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Through the work of Vatican II, the life of the Catholic Church was updated, earlier tradition revisited, and divisions healed. While seeking guidance from the past, the Council moved the Church forward in its mission to be Christ in the world.

The Healing Work of Vatican II
By: Kenneth R. Overberg, SJ

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In 1959, Pope John XXIII stunned the world when, after being pope for only 90 days, he announced his plan to convene the Second Vatican Council. Recognizing the serious need for renewal in the Church, he began the process of updating (aggiornamento in Italian) so that the Church could more effectively proclaim the Christian faith for the 20th century and beyond.

A second and no less important movement of the Council was a return to the sources (ressourcement in French). The resulting teachings represent a return to the rich resources of earlier tradition, especially as found in the New Testament and the life of the early Church.

Indeed, many aspects of Church life needed to be brought up to date, earlier tradition revisited, and divisions healed. Let’s consider how the Council’s teachings brought reform and revitalization to our Church.


Roman Catholicism in 1959 was profoundly shaped by the teachings of the Council of Trent, held 400 years earlier (1545–1563). The 16th century was a time of serious abuses in the Church and reaction to the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation.

The Council of Trent provided an urgently needed response, one that revitalized the life of the Church. That response, while clear, was also authoritarian and defensive. The teachings of Trent restructured the Church, emphasizing papal supremacy and absolute control of each diocese by its bishop. It clarified Catholic teaching in contrast to that of Protestants (e.g., how we are saved) and corrected errors in Catholic practice.

Following the rigorous reform of Trent, Roman Catholicism gradually slipped into a rigid religion. More and more, the Church reacted defensively to the growth of the modern world. Three centuries later, the work of Vatican I (1869–1870) followed Trent’s lead.


John XXIII opened Vatican II in 1962 and set the tone for the Council. He called for patience and openness, acknowledged the opportunities of the time, disagreed with “prophets of doom,” and offered an optimistic and pastoral view of the Church and world. He stressed both faithfulness to the tradition and the need to find appropriate expressions of that tradition in the modern world.

And the Council took up John’s challenge! Meeting in four sessions between 1962 and 1965, Vatican II produced 16 documents and a renewed vision of Roman Catholicism. Let’s consider three areas of healing the Council helped bring about:
• Within the Church
• Between Catholicism and other religions (Christian and non-Christian)
• Between the Church and the world


Vatican II both reflected and addressed the differences within the Church. The development of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation demonstrates the Council’s progressive mentality. The original draft, written in preparation for the Council, emphasized traditional principles in a defensive and negative tone. Following spirited debate, the document was rejected by majority vote and was sent by Pope John to a new commission for a complete rewrite.

The new version relied on modern biblical and historical research. It states that the experience of revelation and faith is handed on orally (sacred Tradition) and in writing (sacred Scripture) by a living community that preserves and re-expresses its meaning and applies it to new situations. This renewed understanding of and emphasis on the Bible provides the basis for the inner renewal of the whole Church. Three areas of this renewal are

1. Revising the Mass
The teachings that probably had the most immediate and visible impact on the Church are found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. These led to the major revision of the Mass following the Council. Worship was no longer to appear to be only the action of the priest—his back turned to the people, speaking in a language (Latin) most didn’t understand.

The revised Mass was to focus on community worship—active participation of the people, use of everyday language (vernacular), and renewed emphasis on Scripture. The renewal of the liturgy began to heal the separation between clergy and laity in the Mass—the most important religious experience of everyday Christian living.

2. Reimaging Church
The significance of the teachings of another document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, cannot be stressed enough. Like the document on revelation, it was drastically revised. The accepted version was more biblical, historical, and dynamic. By reimaging the Church as the “people of God,” it radically changed the Church’s self-understanding.

The Council devoted an entire chapter of the document to the laity, stressing the dignity and responsibilities of the laity and setting aside the purely hierarchical (top-down) model of the Church. Authority was now to be viewed in terms of service. The image of the Church as the “new people of God” emphasizes its human and communal nature and highlights the baptismal equality of all members of the Church—clergy and laity—in terms of vocation, dignity, and commitment.

3. Balancing Authority
With its discussion of collegiality (sharing of authority), Vatican II softened Vatican I’s emphasis on the papacy and attempted to lessen the distinction previously made between bishops and the pope. The Council states that all the bishops make up a stable body or “college” that’s collectively responsible for the entire Church.

The supreme authority in the Church is all the bishops together with and under the pope, who acts as head of the bishops. This union of the primacy of the pope and the authority of the college of bishops begins a new era in understanding the Church’s magisterium (teaching authority).

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The teachings of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church provide the foundation for dialogue between the Catholic Church and other religions that’s developed further in teachings on ecumenism (efforts toward unity or cooperation among Christian Churches), non-Christian religions, and religious freedom.

Vatican II significantly changed the position the Church had held at times in the past concerning non-Catholic Christian communities. The teachings in the Decree on Ecumenism treat such communities with respect and try to understand and present their positions fairly. They recognize the Spirit at work in them and that they’re part of the “mystery of salvation.” The attacks of Trent and its condemnations of heretics give way to reaching out to our “separated brothers and sisters.”

The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions expresses another remarkable change. The positive contributions and qualities of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism are highlighted, and other religions are included in a general way. The Council declares that the Church rejects nothing that’s true and holy in any of these religions.

Another dramatic breakthrough occurs in the teachings of the Declaration on Religious Freedom. At times in the past, the Catholic position at best tolerated other religions and claimed preferential treatment for the Catholic Church by governments. Vatican II stresses the ethical foundation of the right to religious freedom and insists that every person—whether Catholic or not—must be free from coercion, especially in religious matters.

This document generated much controversy. The issue was not only religious freedom but also the development of doctrine. The Council was concerned about radically changing the position of the Church, a position firmly stated by Pope Pius IX in 1864. In the final session of the Council, however, the document was approved by an overwhelming majority.


Discussed in many Council documents, the separation of the Church from the world is the specific focus of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. This inspiring document expresses and symbolizes the spirit of Vatican II, beginning a realistic dialogue with the modern world.

First discussing the dignity of the person and the interdependence of persons and societies, the bishops then apply this Christian understanding of the person in community to some of the most critical problems of the contemporary world. These include marriage and family; the proper development of culture; economic, social, and political life; and war and peace. A key theme of this optimistic text is that of the Church putting itself at the service of the human family.

Again we hear the word service from the Council Fathers. We first heard it as the role of Church authorities; now it points to the Church’s role in relation to the wider world, a world it had come to mistrust and wished to keep separate from itself.

The separation of the Church from the world is overcome in yet another way—in the Church’s own self-understanding. Vatican II marks the beginning of the Church understanding itself from a global perspective.

Comparing the significance of this breakthrough in self-understanding to that of the early Christian community opening itself to the gentiles more than 1,900 years ago, Karl Rahner, SJ, uses the image of “world-Church” in his book Concern for the Church. By this he means that Catholicism is no longer a European and Western religion that’s been “exported” to the rest of the world. The Catholic Church now allows itself to be shaped by a variety of cultures from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The election of Pope Francis, a native of Argentina, is evidence of this ongoing movement.


Vatican II stands as a remarkable example of renewal and reform. With its emphasis on the Bible, the Council turned to the foundation of the Christian experience and found renewed ways to express that experience in the modern world. Vatican II responded to the signs of the times and helped the Church revisit its roots and so become a more open and pastoral community in the world.

Just as with individuals, however, diseases and divisions exist and re-emerge in the people of God. So, along with these examples of healing, the inspiration of Vatican II, expressed in the Council’s Opening Message to Humanity, offers direction and challenge for us today: “Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we wish to inquire how we ought to renew ourselves, so that we may be found increasingly faithful to the gospel of Christ.”

“Certain themes and concepts consistently gained in importance. . . . a trajectory toward engagement with the world, openness to other Christians, affirmation of baptismal equality, and appreciation for other religions.” –Edward P. Hahnenberg, A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II

“The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.” –Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World 1

“In the restoration and development of the sacred liturgy the full and active participation by all the people is the paramount concern, for it is the primary, indeed the indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.” –Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 14

Kenneth R. Overberg, SJ, professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, holds a PhD in social ethics from the University of Southern California and has authored numerous articles and books, including Into the Abyss of Suffering (Franciscan Media).

NEXT: 'Light of Faith': Key Themes from Pope Francis' First Encyclical

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