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Seven Shifts in the Church
By William H. Shannon
Vatican II clarified the Church's sense of itself and its place in the world.

Q U I C K S C A N

Active Engagement in the Celebration
Appreciation of the Scriptures
Grappling With Real Presence
All Are Called
All Share in the Mission
That We All May Be One
Service to the World
The Council's 16 Documents

 

Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, we live in the light of its teachings. The Council opened a new—and extremely significant—page in the Church’s long history.

Ecumenical councils are rare in the life of the Church. In the last 400 years there have been only three: Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II. This article attempts to clarify how, through Vatican II, the Church came to a deeper understanding of its own identity and its relationship to the world.

I am well aware that this article will be read by three different groups of people. First, there will be those who were adults before the Second Vatican Council and who knew a very different Church from the one they now experience. Second, there will be those who, as adults and teenagers, lived during the Council and shared in the enthusiasm that it generated, as it offered a new and exciting vision of “Church.” Finally, there exists a whole generation of Catholics for whom the Second Vatican Council is just something they have heard about and who, therefore, never experienced the excitement and euphoria it engendered in the mid-1960s.

Let me illustrate with a brief story. A little girl and her mother were on their way to church one Sunday. The child was planning a valentine party for some of her little friends. She asked, “Mommy, could we stop and get the candy hearts for the party?” “We’ll do that after Mass,” the mother replied. At the preface the priest said the usual prayers. When he invited people to “Lift up your hearts,” the little girl cried out, “We can’t, Father, we didn’t get them yet!”

Active Engagement in Celebration

That story could not have happened in the all-Latin, pre-Vatican II liturgy. I tell it because it is probably true to say that what comes to mind for most people when they think of the Council is the dramatic effects it has had on what they do when they go to church on Sunday. This is especially true of Catholics who were adults before the Council and who therefore remember a Sunday Mass quite different from what they now experience.

The Mass of yesteryear took place on one side of the Communion rail, with parishioners on the other side. The removal of the Communion rail in most churches is a strong symbol that the Mass must no longer be thought of simply as something the priest does, with the laity as interested spectators. The Mass is the worship action of the whole community of God’s people.

The priest presides at the liturgy, but it is the whole community that celebrates. It is the priest’s responsibility, as the leader of the eucharistic community, to see to it that people understand clearly their role in liturgy. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy stresses this when it tells pastors that it is their duty to “ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it” (#11).

Lest there be any doubt as to the full meaning of this charge given to those who preside at the liturgy, they are told, “It is very much the wish of the Church that all the faithful should be led to take that full, conscious, and active part in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy...” (#14).

In the 40 years since the Council, we have seen how, in varying degrees, this call to participation has been achieved. What needs to be stressed is that the differences we experience are not just changes in what we do, but changes in the way we think about ourselves and about Church.

For so long a time, the word church had two meanings for most people. It was either the building where they went “to attend” Mass or the world (or universal) Church headquartered in Rome of which they were somehow members.

Vatican II, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and also in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, offers a new and more fundamental meaning of “Church.” It affirms that, for the laity, the most immediately pertinent meaning of “Church” is the local community: the ordinary Tom, Dick and Mary, their friends and neighbors who gather to celebrate their parish Eucharist together. This is what the word “Church” meant originally: God’s people gathered together in one place called there by God. Both the Greek and the Latin words for “Church” mean neither a building nor an organization, but rather “a calling together” of people by God.

It is at the level of the local Church that we experience the reality of “Church.” It is in the local Church that the saving activities of Church take place. It is in the local Church that the Gospel is proclaimed and Baptism and Eucharist celebrated. It is in the local Church that the presence of Christ and his love are experienced, that we gather to remember his death and resurrection.

I remember years ago catechizing a group of third-graders. After class, one boy asked, “Hey, Father, what time is church?” I chided him for not putting the question correctly. I told that he should ask, “What time is Mass?” Now many years later I am still searching for that lad. I have come to realize that I owe him an apology. His question was good theology.

“What time is church?” While the Church exists at all times, it achieves its highest actuality when God’s people gather, at God’s call, to celebrate in the Eucharist the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. That is why the liturgy document also says: “...[T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the source from which all its power flows” (#10).

This document makes it very clear that the Mass is made up of two parts (the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy), “so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship” (#56). Gone for good is the old-time division of the Mass (that some readers may remember) into three principal parts: the offertory, the consecration and the Communion. It was a division that accorded no place at all to the Scripture readings. How things have changed!

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Appreciation of the Scriptures

Vatican II opened the pages of the Bible to the Catholic faithful. The document on liturgy said that “it is essential to promote that warm and lively appreciation of sacred Scripture” so important in the liturgies of both the Eastern and Western Churches (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #24).

In that same document, the Council called for more plentiful and varied readings from the Bible than had been customary in the Mass. “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s Word” (#51).

We have seen the fruition of that call in the wonderful distribution of Scripture readings at our Sunday liturgies. Catholics from pre-Vatican II days will recall that then there were only two readings: an epistle and a Gospel, both read in Latin, with the Gospel also read in English but only on Sundays. Moreover, the readings assigned for each Sunday were the same year after year. The homily often had little or no relationship to the readings; it was generally a sermon on some point of Catholic doctrine.

Vatican II, on the other hand, led to the introduction of three readings into the Sunday liturgies, arranged over a three-year cycle: a move that would guarantee that “richer fare” of readings from the Bible at our Sunday worship. More than that, the “sermon” was made an integral part of the liturgy: It was to be a homily reflecting on the readings and the way they could enrich our daily lives.

The homily’s importance is underscored by another Vatican II document, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which insists that in order to provide “healthy nourishment” for the congregation “the liturgical homily should hold pride of place” among all the various forms of Christian instruction offered to God’s faithful people (#24).

Scripture was also given an honored place in the daily life of Catholics. The same document urges us “to learn by frequent study of the Scriptures ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ’” (Philippians 3:8). It quotes the words of St. Jerome: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” and those of St. Ambrose: “We speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles” (#25).

Grappling With Real Presence

Catholics have always strongly defended the truth of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Vatican II considerably widened our understanding of Real Presence.

One of the documents issued by Pope Paul VI to implement the Council’s liturgical directives states that “the faithful should be instructed in the principal ways in which the Lord is present to his Church in liturgical celebrations.” First, he is present in the community as they gather for worship; second, he is present in the Word, for it is he who speaks when the Scriptures are read in the Church; third, he is present in the priest who presides at the liturgy; finally, he is present under the species of the bread and wine. “This presence of Christ under the species is called ‘real,’ not in an exclusive sense, as if the other kinds of presence were not real, but par excellence.”

All Are Called

For all too long, the prevailing attitude in the Church had seen the laity as second-class members expected to live the commandments but not called to lives of holiness as were priests and religious. In the years before the Council, there were efforts fermenting in the Church that sought to emphasize the call to discipleship that came from Baptism. I recall being involved in the late ’40s and ’50s in the family renewal movement. This involved groups of married couples who gathered twice a year for prayer, reflection and discussion on their lives as married people.

For the first time, many of them came to the realization that their married life was a vocation from God. Heretofore, they had been led to believe that “vocation” meant priesthood or religious life. What a joy it was for them to let go of this restrictive notion of vocation and see themselves as equally called by God.

The Council embraced this much wider notion of vocation. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church makes abundantly clear that the call to holiness of life is addressed, not to a select few, but to all followers of Jesus. “All Christians in whatever state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (#40). Thus, married couples, for example, are invited “with faithful love, [to] support one another in grace all through life” (#41).

All Share in the Mission

Catholic Action, a movement of Catholic laity strongly encouraged by Pope Pius XI in his labor encyclical of 1931 (Quadragesimo Anno), called for the “participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” Many groups of lay workers and students eagerly joined in this movement. Its watchword was: “Everything by the layperson, nothing without the priest.” It was always clearly spelled out that the apostolate belonged only to the hierarchy.

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church goes beyond this understanding and sees the lay apostolate as “a sharing in the Church’s saving mission,” to which all are appointed through Baptism and Confirmation (#33). The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity states that they “exercise their apostolate therefore in the world as well as in the Church” (#5). They cooperate with their pastors and bishops for the good of the local parish and the diocese.

In this context, they have, as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church says, the right, even at times the duty, to speak up and express their position in matters in which they are knowledgeable and competent (see #37). In a special way, they witness to the gospel in the temporal order, working with their fellow citizens for the common good, as they seek to penetrate the world with the spirit of Christ and to work effectively for the goals of justice and peace.

That We All May Be One

Pope Benedict XVI, in his talk to the cardinals after his election, said that the quest for full visible Christian unity would be “the primary commitment” of his pontificate, calling it “his ambition and compelling duty.” He pledged himself “to do all in his power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism and to cultivate any initiative that may seem appropriate to promote contact and agreement with representatives from the various churches and ecclesial communities.”

This ambitious resolve is very much in keeping with Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. This decree broke new ground in the way that Roman Catholics spoke about other Christian communities. Catholics respect and take joy in “the truly Christian endowments” of our separated brothers and sisters, endowments that come from “our common heritage” (#4).

Ecumenical dialogue between competent persons of various Christian communities is now seen as essential. The dialogue must recognize the need for all Christ’s followers to turn away from infidelities. It is important also in the dialogue not to “sweat” the little things, for “in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith” (Decree on Ecumenism, #11).

It remains true, though, that this decree does not abandon the Church’s belief that it is the one true Church of Christ. On the other hand, it is fair to say that its major focus is on pilgrim people moving toward deeper obedience to Christ and striving to open their hearts to the Spirit who alone can make possible what Jesus so ardently prayed for at the Last Supper: “that they may be one” (John 17:11).

Service to the World

Previous Church councils concerned themselves largely with internal Church affairs: doctrines and discipline. If they spoke to the world at all, it was, all too frequently, to criticize or condemn. Vatican II spoke to the world in a new language—one of openness, compassion and even a sense of identification.

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, entitled Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), affirms the Church’s readiness to respond to “[t]he joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted” (#1). This document is discussed elsewhere in this issue, but I would like to quote from the moving words of its final article: “Christians can yearn for nothing more ardently than to serve the people of this age successfully with increasing generosity” (#93, italics added).

This call to serve embodies a dominant thrust of the Council documents. Father Yves Congar, one of the theologians involved in preparing the Council documents, when asked to sum up the intent of the Council, responded with a single word: “Service.”


Msgr. William H. Shannon, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, is professor emeritus of religious studies at Nazareth College in Rochester. Msgr. Shannon’s interests include not only Church history but also the life and work of Thomas Merton. Among his more recent books is Here on the Way to There: A Catholic Perspective on Dying and What Follows, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.

The Council's 16 Documents

by Michael J. Daley

By the close of the Second Vatican Council in December 1965, the Council had issued four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations, totaling about 1,000 pages—more than twice the length of the documents approved at the Council of Trent (1545-63). Constitutions describe doctrinal matters, decrees address possible reforms on a topic and declarations focus on the Church’s current teaching about a topic.

First Session: October 11-December 8, 1962

The bishops elect their own members to the Council’s various committees. They begin debating rough drafts of texts and calling for new documents, but issue no texts.

Second Session: September 29-December 4, 1963

Two documents are promulgated on December 4:
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) seeks to encourage and bring about full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy. Open to change regarding nonessentials, it leads to the reintroduction of the vernacular.
Decree on the Mass Media (Inter Mirifica) recognizes the great potential (and possible abuse) of media forms: newspapers, movies, radio and television. It sees the media as a means to communicate the gospel.

Third Session: September 14-November 21, 1964

Three documents are promulgated on November 21:
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) envisions the Church as a sign and sacrament of God. It speaks of the hierarchy as serving the entire Church, the People of God, and calls the whole Church, rather than just the ordained, to a life of holiness.
Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) desires the restoration of union, not simply a return to Rome, among all Christians. It admits that both sides were to blame for historical divisions and gives guidelines for ecumenical activities.
Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum) expresses an appreciation for these Churches and urges a renewal of their institutions, liturgies and traditions.

Fourth Session: September 14-December 8, 1965

Five documents are promulgated on October 28:
Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church (Christus Dominus) speaks of the rights and responsibilities of bishops, both in union with the pope and as applied to their particular dioceses. In addition, it revives the ancient practice of episcopal conferences.
Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis) asks that religious return to their vision and, when appropriate, adapt themselves to changing culture.
Decree on Priestly Formation (Optatam Totius) revises seminary training, emphasizing that students need to be grounded in the Scriptures, worship and pastoral ministry. It also promotes continued learning for those already ordained.
Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis) states that education, as the formation of the whole person, is a human right—not a privilege. Parents are seen as the primary educators in faith. Catholic schools and colleges are mentioned as important sources of faith formation.
Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) revolutionizes the Church’s relationship with other world religions, especially Judaism, by admitting that they too possess truth and holiness. It repudiates anti-Semitism and the notion that Jews are guilty for the death of Jesus.

Two documents are promulgated on November 18:
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) says that Jesus is the mediator and fullness of God’s revelation. The word of God is revealed in both Scripture and tradition. The teaching office of the Church (the magisterium) is entrusted with the task of authentically interpreting the word of God.
Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) says that lay faithful, as a result of their Baptism, are called to be leaven in the world. Not only do the laity have unique gifts to offer the Church, but they are also called by their Baptism to share in the temporal order—family, culture, economics, arts, professions and politics.

Four documents are promulgated on December 7:
Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) argues that, by virtue of each one’s humanity, all people have the right to live according to their conscience in the exercise of their religious beliefs. The Church renounces any government attempts at religious coercion. This was a radical departure from the Church’s previous official teaching.
Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes) says that, by its very nature, the Church is missionary because it proclaims the message of Jesus the Christ to all humanity. It stresses that missionaries must be respectful of the cultures in which they share the person of Jesus.
Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) says that, mindful of the changing culture, the priest is charged with leading people to Christ. This is to be done through the priest’s own witness and the celebration of the sacraments, chiefly the Eucharist.
Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) says the Church must respond to the signs of the times. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of the world are shared by the Church, which offers itself in service to the whole of humanity.


Michael J. Daley teaches at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He recently coedited (with William Madges) Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories (Twenty-Third Publications).


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