Decisive moment for the Catholic Church: 60 years after Vatican II

October 11 marked the 60th anniversary of one of the most important dates in modern religious history: the opening of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church. In recent days, journalists and theologians have revived old debates about the meaning and authority of Vatican II.

The frail and elderly Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI published a rare letter praising him at a conference in the United States:

When I began my theological studies in January 1946, no one was thinking of an ecumenical council. When Pope John XXIII announced it, to everyone’s surprise, there were many doubts about whether it would be meaningful, if at all possible, to organize the insights and questions into the together of a conciliar declaration and thus to give the Church a direction for its further journey. In fact, a new council proved not only significant, but necessary.

Pope Francis also hailed his achievements, but noted with some pain that he continues to cause dissent and unease within the Catholic world.

How many times, after the Council, have Christians preferred to choose their camp in the Church, without realizing that they were breaking their Mother’s heart! How many times have they preferred to encourage their own party rather than being the servants of everyone? To be progressive or conservative rather than being brothers and sisters? To be of the “right” or of the “left”, rather than with Jesus? Presenting themselves as “guardians of truth” or “pioneers of innovation” rather than seeing themselves as humble and grateful children of Holy Mother Church?

With all the commentary, especially in Catholic circles, many are asking: what is the meaning of Vatican II? Perhaps one approach could be to consider: what exactly happened on October 11, 1962?

Pope John XXIII opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962 / WikiMedia Commons

That day, Pope John XXIII presided over the solemn opening of the Council. A procession of some 2,500 Council Fathers, mostly bishops, made its way from the Vatican Palace, through the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square and a vast crowd of worshippers, to St. Rock. John XXIII was at the back of the procession, dressed in splendid vestments and carried on a ceremonial throne, signs of an earlier era of papal splendour.

The show certainly caught the attention of the media and around the world. Sixty years later, beyond the pageantry, the event continues as an unforgettable moment for the Church as for the entire world. A return to some of the words of John XXIII himself that day – in his allocution Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (“Mother the Church rejoices”) – remains one of the best ways to understand the importance of this anniversary and of the Council as a whole.

The speech was bold and deeply rooted in tradition. Ecumenical Councils are almost as old as the Church itself, a means of clarifying points of belief, consolidating unity and fostering new vitality.

In the middle of the 20th century, John XXIII felt deeply that, in the face of wars and bitter divisions, the Church should serve as a sign of unity: not only of unity within the institutional limits of the Catholic Church itself, but also with other Christians and all humanity. Each time the Church celebrates a Council, noted John XXIII, she acquires new spiritual strength and makes a valuable contribution to the life of society as a whole.

“Illuminated by the light of this Council,” the Pope said, “the Church will be increased in spiritual riches.” She would find “new strength” to “look bravely into the future.” With appropriate changes and mutual cooperation, he asserted, the Church would help individuals, families, and nations to turn to things on high.

Pope John went on to describe the renewed attitude he wanted for the Church. He acknowledged that many zealous Christians believe that calamities surround them. It is an eternal temptation to: long for an earlier time when living the faith was less challenging.

Certainly, it was true that people could be so busy with politics and economics that they turned away from God. But the pope challenged Catholics to recognize God’s hand in the new order of things.

He called on the Council Fathers to present “all Christian doctrine, without removing any part of it”, but with the same view of new conditions and ways of life. These conditions, the pope commented, had opened up new avenues for Catholic evangelization. In unforgettable words, he called on the Church to show itself, not only as an authority and an enemy of error, but as “the most loving mother of all, good, patient” towards other Christians and all people. ‘humanity.

For four years the Council sought to make this attitude a living reality. Throughout, the Council Fathers challenged each other to broaden their vision and become more attentive to the needs of the world, while deepening the spiritual riches of the Church.

This process couldn’t help but get a little messy – but in the end, it succeeded.

In a spirit of communion and dialogue, the Council knew how to articulate the pillars of the Christian faith in a way that was both traditional and new. Christ, as the Council affirmed, “fully reveals man to man himself”.

It has produced brilliant documents: an affirmation of the liturgy as the privileged place of the presence of Christ (Sacrosanctum Concilium), a keener awareness of the mystery of the Church (Lumen gentium), the power of the scriptures (Dei Verbum), and the Church’s concern for the world (Gaudium and Spes). These continue to be vital to the Church today – although they are more referenced than read, unfortunately.

The past 60 years have brought more challenges and crises. Yet it is precisely because of these difficulties that Catholics must turn to the authentic spirit and teaching of the Council. The great enterprise initiated by John XXIII remains a fundamental point of reference for the Church and for so many others who ardently seek truth and the common good.

Prof. Joseph Thomas is chaplain at Mercer House in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author, more recently, of theology of salvation (Scepter Publishers). More by Father Joseph Thomas

Martha J. Finley