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Holy Spirit Interactive: Vatican II: The Second Vatican Council: 1962 - 1965

Vatican II - The Second Vatican Council: 1962 - 1965

by Fr. Francis Jamieson

On 25 January, 1959, Pope John and seventeen Cardinals met at the Basilica of Saint Paul-Outside-the-Walls in Rome for a service to conclude the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. In a brief address, the Pope announced that he intended to summon an ecumenical council (that is, a council of all the bishops of the Catholic Church), adding at the end a prayer for "a renewed invitation to the faithful of the separated communities that they also may follow us amiably in the search of unity and grace, to which so many souls aspire in all parts of the earth."

The Cardinals greeted this announcement with a stunned silence.

The preparatory phase

As the Pope clarified his goals for the council, he showed that he wanted it to be an aggiornamento, a "bringing up to date" of the Catholic Church. The story is often told that the Pope once described what he wanted the council to accomplish by going to the nearest window and opening it to let in some fresh air.

Secondly, Christian unity was to be a primary aim of the council. The Pope took a number of concrete steps:

  1. He asked that official observers be sent from the Orthodox and Protestant Churches.
  2. He arranged to have them seated in a place of honour close to the section reserved for Cardinals.
  3. He established a new Vatican Congregation, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, charged with bringing the Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement.

When it became clear that the Pope was not going to be dissuaded from having a council, the leaders of the Curia (the Vatican administration) tried to keep the whole thing under their control. The Pope, however, made it clear that the work was to be the bishops' work. He also spoke of various issues to be addressed that had not been in the minds of the people in the Curia who had done the preparatory work for the Council.

In his official opening speech, the Pope said that the Council was not going to discuss this or that basic doctrine, but that questions would be "studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of the modern thought". In other words, the Church was going to look at and express the truths of our religion in a different way. His most famous remark is: "The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another." That fact had not always been obvious to Catholics.

What were the subjects that were presented in a different way to suit modern knowledge and understanding?

  1. The Church
  2. Revelation
  3. The Liturgy
  4. Ecumenism
  5. Religious Freedom
  6. Non-Christian religions
  7. The Church and the modern world

We shall look at these separately later. They are subjects which changed the whole face of the Catholic Church by setting free all the movements of renewal that had been present but held back from any wide influence. As anyone who can remember the pre-Vatican II Church knows, within a few years we had experienced sweeping changes in our liturgy and worship, our theology, our understanding of authority and ministry, our religious communities, and our parish life. It must be admitted that not all these changes have been obviously beneficial, because they all happened so quickly, and the pastors had not been prepared for them. A lot of confusion resulted.

We should also remember, however, that the face of the Church at present is not due only to Vatican II. All our societies have changed drastically. No matter which country we come from, we have all seen increasing secularization everywhere, a widespread crisis of authority, feminism, the sexual revolution, a growing concern for social justice. The most important thing for us as Catholics, however, is that the Church has had such a renewal of vitality that it has been able, not only to be willing to be transformed itself, but also to continue preach the Gospel clearly in the face of such bewildering changes and clearly grasp their significance for our understanding of Christ's teaching.

The Council began a renewal of Catholic life. It also changed the way we understand ourselves and the world.

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