The Council at 40
From its opening session in October 1962 until its close 40 years ago in December 1965, the Second Vatican Council held millions of Catholics and others riveted. Pope John XXIII, who convoked the council only 90 days after he was elected, hoped that it would update the Catholic Church, renew it spiritually, re-establish unity among all Christians and transform the relationship of Catholics with Jews, Muslims and followers of other religions. The world’s media followed closely the events that unfolded and the decisions that were taken during the four sessions of the council. It was widely agreed that this was the greatest religious event of the 20th century. Around 2,500 bishops attended Vatican II. Through their presence and advice, Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox observers played a significant role. Lay Catholics, both men and women, came as official auditors and on occasion addressed the bishops in the council.
Like many Catholics of my generation, I experienced Vatican II as an enormous breath of fresh air, even a new Pentecost. To steal a line from William Wordsworth: “’Twas joy then to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.” Ordained in Australia by a bishop who had just returned from the first session of the council, I followed the third and fourth session from England and Germany.
One special gift Vatican II brought me during my first year in Germany arrived on Feb. 2, 1965. I was living in a community with 30 other young priests. Instead of each of us being led out of the sacristy by an altar boy to say Mass by ourselves in tiny side chapels, we now concelebrated all together at the main altar, and so began to express visibly our union in the one priesthood of Christ.
A few days later I headed south from Münster to spend two months in a parish in Trier. Provisional texts in German were already available for baptisms, funerals and marriages. It made so much more sense when people could follow the prayers in their own language, select the scriptural readings, and help to shape the celebration through these and other choices. The introduction of the vernacular meant that they could truly participate in and not merely assist at the services.
For 1,000 years priests of the Western church had used only one eucharistic prayer, the Roman canon. They had to whisper it in Latin, heard only by altar boys kneeling a few feet away. The faithful could follow in their Missals what was being whispered at the altar. But many preferred to say the Rosary, recite their own prayers or simply wait for the moment when holy Communion was distributed. Vatican II introduced three more eucharistic prayers with others to follow. They were to be said aloud in the vernacular or even sung. The council thus allowed us Westerners to catch up with our fellow Catholics of the Eastern churches. From the early centuries of Christianity, they had enjoyed a variety of eucharistic prayers, which were normally sung and which a long time ago had been translated into the languages of the people.
A further welcome change was the new Lectionary, which provided readings for Mass from all four Gospels and from a full range of biblical books. It was a relief to hear passages from Mark and not face so much from Matthew’s Gospel. Before the liturgical reforms, Matthew’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins turned up with such relentless regularity that I was almost put off that passage for life. One particularly helpful addition in the reformed liturgy was the provision for the passion story from Matthew, Mark or Luke to be read on Palm Sunday. In the preconciliar days we had to wait until Good Friday before we heard John’s magnificent account of the Lord’s suffering and death. The introduction on Palm Sunday of a version of the passion from one of the other Gospels helps to set the religious tone for Holy Week.
What Vatican II encouraged in relations with other Christians filled me with hope and joy. Before the council, Catholics were normally forbidden to pray with other Christians, even to say the Our Father with them. During the spring of 1965 Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion, came to northern Germany and visited schools for the children of British military personnel. At least a quarter of the children were Catholics. I stood with him on the stage during a prayer service, with 700 or 800 boys and girls stretching away in front of us down a vast school hall. To my delight, the archbishop asked us all to recite with him a prayer from St. Richard of Chichester (d. 1253), a prayer that came from the days when the Reformation had not yet divided Western Christendom. “Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which thou hast given me—for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.” A year later Archbishop Ramsey visited Rome, and Pope Paul VI gave him his own episcopal ring. Ramsey handed on that ring to his successors in the See of Canterbury. They wear it when they come on official visits to Rome.
What happened liturgically, ecumenically and in other ways at Vatican II and in its immediate aftermath delighted many Catholics and other Christians of my generation. But the world has changed dramatically since the council finished. There have been some seismic shifts and changes around the globe since December 1965. The world’s population has grown from a little more than three billion to over six billion. In what was perhaps the most surprising event of the century, European Communism, which had been a menacing presence at the council, suddenly collapsed in 1989. Revolutionary scientific and technological advances have increased at a bewildering speed. Christiaan Barnard, M.D., performed the first heart transplant in 1967; organ transplants have become an everyday affair. In 1969 human beings walked for the first time on the moon. The introduction in 1970 of the Boeing 747, the first wide-bodied or jumbo jet, revolutionized mass transport. Louise Brown, the first child conceived “in vitro,” was born in 1978. We now live in a brave new world connected by the Internet and cellphones. It is also a world in which human life is threatened at every stage—through abortion, embryo research, infanticide, euthanasia, capital punishment and armed conflicts.
These days more and more people have become aware of the threats to our fragile ecological systems. Nuclear waste is proliferating; forests are disappearing in Africa, the Amazon and Asia; fossil fuels and other natural resources are being depleted at an alarming rate; ice caps are melting and global warming is threatening everyone. It sometimes looks as if the human race is bent on destroying the earth and itself.
In these early years of the third millennium, it may seem that Vatican II is a spent force. What have its 16 documents to say to us today? The messages of the council appear exhausted and irrelevant, useful only as topics for doctoral dissertations and learned articles emerging from research into the archives of those who made Vatican II what it was nearly two generations ago. We can admire the openness to change and to renewal of so many of the council’s protagonists. But today millions of Catholics and others worry about their security and fear losing their identity.
Yet I remain passionately committed to the council as a continuing source of enlightenment and fresh life for the whole church and beyond. Let me pick out five of the key messages from Vatican II.
First, the council set its face against the scourge of war and dedicated many paragraphs in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes) to the cause of fostering peace and establishing an effective community of nations. In the decades since Vatican II, the world has continued to suffer from armed conflicts, some of them long-lasting. In Guatemala 34 years of conflict came to an end with the 1996 peace agreement. No fewer than 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Mayan Indians, had been killed—not to mention innumerable cases of rape, torture and destruction of property. Between 1979 and 1992, El Salvador was devastated by a civil war characterized by ferocious military and paramilitary repression. After a civil war in Sudan that lasted 20 years and left nearly two million dead, peace seemed to have come at the end of 2004, at least in the south. One could go on listing the wars that have devastated countries around the globe since Vatican II closed in 1965.
Right through his long pontificate (1978-2005), John Paul II followed the lead of the council and Pope Paul VI in urging the principles of international law, the removal of injustices that cause conflicts, and effective economic aid toward development, “the new name for peace.” As John Paul said in his message for the World Day of Peace in 2002, “No peace without justice. No justice without forgiveness.” If we turn our gaze to Afghanistan, the Middle East and so many parts of Africa, the teaching of Vatican II on the scourge of war and the promotion of peace remains more urgent than ever.
Second, the council pleaded the cause of the poor of this earth. It vigorously reminded the rich nations of their obligations toward the third world. Since 1965 some progress has been made. The numbers of starving and chronically hungry people have dropped in such countries as China and India. There have been striking improvements in health care in many parts of the world. But daily pictures from Africa remind us that nearly a billion people fall asleep at night desperately hungry or even starving. In the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (No. 27), Vatican II put into a global setting the parable of the rich man turning his eyes away from the poor Lazarus, who crouched at his door and whose sores were licked by dogs (Lk 16:19-31). That dramatic appeal has lost none of its force.
The third message I want to recall from Vatican II concerns lay people. No previous church council had ever given them so much attention—not only through a whole chapter in the “Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium, No. 30-8) but also through an entire document, the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” (Apostolicam Actuositatem). The council based its teaching about the laity on their baptism, which incorporates all believers into Christ, who is priest, prophet and king. All the faithful share in these three dimensions of Christ’s redemptive function, even if the “common priesthood” of the baptized is to be distinguished from that of the “ministerial” or ordained priesthood (Lumen Gentium, No. 10-13). “The Church in the Modern World” called all Catholic (and indeed all Christian) men and women to play their essential role in the whole human community: by promoting the well-being of families, an economic order at the service of all, justice in public life, peace between nations, cultural growth and everything that contributes to the common good. Any renewal in Catholic and Christian life and, indeed, in our suffering world, seems out of the question without a much more active presence of strongly committed laypersons within the church and beyond. Vatican II’s teaching on the vocation to holiness and ministry of all the baptized has lost nothing of its urgency.
At the end of the council many greeted the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Dei Verbum) as a remarkable doctrinal statement on revelation, tradition and the inspired Scriptures. Its final chapter, on the indispensable place of the Scriptures in the life of the church, remains intensely relevant. This is the fourth message I wish to glean from Vatican II. The closing paragraphs of Dei Verbum dreamed of the people of God living by the Scriptures at every level. The council yearned for the whole church to be much more biblical in every aspect of its life. Here I have no right to examine any conscience except my own. But despite all the progress that has been made, have Catholics become a truly biblical people, who put their entire existence under the word of God?
Any who read the documents of Vatican II will notice that there is no text explicitly devoted to Jesus Christ. Yet his presence pervades all 16 of the documents, not least Gaudium et Spes. That text has wonderful things to say about Christ “working with human hands” and “loving with a human heart” (No. 22). It holds together superbly the two sides of the climax of his story, never introducing the crucifixion without mentioning the resurrection and vice versa. The council yearned that more and more Catholics and other Christians would let themselves be drawn into a deep, life-transforming experience of Jesus. This is the fifth and final message that I retrieve from Vatican II.
Beyond question, the council has left us much unfinished business. Within the Catholic Church, which has never before been so centralized, we need a measure of decentralization and a more effective practice of collegiality in government. The rise of militant Islam and other factors have given a fresh urgency to the respectful dialogue and interreligious cooperation initiated by Vatican II’s “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate). Any interreligious dialogue and collaboration remains, however, hampered by the continuing divisions among Christians. To the degree that the council’s push toward Christian unity is unfulfilled, Catholics and all Christians remain weakened in what they can do in their relationship with other believers.
It is easy to list the ways in which, even after 40 years, the teaching and decisions of Vatican II have not yet been fully implemented. Yet any attempts at reform and renewal will remain doctrinally unsound, emotionally empty and largely ineffective, unless they draw their inspiration from the crucified and risen Christ. Through a deep encounter with the living Christ and a radical conversion to him, Catholics will be enabled to maintain their Christian identity. Then they will be guided by the Holy Spirit to the renewed fellowship that Vatican II yearned to promote, a fellowship that will strengthen them to work in solidarity for the good of all human beings and to bring to the whole world the good news that is Jesus Christ himself.