Pope John XXIII signs the bull convoking the Second Vatican Council.
Dec. 25, 1961. (CNS photo)
Fifty years ago the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council was inaugurated. In reality, this was the twenty-second ecumenical council (that is to say, of a universal character) in the history of the Catholic Church. Vatican Council II was called by Pope John XXIII on January 25, 1959 and, without a doubt, was one of the great historical events marking world history and that of the church in the Twentieth Century. The Council consisted of four sessions: the first was presided over by the same Pope in the fall of 1962. He was unable to conclude this Council due to his death a year later, (on June 3, 1963). The other three sessions were called and presided over by his successor, Pope Paul VI, until its conclusion in 1965. The official language of the Council was Latin. Vatican Council II was also the Council with the greatest and most diverse representation of languages and races, with an average attendance of some two thousand council fathers coming from all corners of the earth, and included the attendance of members from other Christian religions.
The Council was called for the principal purpose of promoting the development of the Catholic faith, achieving a moral renewal in the Christian life of the faithful, adapting the ecclesiastical discipline to the need and methods of our time and accomplishing an improved relationship with other religions, especially from the Orient. The goal was thus to produce an aggiornamento or actualization of the Church with the passing of human history, renewing the elements having the greatest need of such, reviewing in depth the form and contents of the evangelistic task of the Church in the world. Therefore, Vatican Council II sought to provide an open dialog with the modern world, updating the life of the Church, with new conciliatory language while facing problems that are both ancient and current.
The multitude of representatives from so many and such distinct corners of the Church in the world allows us to suppose that the sessions, discussions and documents emanating from the Council contain a diversity of vision concerning the life and activities of the Church in the world.
However, we propose —in the brevity of this article— to underscore the central themes of Vatican Council II:
- The need to return to the Source: to the Good News lived and proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth during his public ministry and the Christian experience of the early days of the Church as lived by the first Christian communities. Following twenty centuries of world history it was time for a reflection, a review, a pruning and an updating to determine all that was pertinent and that which was not pertinent to the integrity of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- All the baptized members of God’s people are called to holiness. And, in Vatican Council II, the comprehensiveness of the Church overcomes the geographical limits to become the place of salvation for all men and women of good will, all those who live in Christ without understanding the fact because they live a life of love and service for the building of more fraternal societies.
- By the same token, the Church sees itself as Mother and Teacher, but above all, as the site for compassion and mercy in the world to gather and protect within its bosom all people, especially the smallest, the weakest and poorest of the world; in the same way that Jesus constituted in his time the site of mercy, sacramental sign and historical presence of the Father’s love.
- In Vatican Council II, the Church sees itself more as a community of communities, of fellowship and participation and retreats from the Roman imperial model and pyramid and renews its awareness of its special power and role in the world for serving in the example of her Lord.
- The centrality of Sacred Scripture and, especially, of the gospel (Good News) which is Jesus himself: the norm of our life and activity as disciples. For this reason the approach and study of theology and, more concretely, of Sacred Scripture has become possible, promoting and encouraging the evangelistic and missionary task of the Church.
With these and other subjects, all of them important and some of them new, the Vatican Council proposed enormous changes to the inner life of the Church, of its members and in the way the Church presents itself to the world. At the same time, contrasts and tensions appeared between those who desired and still desire –conservatively– greater commitment to the customs and traditions and those who prefer a walk of the Church that is more consonant with the rhythm of humanity in history.
Suffice it to recall here the introduction of the native language of each place for the liturgy of God’s People and all the changes arising in the divine worship, the creation of collegiate bodies in the life of the Church like the Synods, the Episcopal Conferences, the Parish Councils, etc., for the purpose of “democratizing” the participation in the life and activity of the Church for all the people of God.
The context in which the council sessions were carried out is part of a greater context: that of the decade of the 1960s marked with all kinds of spiritual convulsions throughout the planet: the perception of human history as a “graveyard of hopes”, the feeling of a non-existent future since science and modern technology did not solve the great problems of humanity (hunger, misery, injustice, divisions, inequity) while fostering new ones (contamination, weapons race, etc), youth rebellion, protests, leftist revolutionary movements, guerrillas, sexual liberation movements, etc. This new spirit of humanity affected and still necessarily affects the life of the Church and of all its members, for the Church —inserted in the world— cannot hide from the light and darkness of the world where it lives and which it seeks to illuminate with the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The celebration of these fifty years since the Council urges us to return to the documents of the Council to understand and live them out and, above all, to return to the spirit of renewal that gave impulse to the mind and heart of those who called it and made it possible, to return to the great lesson left us by Vatican Council II: the need for the Church to better understand the history of the world and of humanity where it finds its destiny in its life and its task to be faithful to Him who clarifies our life, the mystery of every person and of all humanity.