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Thomas J. MassaroMay 14, 2012

Anniversaries come in all shapes, colors and flavors. A birthday or wedding anniversary, especially of the round-number variety, marks a significant milestone, affording an opportunity to appreciate the sheer longevity of a person or the staying power of a relationship. We all need to celebrate our resilience amid life’s challenges and transitions.

Anniversaries of particular historical events also evoke a wide range of emotions. The recent centenary of the sinking of the Titanic prompted a peculiar blend of emotions, most of them gloomy. Washingtonians just celebrated the happier centennial of their city’s stunning cherry trees, a 1912 gift from Japan. We in Boston just marked 100 years since the opening of Fenway Park; even Red Sox haters have to admire the continuing appeal of that “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” as John Updike described it. The university where I teach, Boston College, is gearing up to celebrate its sesquicentennial anniversary, a great opportunity to review its contribution to church and society and to reaffirm its mission.

Few anniversaries can rival the upcoming 50th anniversary of the opening on Oct. 11, 1962, of the Second Vatican Council for sheer influence, theological heft and even drama. Unless you are planning a six-month hibernation, you will be hearing a great deal about this momentous event very soon [see America’s occasional series, 2/13 and 4/30], and I wholeheartedly encourage all Catholics to take full advantage of the many offerings that will come their way and to familiarize themselves with the work and legacy of Vatican II.

If I may plug the outstanding work of two friends, you cannot go wrong with investing time in anything produced by John W. O’Malley, S.J. (full disclosure: He is my former colleague and housemate) and Richard Gaillardetz (my colleague these days at B.C.). In books, articles, public lectures and even audio mini-courses, these two scholars of church history and ecclesiology present accessible and insightful analyses of what the council fathers wrought half a century ago. Many parishes, dioceses and colleges are planning excellent lecture series and events to celebrate the opening of Vatican II, though not every one of them can feature O’Malley and Gaillardetz!

Although the council had roots in longstanding theological trends and ecclesial developments, the actual work of Vatican II unfolded between the time Pope John XXIII announced the Council on Jan. 25, 1959, and the conclusion of its fourth and final period on Dec. 8, 1965. The anniversary may occasion a new wave of gripping anecdotal accounts of the council proceedings. Besides the ample politicking that went on behind the scenes, the impressive main stage was the central nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, which despite its immense proportions could barely hold the council’s nearly 2,500 attendees, mostly bishops.

We all know the buzzwords associated with the council and its 16 major documents: aggiornamento, ressourcement, people of God, full participation of the laity, the communio of all the baptized, development, collegiality, dialogue. Even if most adult Catholics could not offer a complete account of the theological content and significance of Vatican II, they probably could not imagine a church without the legacy it bestowed. The way we today take for granted its momentous contributions—from liturgical reforms to new commitments to both accept and transform the modern world—is proof of its lasting mark on our church.

I was born too late to have a personal recollection of Vatican II, but a wonderful coincidence provides an inspiring note on which to close. As I was drafting this column, the phone rang, and I entered into a delightful conversation with a 90-year-old nun who was seeking a bit of social justice programming advice. When she asked about my next column, I invited her reflections on Vatican II. She waxed poetic about how Good Pope John opened the stained glass windows of the church to let in some fresh air and expressed her fear that her final years might witness a shutting of those windows.

I am grateful for the good sister’s recollection. Since we need every deep breath of fresh air we can get these days, let us keep celebrating the style, spirit and vision of the council.

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11 years 9 months ago

I have a novel idea:  Rather than read opinions about what Vatican II means, why not read the actual documents?  You might be surprised.

Craig McKee
11 years 9 months ago
How Vatican II changed my life:
In Grade 4, I was so happy because I had at long last gotten the words to that darn SUSCIPIAT memorized and could finally stop pulling my little cardboard "cheat sheet" out of the sleeve of my cassock. I was no longer getting dirty looks from the priest when I forgot to grab it from where I had stashed it on the credence table, and all of a sudden I had to re-learn all those altar boy prayers in English. But best of all was getting rid of that darn altar rail cuz I could never get the lock fully latched when the time came to close them.
And then there was that great riddle going around school during the transition:
Q: What is God's phone number?
A: Et cum spirit 2-2-0!
Perhaps someone will have the time to compile a collection of "A KID'S EYE VIEW OF VATICAN II" stories?
Lisa Weber
11 years 9 months ago
I haven't read much of the Vatican II documents, but can say they sound radical even today.  I would like to see them re-visited and perhaps implemented with more seriousness.  Vatican II was necessary then and it is even more necessary now.
Des Farrell
11 years 9 months ago
If social justice programming advice is what I think it is then that 90 year old sister has earned herself a non-stop ticket to the Fenway Park in the sky!
Robert Klahn
11 years 9 months ago
Vatican II is 50 years old? Oh my... I remember Vatican II. I must be getting old!

When the changes started I thought some were trivial, and even annoying. I thought the sign of peace was silly. Then one day, I had a day off from work during the week, and my daughter's class had mass that day. When their classed went to mass on my day off I went also.

That day I sat well back in the church, with no one near me. As the time for the sign of peace approached I suddenly realized I had no one to exchange the sign with. So I immediately moved further up the church near the other parents.

At that point I realize the silly sign of peace had become important to me. Now I go to a church in Toledo, St Martin DePores, where the sign of peach is enthusiatically shared among the congregation including hugs from many of the members. The changes really did mean something.
Mike Evans
11 years 9 months ago
None of us, if we are honest with ourselves, want to ever go back to the triumphalist church of the 1950's. In Pope John, we glimpsed a God who laughs and loves. Since JPII, all we have seen is backsliding and imperiousness. The doors were thrown wide open to include the whole world during Vatican II; now the drawbridge has been raised and only a narrow shaft of light penetrates through the heavily guarded ramparts. Meanwhile, in so many lands and continents, the faith simply fails to inspire or save.
C Walter Mattingly
11 years 9 months ago
Mike (#6),
The doors were thrown open to about 20 countries and about 50 million enslaved by the Soviet Union by the very JPII you here vilify as backsliding. Gut shot for promoting religious and political freedom for his beloved Poland and many other countries, he forgave his assassin and went out again and again in public to risk his life. His ecumenical outreach, personal piety and bravery, and humble apology to our Jewish brothers were noticed and appreciated, small-minded criticisms not withstanding. At his funeral the people of the world flooded the Vatican to mourn his death and celebrate his life. 

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