Even though Vatican II is a past event
(1962-65), we have yet to appreciate
fully how it continues to help the
Church’s members live and preach the
Good News of Jesus Christ.
In his opening address, Pope John
XXIII told the bishops that the Council’s
greatest concern was that “the
sacred deposit of Christian doctrine
should be guarded and taught more
He quickly explained, “The substance
of the ancient doctrine of the
deposit of faith is one thing, and the
way in which it is presented is another.”
The pope sharply warned against “prophets of doom” who were always
forecasting disaster yet acted as though
they had learned nothing from history,
which he described as “the teacher of
Two days later the bishops accepted
ownership of the Council when,
instead of rubber-stamping the prepared
lists of commission members,
they nominated those to be elected.
A New Self-understanding
During the Council’s first session, the
bishops decided that the documents
on divine revelation and on the Church
needed major revision.
The October 1962 chapter titles
for the document on the Church reflect
a very defensive approach: nature of
the Church militant, members of the
Church militant and its necessity for
salvation, bishops and priests, residential
bishops, religious life, laity,
magisterium, authority and obedience
in the Church, relations between
Church and State, preaching the Good
News to all peoples and, finally, ecumenism.
After two major revisions and extended
debate, Lumen Gentium (LG or the Dogmatic Constitution on the
Church) was approved on November
21, 1964. Its eight chapters address
the mystery of the Church, the People
of God, hierarchy, laity, the universal
call to holiness, religious life, the
pilgrim Church and its union with
the heavenly Church, plus a final
chapter on Mary, Mother of God.
Ecumenism had become a separate
A great deal of thought and discussion
went into these changes, especially
LG’s admission that the Church,
“clasping sinners to its bosom, at once
holy and always in need of purification,
follows constantly the path of
penance and renewal” (#8).
During the first session, bishops
called for a statement addressing the
Church’s relations with the modern
world. Gaudium et Spes (GS or the Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the
Modern World) was approved on December
7, 1965, and addressed conscience,
freedom, atheism, marriage, culture,
economic life, politics, warfare, plus
many other issues.
A free exchange of ideas served the
Church well during Vatican II and did
not cause the scandal of disagreement
that some people had feared.
A Key Moment in History
Vatican II’s first session began only 17
years after World War II ended. During
that interval, 45 African, Middle Eastern
and Asian nations gained independence
from their colonial rulers.
Nuclear annihilation had become a
possibility, as the Cuban missile crisis
(October 22-28, 1962) demonstrated.
Although Vatican II had wider global
representation than any previous ecumenical
council, bishops from “mission”
countries were still mostly from
Europe or North America.
John XXIII’s visit to Assisi shortly
before the Council opened was big
news. By Vatican II’s close in December
1965, Pope Paul VI had visited Israel,
Jordan, India, plus a one-day trip to
New York City where he urged the
United Nations General Assembly: “No
more war. War never again!”
Work to Be Done
Vatican II spoke of the pilgrim People of
God, of the Church as being on a journey and of our need to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Such language invites us to develop
a maturing faith. There is still plenty of
work to do. For example, Catholics can:
¦ have liturgies that better reflect the
“full, conscious and active” participation
of those present (see the Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, #14).
¦ keep learning about the Scriptures
and allowing themselves to be fed by
God’s word (see the Dogmatic Constitution
on Divine Revelation, #21).
¦ fully embrace their responsibilities
in this world, even though they are
already citizens of heaven (see GS, #43).
¦ fight any temptation to make the
liturgy a “feel good” experience that
strokes them yet never calls them out
of their comfort zones. God is much
more than our “buddy.”
The world synod of bishops could
yet become the consultative body that
Pope Paul VI and the bishops at Vatican
II envisioned. Parish councils and
diocesan councils can better reflect the
Church as a “communion” that shares
in the life of God the Father, Son and
Are the Church’s “prophets of doom”
more strident now than they were in
1962? We are a much more polarized
Church than we were 40 years ago.
No single group is responsible for
the Church’s problems since 1965. No
clique “hijacked” the Council or is now
systematically “betraying” its vision.
Perhaps G.K. Chesterton’s line about
Christianity in general applies to Vatican
II: “It was not tried and found wanting
but rather found difficult and not tried.”
Our faith journeys must continue. In
that sense, the Council is both a past
and a future event. We are far from
reaping all it has to offer.—P.M.