This handout photograph taken and released by the Vatican Media on December 23, 2021 shows Pope Francis (R) attending an audience for the annual exchange of Christmas greetings with the members of the Roman Curia in the Vatican. (Photo: Vatican Media / AFP)
With Christmas liturgies, decorations, parties, carols, gifts, meals and crumpled gift wrap in addition to COVID concerns, it was easy to miss a significant anniversary.
On December 25, 1961, St. John XXIII issued the apostolic constitution Humanae Salutis, officially convoking the Second Vatican Council that he had first announced on January 25, 1959.
Thus, Christmas was the 60th anniversary of the convocation of the latest of only twenty-one ecumenical councils in the two-millennia history of the Church. The gathering began on October 11, 1962, and closed on December 8, 1965, and was the biggest such council in history.
We are entering a period during which we are blessed and challenged to look again at the accomplishments of that council as we take the next step, the Synod.
We – especially those who remember pre-Vatican 2 Catholicism – marvel at how much has changed in the Church since the Council. Thanks to the scholarship that underlay or arose from Vatican 2, we can also rejoice at how much authentic tradition was re-appropriated and restored. A medieval and Counter-Reformation Catholicism began a turn back to more ancient forms and focuses, and especially to Scripture and Tradition as opposed to traditions.
That turn was thwarted in various ways by the two papacies that followed the two Vatican 2 popes, John XXIII and Paul VI. But the half-century of attempts to roll back the momentum of the council, while frustrating to those inspired by the council, were 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’s too short to box with God.”
Now, Francis, the first pope trained, ordained and ministering solely in the “Vatican 2 Church” is reorienting us on the path pointed out by the bishops who were at Vatican 2.
Vatican 2 was not simply two popes. It was a gathering of all the bishops of the Catholic Church except for a few who could not attend for health reasons or because of restrictions on their freedom to travel.
Pope John made it clear that all must be there: “We consequently wish and order that to this ecumenical Council, established by us, must come from everywhere all our beloved Cardinal sons, our venerable brother patriarchs, primates, archbishops and bishops, whether residential or only titular, as well as all those who have a right and duty to attend the Council.” (Emphasis added.)
They were there “from everywhere,” about 2,800 in number. For the first time ever the participants in an ecumenical council came from the whole world, “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). It was catholic as well as 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. Those non-Western faces were the first sign that big changes had already begun.
The bishops of Vatican 2 were unlikely revolutionaries. They were not a bunch of feckless radicals, nor a cabal of subversives out to destroy the Church. Not one of them, except for those from the Eastern rites, had ever celebrated Mass in any language but 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 have been the fruits of Vatican 2? Well, the Church has so grown that an ecumenical council today would have to provide seating for more than 5,000 bishops and other women and men who would participate. There are now more than one billion Catholics in the world, and the number increases by millions each year, arguably a sign that the Holy Spirit is working through the Church that was reinvigorated by the council.
How can we mark this anniversary once we finish cleaning up the Christmas decorations and wrapping paper?
The best way to remind ourselves or learn of what Vatican 2 achieved is to read the documents the bishops produced and voted for. They will give us a foundation for taking our place in the Synod process.
Some documents are no longer relevant after so many years because time, the world and the Church have moved on. Others will probably always remain important.
Four of the 16 are essential reading. Two of those are “dogmatic constitutions,” the most authoritative form of statement. They are Lumen Gentium on the Church and Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation.
The third is Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy which had the most obvious influence on the lives of Catholics though it was issued too early to benefit from insights of documents issued later.
The fourth must-read document is a new form of teaching, a “pastoral constitution.” Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the Modern World is perhaps the chief fruit of Vatican 2.
All the documents of Vatican 2 are freely available in various 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 though in a new Pentecost, and grant that Holy Church ... may spread the Kingdom of the divine Savior, a Kingdom of truth, of justice, of love, and of peace. Amen.”
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