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Reaping the Harvest of Vatican II


A New Self-understanding
A Key Moment in History
Work to Be Done


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 efficaciously.”

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 life.”

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 document.

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 Holy Spirit.

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.

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