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Whether you lived through the updating and changes brought by Vatican II, were born shortly after, or consider it ancient history, all of today’s Catholics are affected by this important council. Read Father Berard Doerger’s Top 10 List of achievements of the Council. Consider how well you and your parish have embraced these changes. Accept the challenge “to continue to grow in acquaintance, appreciation, and admiration” of the Council’s teachings and its vision for the people of God.  

Ten Achievements of Vatican II
By: Berard Doerger, OFM

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Pope John XXIII announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council to a group of cardinals on Sunday, January 25, 1959. As he was returning to the Vatican after this announcement, the crowds gathered along the Roman streets greeted him with applause. Someone cried out: “Long live the ecumenical council!”

It has lived long, some would say, but Vatican II is actually still in its infancy. Many profound changes have occurred in the Catholic Church as a result of the Council and its teachings. We must continue to grow in acquaintance, appreciation, and admiration of the Second Vatican Council and its teachings in order to fully embrace its vision for our Church.

Vatican II began on October 11, 1962, and officially ended on December 8, 1965. Though the Council occurred decades ago, it lives on in the way the Church is living, loving, and worshiping in a life renewed by the foundations laid out in its 16 documents. These documents cover almost all areas of the Catholic faith—our relationship with God, with fellow Catholics, with other Christians and non-Christians, and with all of creation.

The teachings in these documents are grounded in sacred Scripture, and they present us with an updated vision of the Church and its role in restoring all things in Christ. Pope Benedict XVI has said of the documents of Vatican II, “[They] have not lost their timelessness; their teachings have shown themselves to be especially pertinent to the new needs of the Church and the present globalized society.” Pope John Paul II referred to them as “a compass with which to orient ourselves in the vast ocean of the third millennium.”

Vatican II, the Church’s 21st ecumenical council, will surely be remembered by historians as one of the most important and influential in the history of the Church. The Council was an amazing event if we consider the magnitude of its preparation, the number and diversity of its official members (the “Fathers of the Council”), not to mention the other expert theologians and observer delegates from all over the world. Particularly amazing is the volume of its acta or teachings! The Second Vatican Council easily surpasses every one of the previous ecumenical councils of the Church.


How do we assess the impact of the Council? I’d like to propose 10 remarkable achievements. These I consider the most important and lasting fruits of Vatican II.
  1. Renewing the liturgy. The Council’s call for renewal included the Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, sacraments, and the liturgical year. This liturgical renewal emphasized the Mass as the prayer and sacrifice of priest and people united in Christ, the call to active and intelligent participation by the whole body of Christ, and openness to incorporating worthwhile customs and traditions of every culture and people.
  2. Placing greater emphasis on sacred Scripture. The Council called for a much fuller menu of readings from both the Old and New Testaments in the Sunday and weekday Lectionaries of the Church. Since the Council urged more study and reading of Scripture, an impressive number of aids to the study of the Bible, as well as an increase in Bible-study groups, has appeared on the scene.
  3. Viewing laypeople as equal members of the Church. All the Church—pope, bishops, priests, religious, and laity—are equal members through Baptism. All share in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly roles of Christ. All are called to holiness no matter what vocation or occupation they embrace in life.
  4. Reinstating the baptismal catechumenate. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is “a process of formation” and “school of the faith” (General Directory for Catechesis 91) for unbaptized adults seeking Church membership. The entire Christian community helps prepare catechumens to receive Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. It is the inspiration and model for all catechesis (GDC 90).
  5. Restoring the ministry of permanent deacons. Calling to restore the ministry of deacon, a ministry of service with roots in the early Church, the Council named the deacon’s tasks: baptize, reserve and distribute the Eucharist, assist at and bless marriages, take Viaticum to the dying, proclaim Scripture, instruct, preside at prayer, administer sacramentals, and officiate at funerals and burials.
  6. Rethinking the concept of authority. Viewed in the spirit of the Gospel, authority is not authoritarianism and domination but a service of love in imitation of Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for all.
  7. Encouraging collegiality throughout the Church. Shared ministry and authority are recognized between the pope and bishops, the bishop and priests of a diocese, the pastor and parishioners of a parish, and the superiors and members of religious orders and congregations.
  8. Acknowledging God’s presence beyond the Church. Vatican II acknowledged the work of the Spirit in the communities of our separated Christian brothers and sisters and in other world religions. Ecumenical efforts foster unity among all Christians and greater communication and dialogue with and respect for other religions.
  9. Upholding the right to religious liberty. The Council recognized the right of every individual to join the religion of one’s choice and opposed the use of force, physical or otherwise, imposing one’s religious beliefs and practices upon others.
  10. Accepting the world. We see the world and its inhabitants as essentially good. We never lose hope in the restoration of all things, a restoration that has begun with the coming of Christ and will reach its fulfillment and perfection when Christ comes again in power and glory at the end of time.
Much growth in the Church can be tied to the work of Vatican II, and more growth lies ahead as we strive to fully embrace its vision for the people of God. May we continue the renewal set out by Vatican II with the enthusiasm and commitment of the person who greeted the announcement of the Council, saying: “Long live the ecumenical council!”

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In the four periods of the Council from 1962 to 1965, the Council Fathers produced 16 documents that are the teachings of the Council. These touch on almost all areas and aspects of the Catholic Church and its life and mission in the world. In volume, they surpass the acta, or teachings, of any previous council of the Church.

Four Constitutions

The teachings of these documents, theologically speaking, are the most important.
  • Dogmatic Constitution on the Church is considered by most theologians as the most important or foundational document of the Council. Calling Christ the “light of nations,” the Council desires to shed the radiance of Christ, who brightens the face of the Church, upon all.
  • Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation deals with God’s revelation through sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition, which together “make up a single sacred deposit of the word of God, which is entrusted to the church” (10).
  • Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the first document to be discussed in the Council and the first promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1963. This document sought to undertake “the reform and promotion of the liturgy” (1).
  • Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World was the last document to be completed by the Council and the lengthiest of all 16 documents. It deals with the Church’s relationship with the world and all human activity, which are viewed as essentially sacred and good, though able to be abused and used for evil ends.
Nine Decrees
  • Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church
  • Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests
  • Decree on the Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious Life
  • Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People
  • Decree on the Training of Priests
  • Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity
  • Decree on Ecumenism
  • Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches
  • Decree on the Mass Media
Three Declarations
  • Declaration on Christian Education
  • Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions
  • Declaration on Religious Liberty
These last two are rather important. The former indicates that “[God’s] providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all humankind” and that “the Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (1-2). Pope Paul VI described the Declaration on Religious Liberty as “one of the major texts of the Council.”

When Pope John XXIII was elected on October 28, 1958, at the age of 77, it was expected that he would be a short-term or stopgap pope. Many were surprised when, less than three months after his election, he called for a new ecumenical council. He was calling for something that would dramatically change the Catholic world with which we were familiar.

When asked why the Council was needed, Pope John reportedly opened a window and said, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” He wanted to let in an abundance of “fresh air.”

The theme of the Council was aggiornamento, which literally meant to bring the Church up to date. When the pope opened the Council, he expressed his optimistic spirit and outlook regarding what it could accomplish, saying, “Mother Church rejoices that the Council has finally begun!” He spoke of the benefits and blessings he foresaw flowing from it. He understood, as well, that his optimistic view would not be shared by everyone in the Church. He predicted that “prophets of doom” would appear, but he begged “to disagree” with them.

Pope John went on to say, “Nowadays the Spouse of Christ [the Church] prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnation.”

The pope expounded on the theme of the Church as a loving Mother, rather than as a condemning Father, saying, “The Catholic Church, raising the torch of religious truth by means of this ecumenical council, desires to show herself the loving mother of all—kind, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the brothers and sisters who are separated from her.”

Finally, the pope’s speech dealt with ecumenism and the need to bring all separated Christians and the whole human family into the unity of one faith and one fold.

Blessed Pope John died on June 3, 1963, between the first two sessions of the Council. His successor, Pope Paul VI, was elected on June 21, 1963, and immediately called for the Council’s continuation.

Franciscan Father Berard Doerger is assistant pastor at the parish in Peña Blanca, New Mexico, and the Pueblos of Santo Domingo, Cochiti, and San Felipe. He gives retreats, parish missions, and workshops. He taught theology courses in the Diocese of Gallup’s deacon formation and lay ministry programs.

NEXT: St. Thérèse’s ‘Little Way’: Our Guide through Lent by Carol Ann Morrow

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James: This James is the brother of John the Evangelist. The two were called by Jesus as they worked with their father in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had already called another pair of brothers from a similar occupation: Peter and Andrew. “He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 1:19-20). 
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