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Vatican II:
The Vision Lives On

Thirty years after the Council

by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.

If you are 30 or younger, you have heard a thousand times: "You have no idea how it was back then, before Vatican II—Mass 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 minority—who 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 changes—including those in the liturgy—with 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 like—would be like today—without them. Try to imagine the effect on your mind—mostly unconscious—of 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, entertainment—at 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 Future Shock.

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, no anathemas.

The agenda of other Councils, in earlier periods of history, had been determined by others—ranging 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 on—they're forgotten.

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 outlines—you can understand the immense amount of discussion, prayer, study—and, yes, argument—that 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 concern—and the greatest achievement—of 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 VI.

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 4, 1963)

  • Decree on the Means of Social Sommunication (December 4, 1963)

  • 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, 1965)

  • Declaration on Christian Education (October 28, 1965)

  • Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (October 28, 1965)

  • Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (November 18, 1965)

  • Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (November 18, 1965)

  • Declaration on Religious Liberty (December 7, 1965)

  • Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (December 7, 1965)

  • Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (December 7, 1965)

  • 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 ministries—whether 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 and unity.

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 us—his 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 importance.

On the other hand, things that were denounced by the reformers—indulgences, prayers to the saints, prayers for the dead—received 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 God—and 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 debated—and 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 one—that 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 working—everywhere, 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 seconds—and centuries. Perhaps the full impact of the Council is yet to come. Perhaps Vatican II is not yet out of baby clothes.

Or, as someone has said, perhaps we are only beginning to smell the coffee.

Leonard Foley, O.F.M., is the author of the best-selling catechism of St. Anthony Messenger Press, Believing in Jesus: A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith. Father Foley has many years' experience as editor, author, teacher, retreat master and parish priest.


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