With Christmas liturgies, decorations, celebrations, Christmas carols, gifts, meals, and crumpled gift wrap on top of COVID concerns, it was easy to miss an important birthday.
On December 25, 1961, Saint John XXIII promulgated the apostolic constitution Humanae Hi, officially convening the Second Vatican Council that he had announced on January 25, 1959.
Thus, Christmas marked the 60th anniversary of the convocation of the last of twenty-one Ecumenical Councils in the two millennia of Church history. The gathering began on October 11, 1962 and ended on December 8, 1965 and was the largest such council in history.
We are entering a time in which we are blessed and challenged to review the accomplishments of this Council as we take the next step, the Synod.
We – especially those who remember pre-Vatican II Catholicism – marvel at how much has changed in the Church since the Council. Thanks to the scholarship that underlies or arose from Vatican II, one can also rejoice in how much authentic tradition has been reappropriated and restored. A medieval and counter-Reformation Catholicism began a return to older forms and foci, and in particular to Scripture and Tradition as opposed to traditions.
This shift has been thwarted in various ways by the two papalities who succeeded the two Vatican 2 popes, John XXIII and Paul VI. But the half-century of attempts to reverse the council’s momentum, while frustrating for those who draw inspiration from it, have been futile.
In such a gathering of bishops united with the Pope, the Holy Spirit is also a powerful participant, and as the American poet James Weldon Johnson wrote of the prodigal son, “Your arm is too short to box with God.” .
Now Francis, the first pope formed, ordained and ministering only in “the Vatican 2 Church”, is reorienting us on the path indicated by the bishops who were in Vatican 2.
Vatican 2 was not just two popes. It was a gathering of all the bishops of the Catholic Church except a few who were unable to attend due to health reasons or due to restrictions on their freedom to travel.
Pope John clarified that everything must be there: “Therefore, we wish and order that this Ecumenical Council, established by us, must come from everywhere our beloved cardinal sons, our venerable brother patriarchs, primates, archbishops and bishops, whether residential or only titular, as well as all those who have the right and the duty to attend the Council. ” (I underline.)
They were there “from everywhere”, numbering about 2,800. For the first time, the participants in an ecumenical council came from all over the world, “from all tribes, languages, people and nations” ( Rev. 5: 9). It was both Catholic and Catholic.
Newsreels showing bishops from Africa, Asia and Oceania entering St. Peter’s Basilica for the opening ceremony alerted observers from the start that the Catholic Church was not what people had assumed. These non-Western faces were the first sign that big changes had already started.
The bishops of Vatican II were unlikely revolutionaries. They were not a bunch of reckless radicals, nor a cabal of subversives seeking to destroy the Church. None of them, with the exception of those of the Eastern rite, had ever celebrated Mass in a language other than Latin. The theology in which they had been trained was traditional and they had studied it in Latin. But when they came together, the Holy Spirit set in motion a trajectory of change that is reshaping Catholicism, and therefore Christianity.
And what were the fruits of Vatican II? Well, the Church has grown so much that an Ecumenical Council today would have to provide seats for over 5,000 bishops and other women and men who would attend. There are now over a billion Catholics in the world, and the number is increasing by the millions every year, no doubt a sign that the Holy Spirit is working through the Church which has been invigorated by the Council.
How can we mark this anniversary after we’re done cleaning up the Christmas decorations and wrapping paper?
The best way to remember or learn what Vatican 2 accomplished is by reading the documents the bishops produced and voted for. They will give us a basis to take our place in the synod process.
Some documents are no longer relevant after so many years because time, the world and the Church have changed. Others will probably always remain important.
Four of the 16 are essential readings. Two of them are “dogmatic constitutions”, the most authoritative form of declaration. They are Lumen gentium on the Church and Dei Verbum on divine Revelation.
The third is Sacrosanctum Concilium on the holy liturgy which had the most obvious influence on the life of Catholics, although it was published too early to benefit from the overviews of the documents published later.
The fourth must-read document is a new form of teaching, a “pastoral constitution”. Gaudium and Specials on the Church in the modern world is perhaps the main fruit of Vatican 2.
All Vatican II documents are available for free in several languages on the website of the Holy See.
Read, reflect and act to fulfill Pope John’s prayer for the Council: “Renew your wonders in our time, as in a new Pentecost, and grant the Holy Church … to spread the Kingdom of the divine Savior, a Kingdom of truth, justice, love and peace. Amen.”
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