Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Road Map for the Future
Teachings of Vatican II
Vatican II (1962-1965) was one of the great moments in the history of our Church.
It marked a time when the Church took a look at where it was and where the world was—and
sought to close the gap. The Council wasn’t a sudden event; years of changes in the world
and years of study among Church leaders and theologians brought us all to this great moment.
Although Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) is rightly given credit for initiating
the Second Vatican Council, the preparations for a council had been discussed for many
years. But it was Pope John, a student of Church history with firsthand experience of the
joys and troubles of the world, who brought the spirit of informed openness that so shaped
Vatican II. And of course it is to the credit of his successor, Paul VI (1963-1978), that
the Council moved forward following John’s death.
It was the timing of that Council—the dawn of satellite communications—that
suddenly put the Church in touch with more of the world. Evangelizing possibilities were
now greater than ever; but now, too, the world could look in on the Church and challenge
Today, 40 years later, we are still challenged by the work of the Council Fathers,
the 2,860 bishops who drafted the Council’s 16 documents. We’ve been through periods of
experimentation, re-imagining who we are as Church. Some have decried the changes as too
much, too fast; others have complained that the Church isn’t changing fast enough.
It has been said that a Church council’s vision is not realized until the third
generation—two generations after those who held the Council. Our Church today includes
adults of this third generation. Those who were at the Council or remember it are fewer
and fewer. Those who were children during the Council are split between those who experienced
strong Church formation and those whose faith formation was probably, at least initially,
lacking in many basics. Many of those born in the mid-1960s and later struggle today to
understand their faith in depth.
The momentum behind the Church’s ongoing renewal is found in the teachings
of Vatican II. It is found in a Church re-centered on the Gospels and the Eucharist and
in constant dialogue with the world. Pope John Paul II said it best a few years ago: “The
best preparation for the new millennium can only be expressed by a renewed commitment to
apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the life of every
individual and of the whole Church” (The Coming Third Millennium, #20).
This 12-part series will look at the principal documents of the Council and
give a report, of sorts, on our progress as Catholics. The Council documents provide a
road map for our future; this series will explore our progress along that route. In this
issue we take a broad look at some of the major trends that the Council initiated.
It’s common today to see lay women and men assisting at Mass as eucharistic
ministers. These and other lay liturgical ministers—ushers, greeters, lectors and music
ministers—are visible reminders of the wide variety of laypeople who minister within the
Church. Some serve as catechists or youth ministers, others as hospital chaplains, bereavement
ministers, administrators of priestless parishes and outreach workers.
Behind this burgeoning lay involvement in ministry is the reality that more
Catholics are embracing their baptismal call to ministry or service to the Catholic community
and, indeed, to the world at large.
At the same time that the role of the laity is growing, we are experiencing
a decline in the number of ordained ministers. The Holy Spirit is clearly leading us to
a more inclusive model of Church in which we recognize the need for both lay and ordained
ministers to make the work of the Church complete.
Women are among those becoming more engaged in Church ministry today, though
many believe that their potential has not been fully realized. What full ministry for women
should mean is a sensitive question requiring further discernment. Those awaiting greater
acknowledgment in the Church also include ethnic minorities, Catholics with disabilities
and many others whose gifts have not yet been fully respected or utilized.
The liturgical renewal that swept through the Church after Vatican II brought
new life to the celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments. New sacramental rites
and the use of local languages encourage more full and active participation.
Before Vatican II, the priest celebrated Mass in Latin with his back to the
people, making the action of the Mass seem far away. It was easy for the faithful to fall
into the role of spectators. Now the assembly is more actively engaged, helping us to experience “all
of us” celebrating the Eucharist with the priest. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred
“full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations” (#14).
The Church now stresses the communal dimension of all the sacraments, seeing
them as “community events,” not private rituals. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation
of Adults) is a dramatic sign of this communal approach to the sacraments.
Before the RCIA was reestablished, the typical approach to adult Baptism was
isolated from the parish community. Preparation often consisted of around six weeks of
private instructions followed by Baptism on a Sunday afternoon, attended by a small cluster
of relatives or friends.
Today, the RCIA process lasts a year or more and involves sponsors, catechists
and, indeed, the whole parish. The Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist—are
celebrated within the con"text" of community at the Easter Vigil. This spirit of communal
involvement is also reflected in other sacraments.
New interest in Scripture
More Catholics are reading the Bible today—with more solid understanding—than
at any other time in Church history. Growing numbers of lay women and men are attending
theology schools, leading and/or joining Bible study groups and reading an array of solid
articles or books on the subject. Priests and religious are no longer the only Scripture
The Church today encourages its members to make use of new methods of Scripture
study and to cherish the Scriptures. Catholics are growing in their understanding of the
Bible through the benefits of historical research, literary analysis and archaeological
findings. Church documents wisely steer Catholics away from literal-minded approaches and
from reading the Bible as if it were a science or history textbook.
Also of note is that, through the Lectionary’s three-year cycle, Catholics
are now exposed to a wider variety of Scripture readings at Sunday Mass. The use of Scripture
readings has been enhanced in other sacramental rites as well.
As Catholics are nourished by the life-giving word of God, they become better
instruments of evangelization and of the world’s transformation.
Outreach to all humanity
One of the most warmly received insights of Vatican II is that salvation is
concerned not solely with saving souls but also with saving the whole person—body and soul.
This holistic view is appealing because we naturally do not want to lose any genuine part
of our human experience. St. Irenaeus, often quoted at the time of the Second Vatican Council,
captured this well:
“The glory of God is the human person fully alive!”
Jesus’ mission on this earth was not only to free the human heart from sin,
but also to free men and women from disease, oppression and everything that hinders their
development as humans created by God and destined for eternal life. When we profess our
belief in the resurrection of the body, this integral salvation is implied.
In The Church in the Modern World, the bishops of Vatican II acknowledged
the intimate bond between the Church and all humanity. This great document begins: “The
joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially those who are
poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ.
Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.”
This conviction is evident in a new commitment to ecumenism as well as the
acknowledgment of salvation outside of the Catholic Church (Dogmatic Constitution on
the Church, #15-16). In addition to his many heroic firsts in the ecumenical effort,
Pope John Paul II powerfully expressed this attitude during his first visit to the United
States in October 1979. His first words were: “I want to greet all Americans without distinction.
I want to tell everyone that the pope is your friend and a servant of your humanity.”
Every authentic dimension of human existence is to be saved and brought to
wholeness. As the pope’s words suggest, we are to help all people come to their full humanity
as men and women created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Christ.
Growth of social justice
In 1983, the bishops of the United States issued The Challenge of Peace, a
pastoral letter on war and peace. In it they discussed the morality of war and of nuclear
weapons. To help Catholics form their consciences on economic matters, they issued a pastoral
letter on the U.S. economy in 1986. More recently, in 1999 and again in 2003, the U.S.
bishops addressed civic responsibility in the document Faithful Citizenship.
Conscientious Catholics are reading these and other statements that the bishops
have published on political and social issues. Church leaders continue to encourage Catholics
to let their hearts be guided by the “social gospel.”
Some people, however, are uncomfortable with the Church’s involvement in public
issues. They criticize the Church for “meddling in politics.” Taking to heart the holistic
view of salvation (discussed earlier) will help us see the mission of the Church as healing
unjust political structures and laws as well as unjust hearts.
Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrated this point during a speech in 1964 when
he said: “The law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me!” King
helps us see that Christians must seek to transform not only sinful hearts but also the
sinful laws and customs of society that oppress and dehumanize our sisters and brothers.
Catholic social teaching reminds us that it is not enough to passively await
God’s Kingdom in the next life. We are also called to make that Kingdom present now, by
working as God’s instruments to remove injustice, discrimination, poverty and disease from
A time of new growth
What is happening in our Church in these opening years of the third millennium?
We are something like passengers in an airplane circling above the airport, waiting for
the weather to clear so we can see to land.
What happened to the fast rate of change we experienced in those early years
after the Council? The pace has certainly slowed. Church leaders seem to have decided that
we need to take a break after so much turbulent change. We find ourselves in a time of
consolidation and integration, taking stock of where we are.
One might compare the Church to someone experiencing an identity crisis or
confusing personal change. Such individuals need time to reflect and
“get their act together” before moving on. Maybe the Church leaders sense that it is time
for the Church to catch up with itself—to step back a bit and put all the pieces of our
fragmented vision into a new whole. This need was satisfied to some degree with the issuing
of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but our Vatican II pilgrimage must always
No matter how carefully we try to put all the truths of the Church into an
orderly arrangement, we know that we must remain open to new questions needing new answers
and to new challenges of growth from the Holy Spirit. Surely new roads lie before us!
What change in the Church since the Second Vatican Council gives
you the most encouragement about the Church's future? If you lived through the
changes, what was most difficult for you?
How closely does the Vatican II vision of Church match yours? In what ways does
the Church need to grow in order to continue embracing and working toward the
vision set forth by the Council Fathers?
What can you do to help keep the vision of Vatican II alive in your local Church
NEXT: The Mass—Our Greatest and Best Prayer
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