Fifty years ago this last Christmas Day (Dec. 25, 1961), with the Apostolic Constitution “Humanae Salutis,” Blessed John XXIII formally convoked the Second Vatican Council in the hope that renewal of the church would give hope to the world. “I know how helpful for the good of souls are those means which tend to make the individual people in need of salvation more human,” he wrote. Accordingly, Pope John urged that the church had to “discern the signs of the times.” Despite the darkness of the era—it was the height of the cold war—he saw a few hints that “augur well for the fate of the Church and humanity.”
For many years the renewal wrought by the council (1962–65) gave fresh hope to humanity. The church itself was renewed with a new self-understanding. Its catholicity was enhanced with a stronger embrace of the Eastern churches, the fostering of Christian unity and the retrieval of a special relationship with Judaism. Abandoning centuries of intolerance, the church committed itself to religious freedom. The liturgy was renewed in vernacular rites to promote congregational participation. Above all, the church placed itself at the service of the world in pursuit of human rights, peace and just development.
As the 50th anniversary of the council unfolds over the next three years, America will present a series of articles commemorating its most significant documents, personalities, events and outcomes. We are pleased to introduce this series with an essay by Richard Gaillardetz of Boston College on “the enduring significance” of the council and its reforms. Professor Gaillardetz responds to contemporary skeptics who dismiss Vatican II as an aberrant enthusiasm of the 1960s. He counsels that we have as much to learn from the conduct of the council as from its documents and from the spirit of hope it engendered.