Dates and anniversaries are very important in the life of the Church and in our faith. You may recall one significant date not too long ago: December 8th, 2015. Most of us would recall that this was the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It also marked the beginning of the new Holy Year of Mercy. But there was at least one other thing that was significant about that date that was a bit less publicized. December 8th, 2015 marked the 50th Anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council.
What was the Second Vatican Council (a.k.a. Vatican II)? Many people, when they hear the phrase, immediately think of the changes that happened in the Mass, such as going from Latin to English, and the priest now facing the people. Liturgical changes were only a small portion of what the Council was about – and ironically, many of the liturgical changes that we saw actually happen were not even explicitly stated by the Council, but flowed from other agendas attached to it.
Vatican II was the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church – “ecumenical council” referring to a gathering of the entire Church, through her bishops, that seeks to address one or more issues vital to the life of the Church at a given time. The first recognized ecumenical council of the Church took place in Nicaea in the year 325. Flowing from that council, we have the Creed that we say together every Sunday at Mass.
The Second Vatican Council was announced by Pope St. John XXIII in 1959 and officially opened on Oct. 11, 1962. By the middle of the 20th century, the world had seen a great deal of change, and the essential purpose of the Council was to help the Church meet the pastoral needs of this new era. Some of the main goals included: making the Church more accessible in the contemporary world; addressing the disunity among Christians; and seeking a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose of the Church and its Tradition, and articulating this in a way that wasn’t merely reactionary to Protestantism and secularism.
Many people have been alarmed by all the controversy and misinterpretation that surrounded the recent Synod of Bishops on the family. Well, things were no different with Vatican II. In fact, controversy and misinterpretation still surrounds it. One reason there has been so much misunderstanding about the Council is that few people have actually read the documents it produced. In total, sixteen documents were written. Of the most significant, the first was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) in 1963. Second was the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) in 1964. Third was the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation in (Dei Verbum) 1965. Fourth was the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) in 1965. Other documents included topics on ecumenism, relations with other religions, Eastern Catholic Churches, social communication, Christian education, religious freedom, the training of priests, the renewal of religious life, the role of the laity, missionary work, the ministry and life of priests, and the role of bishops.
Consider having a look at one or more of the documents of the Council. You might be surprised at what they say, or don’t say. You can find them easily on the Vatican website (www.vatican.va).