.
• Decree on Priestly Formation (Optatam Totius) revises seminary training, emphasizing
that students need to be grounded in the Scriptures, worship and pastoral ministry. It also promotes
continued learning for those already ordained.
• Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis) states that education,
as the formation of the whole person, is a human right—not a privilege. Parents are seen as the primary
educators in faith. Catholic schools and colleges are mentioned as important sources of faith formation.
• Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate)
revolutionizes the Churchs relationship with other world religions, especially Judaism, by admitting
that they too possess truth and holiness. It repudiates anti-Semitism and the notion that Jews are guilty
for the death of Jesus.
Two documents are promulgated on November 18:
• Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) says that Jesus is the
mediator and fullness of Gods revelation. The word of God is revealed in both Scripture and tradition.
The teaching office of the Church (the magisterium) is entrusted with the task of authentically interpreting
the word of God.
• Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) says that lay
faithful, as a result of their Baptism, are called to be leaven in the world. Not only do the laity have
unique gifts to offer the Church, but they are also called by their Baptism to share in the temporal
order—family, culture, economics, arts, professions and politics.
Four documents are promulgated on December 7:
• Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) argues that, by virtue of
each ones humanity, all people have the right to live according to their conscience in the exercise
of their religious beliefs. The Church renounces any government attempts at religious coercion. This
was a radical departure from the Churchs previous official teaching.
• Decree on the Churchs Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes) says that, by its very nature,
the Church is missionary because it proclaims the message of Jesus the Christ to all humanity. It stresses
that missionaries must be respectful of the cultures in which they share the person of Jesus.
• Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) says that, mindful
of the changing culture, the priest is charged with leading people to Christ. This is to be done through
the priests own witness and the celebration of the sacraments, chiefly the Eucharist.
• Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) says
the Church must respond to the signs of the times. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties
of the people of the world are shared by the Church, which offers itself in service to the whole of humanity.
Michael J. Daley teaches at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He
recently coedited (with William Madges) Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories (Twenty-Third