Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Vision Lives On
Thirty years after the Council
If you are 30 or younger, you have heard a thousand
times: "You have no idea how it was back then, before Vatican
IIMass in Latin, priest with his back to you, no one else
in the sanctuary except altar boys, no parish councils, fasting
from midnight (even from water) before Communion."
If you were 30 or so at the time, you probably
didn't have much time, between kids and bills, to pay attention
to what 2,500 bishops were doing over there in Rome. The idea
of English in the liturgy seemed good, though. And if you were
grandparents or older, you lived through "the changes"perhaps
with fear and bewilderment, perhaps with a secret delight that
"by gosh, the Church does change after all!"
By now some have forgotten Vatican II. There is a
minoritywho knows how large?that is still appalled
and sometimes bitter at what seems to them betrayal. Most Catholics,
however, seem to have accepted the most obvious changesincluding
those in the liturgywith good grace.
The world of Vatican II
The Second Vatican Council, which began
in 1962, did not take place in a vacuum, just as we did not grow
up in a vacuum. It is important to consider the world into which
Vatican II came. For half a century what has been called the greatest
cultural change in the history of the world took place, at
least in the West.
Think of four inventions: the automobile,
jet, radio, television. Now try to imagine what the world would
have been likewould be like todaywithout them. Try to
imagine the effect on your mindmostly unconsciousof
the effect of speed in going from here to there, the effect on your
mind of what can only be called an explosion of knowledge through
radio and TV. We were flooded with fast-breaking news, with assertions,
rumors, revelations, gossip, discoveries, entertainmentat
the touch of a dial. We heard and saw history as it was happening.
We learned of the foibles and sins of the high and mighty.
And so we arrived at the riotous sixties!
Remember the flower children of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury?
Woodstock? Remember pot, college sit-ins? It was the ever-changing
"throwaway society" described in Alvin Toffler's best-selling book
Talk about the charge of the Light Brigade!
Into this roiling, questioning, learning, self-confident, self-doubting
world marched Vatican II. The bishops of the world waded in boldly
while angels hid behind trees and waited on the Lord.
A new Pentecost
A simple "transitional" pope was the knight in nothing
but the armor of hope and joy who led the bishops. Pope John XXIII
was his name. He hoped to open some windows, restore the Church's
energies for the apostolate and search for new forms best adapted
to its present-day needs. The Church had to show itself
alive and well in the fog and noise. It had to lift its voice
to the desperate world.
The theme of the Council was aggiornamento,
which literally means "getting up to today." The Church was being
urged to "update" itself.
So, on August 9, 1959, the pope called for a council.
In his opening speech to the Council, Pope John affirmed that
the Church prefers "the medicine of mercy rather than of severity."
The same Church, he adds, was to show herself "the loving mother
of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness towards the
brethren who are separated from her." There were to be no condemnations,
The agenda of other Councils, in earlier periods of
history, had been determined by othersranging from those
who denied the divinity of Christ to those who denied the authority
of Peter. It is understandable, in human disputes, that if you
deny my position, I will respond by overemphasizing it. If I reject
your point of view, you will hold to it more firmly and make it
nearly essential. But as for all the things we agree onthey're
It was as if the Church said at the start of Vatican
II, "Come, let us sit down together and count our pluses, the
common values we share. It's a rough world out there. We must
be together and face all these problems together." Perhaps the
most surprising fact some of us remember is that there were Protestant
observers at the Council. And no one even suggested that they
be searched for weapons! Attitudes had certainly changed.
The four annual sessions
The following is the barest outline of the doings
of the Council. When you consider the sheer number of important
documents discussed (16)not to speak of their own complex
outlinesyou can understand the immense amount of discussion,
prayer, studyand, yes, argumentthat went into four
years. For over 2,000 Church leaders to come to almost unanimous
agreement on such a bewildering array of topics is almost tangible
proof of the presence of the Spirit.
First Session (September-December, 1962). Attendance
by bishops fluctuated during the four sessions. 2,908 bishops
had a right to come. 2,540 took part in the first session. They
had submitted over 8,000 suggestions to the preparatory committees.
On the very first day of the first session something
happened which had permanent results. On the motion of Cardinal
Lienart of France, the Council adjourned after a few minutes.
The problem: not a wide enough representation on the various commissions.
The result was that the memberships of these commissions were
broadly expanded. One has only to read the agenda first presented
to see that the original commission was dominated by a heavily
conservative/traditionalist mentality (still striding to the beat
of "the Church militant").
As could have been predicted, there were not many
concrete results of the first session. Work was already begun
on what would be the dominant concernand the greatest achievementof
the Council: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
The first session ended. The bishops went home to
pray, study and confer. During the nine-month interval Pope John
died, June 3, 1963. Cardinal Giovanni Montini, archbishop of Milan,
was elected to the papacy on June 21, 1963, becoming Pope Paul
Second session (September 29-December 4, 1963).
At a public session, Pope Paul VI opened the second period of
the Council with a memorable address in which he begged the pardon
of non-Catholics for any fault Catholics may have for the divided
state of Christianity. He also expressed the willingness of Catholics
to forgive any injuries done to them.
In addition, the pope streamlined some of the Council
procedures and announced an increase in the membership of each
commission. Among the decisions of the Council during this session
was that of including Mary in the document on the Church rather
than of giving her a separate document. This emphasized her vital
relationship to the body of the faithful.
The principal achievement of this session was the
approval of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy by a
vote of 2,147 to 4. A lesser-known document, the Decree on
the Means of Social Communication, was also passed.
The most dramatic conflict of the Council occurred
when Cardinal Frings frankly criticized the Holy Office (The Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith), which prompted Cardinal Ottaviana,
its secretary, to defend it staunchly. During the interval between
the second and third sessions, Pope Paul VI announced that women
auditors (lay and religious) had been invited to the Council.
Third and fourth sessions (September 14-November
21, 1964, and September 14-December 8, 1965). Fourteen of
the Council's 16 documents were thoroughly discussed, revised
and finally approved during these two very busy and productive
sessions. A list of their titles and dates of approval reveals
the breadth and depth of the Council's deliberations and decisions:
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (December
Decree on the Means of Social Sommunication (December
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (November
21, 1964) Decree on the
Catholic Eastern Churches (November 21, 1964)
Decree on Ecumenism (November 21, 1964)
Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the
Church (October 28, 1965)
Decree on the Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious
Life (October 28, 1965)
Decree on the Training of Priests (October 28,
Declaration on Christian Education (October 28,
Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian
Religions (October 28, 1965)
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (November
Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (November
Declaration on Religious Liberty (December 7,
Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (December
Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (December
Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the
Modern World (December 7, 1965)
What did the Council achieve?
The documents of the Council are obviously the most
important concrete fruit of the Council, though they are of unequal
value. Our experience since then is that the Second Vatican Council,
thanks in large part to these documents, has had a profound impact
on the Church. Space allows us to briefly review only a few of
the major influences flowing from the Council:
Liturgy. Many parishes have experienced a thrilling
renewal of liturgical life, with increased participation on the
part of the whole parish community. The Rite of Christian Initiation
of Adults has been revived and is alive and well in many places.
Admittedly, not all parishes have embraced the liturgical renewal
with the same enthusiasm.
Lay ministry. Since the Council, the expanding
roles of laymen and laywomen are evident in the explosion of lay
ministrieswhether we are speaking in terms of eucharistic
ministers or of laypersons working as administrators in diocesan
offices. These ministries, by and large, have become an accepted
part of Catholic life today.
Ecumenism. Although the first fervor has faltered
in some instances, a new spirit of ecumenism entered the Church
at Vatican II. Meetings of priests, ministers and rabbis as well
as gatherings for prayer, dialogue and fellowship on the part
of the laity continue to nourish the seeds of Christian charity
Religious life. Religious orders and congregations,
especially among women, have undergone profound changes in numerous
places. This is evident from the flood of new constitutions introduced
by many religious groups since the Council.
Collegiality. An increased sense of shared
authority or collegiality, among bishops and between them and
the pope, was underscored by the Second Vatican Council. Though
admittedly a sensitive issue, some level of collegiality is seen
in the world synods that have been regularly convoked in Rome
since the Council.
The development of national conferences of bishops
around the world is another concrete expression of a heightened
sense of collegiality. Some see this spirit of collegiality at
work, for example, in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops
of the United States. It is especially reflected in their style
of producing important pastoral letters such as those on the economy
and on war and peace.
But, as far as influential documents are concerned,
the greatest achievement of the Council has been the Dogmatic
Constitution on the Church, the Pastoral Constitution on
the Church in the Modern World and the Constitution on
the Sacred Liturgy.
We will now take a closer look at the first-mentioned
document because of its profound importance for our understanding
of ourselves as Church today.
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church
At first, this document may not seem exciting to anyone
who expects new, wild, sensational changes in the Church. It begins
very simply: "Christ is the light of humanity; and it is, accordingly,
the heart-felt desire of this sacred Council—that—it may bring
to all men and women the light of Christ which shines out visibly
from the Church."
The Church, as described in this document, is not
merely an institution, a bloc to be reckoned with. It is not a
ticket to salvation once you get your name in the book and observe
the minimum. It is not out to condemn, defeat, be Number One,
put the fear of the Church militant into its enemies.
No, the Church is a community that carries the
light of Christ on its face. What else is necessary? Some
organization, surely. Some definite statement of principle. But
to be a community shining like Jesus is at the heart of the Church's
identity, say the Council fathers.
Impossible. Of course. Yet that is the Church's nature
and task. It is as if the Church must say, embarrassedly, "Jesus
is no longer visible, except sacramentally. We're sent to show
you how he looked."
Jesus is not visible today: Therefore he must be seen
in ushis radiance on our faces. This means that we the Church
are a sacrament. That is, there is something visible that reveals
and hides a deeper reality. The external Church, like the human
nature of Jesus, conceals and reveals the inner divine reality
of the Church. (How sad, then, for those who dismiss the Church
when they cannot see its inner beauty because of the sins of some
of its members.)
Do we consider ourselves primarily a community
and a sacrament to reveal Christ? Is that what Christians are?
If we the Church do not think of ourselves that way, what might
be the reason? Perhaps the following could be one explanation.
Reaction to the Reformation. After the Protestant
Reformation, the Catholic Church countered the ideas of the reformers
with the Council of Trent (1545-63). This Council defined certain
doctrines which the Protestants denied. Thus emphasized, these
doctrines received an attention that outweighed others of greater
On the other hand, things that were denounced by the
reformersindulgences, prayers to the saints, prayers for
the deadreceived disproportionate Catholic emphasis by way
of reaction. Protestants emphasized the Bible; Catholics,
tradition (thus Catholics edged away from using the Bible
itself, getting instruction from sermons and catechisms, until
Vatican II renewed interest in Scripture study).
Protestants denied the visible, juridical, hierarchical
Church and opted for an invisible, internal, charismatic Church.
So Catholics put primary emphasis on the Church being a hierarchically
organized society. This imbalance lasted until Vatican II, when
emphasis was again placed on the divine element in the Church.
The Church is mystery/sacrament; partly human, partly
divine (Jesus is, after all, a member of the Church). We not only
believe in the Church, we believe IN the Church.
The order of treatment in the document is important:
first, the mystery of the Church; second, the People of Godand
only then the hierarchical distinctions. But the faithful altogether,
the whole people, are seen as equal before God in Baptism,
though they may have various functions in the Church.
The chapter on the episcopate was the most hotly debatedand
central to the debate was the notion of "collegiality." As the
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church asserts, "St. Peter
and the rest of the apostles constitute a unique apostolic college"
(#22). As successors of the college (body) of the apostles, bishops
are called to share in the guidance of the Church. This sharing
of Church leadership is called collegiality, the idea being
that both pope and bishops together make up this college.
There was fear that assertions about the authority
of the college of bishops could endanger the primacy of the pope.
The Council carefully stated, "Together with their head, the Supreme
Pontiff, and never apart from him, they [the body of bishops]
have supreme and full authority over the universal Church" (#22).
The laity. Laypersons are now recognized in
a way surpassing anything in the past. "Everything that has been
said about the People of God is addressed equally to laity, religious
and clergy" (#30). The laity are not, then, merely what is left
over (99.99 percent) after the pope, the bishops, the priests
and the religious. "A secular character is proper and peculiar
to the laity," and they "seek the kingdom of God by engaging in
temporal affairs" (#31). "There is a common dignity of members
deriving from their rebirth in Christ, a common grace as sons
and daughters, a common vocation to perfection" (#32). Men and
women of the laity are commissioned to their apostolates by the
Lord himself, through Baptism and Confirmation. So they are a
part of the church's mission. They are not just "allowed to help."
In the chapter, "The Call to Holiness," a most important
principle is declared: "All Christians in any state or walk of
life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection
of love" (#40). "The forms and tasks of life are many, but Holiness
is onethat sanctity which is cultivated by all who act under
God's Spirit—" (#41).
Do "ordinary" Catholics believe this, even today?
That Joe and Ellen and Juan and Natasha are called to the same
holiness as Pope John and contemplative nuns, parish priests and
missionaries in Africa? Some of the most astounding pronouncements
of the Council are the simplest: Remember, "The light of Christ
on the face of the Church."
The Spirit stays active
This has been a very sketchy look at
Vatican II. Does the vision live today? In many people, especially
in some glowing centers of liturgy (at times with guns threatening
not far away), the emphasis on community, prayer, Scripture, and
peoplehood has flourished. In others, a strangling fear of
change, usually a matter of temperament, inhibits growth. Perennial
human apathy plays its part.
But the relentless Spirit of Pentecost
is always workingeverywhere, not just where things appear
bright. It is working, too, perhaps even more relentlessly, in the
night of persecution, apparent failure and spiritual change. God
works in secondsand centuries. Perhaps the full impact of
the Council is yet to come. Perhaps Vatican II is not yet out of
Or, as someone has said, perhaps we are
only beginning to smell the coffee.