Vatican II at 50: A look back at its highlights

By Paul Boudreau| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Scripture and Theology
In our December 2005 issue, Paul Boudreau reflected on the 40th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of its opening this year, Boudreau takes a fresh look back at the important moments from Vatican II.

We called them the Coneheads, after the family of space aliens featured in a popular skit on Saturday Night Live in the ‘70s. A wall-sized black-and-white photo mural hung in the common room of my seminary, a family portrait of 2,000 bishops, each wearing identical white cone-shaped miters, jammed cheek-to-jowl into the vast cavern of St. Peter’s Basilica. They were participating in the Second Vatican Council, the event that changed the unchangeable Catholic Church. This month we mark the 50th anniversary of its opening on Oct. 11, 1962.

A lot has changed in 50 years. In 1962 you could buy a gallon of milk for two quarters, a pack of cigarettes for under a dollar, and a gallon of gas for 31 cents. You could mail a letter with a four-cent stamp. For $3,490 you could buy a new Pontiac Grand Prix. On TV, The Beverly Hillbillies premiered on CBS, while The Jetsons became the first program to be broadcast in color on ABC. The Beatles recorded their first single, “Love Me Do” and Bob Dylan released his debut album “Bob Dylan.” Andy Warhol painted a can of soup, the Oscar went to Lawrence of Arabia, the Dow averaged 640, and three days after the opening of Vatican II, a U.S. Air Force plane took photos of Soviet missile bases under construction in Cuba.

I am a pre-boomer, born and raised Catholic in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The church I grew up in was a whole different ball game from what it is now. Back then the Mass was in Latin and happening up there beyond the rail, shrouded somewhat by a priest who stood with his back to the people facing an altar up against the wall.

I could either follow along in the missal, pray the rosary, or stare at Mary Ellen Gallagher sitting two pews ahead with her parents. Most of the time I chose option number three, since she was a lot nicer to look at than the back of Father McRooney’s head.

Being Catholic then was a matter of going to church on Sundays, not eating meat on Fridays, getting your sacraments, not marrying a non-Catholic or—heaven forbid—getting a divorce, having lots of kids, and making sure they practiced their religion, too, just like you did. Then you died and went to heaven.

But in my teen years I didn’t appreciate the subtle beauty of my religion, so I left. Besides, based on what I could figure, I wasn’t going to heaven anyway. I mean, if a hot dog on a Friday could put you in a handbasket to hell, my frequently committed mortal sins were certainly good for a one-way ticket on the Stygian Ferry.

Sure, I went to Confession before Communion like everybody else, but the state of grace in which I emerged from the booth was like a popsicle on a hot sidewalk. It hardly lasted till Sunday afternoon when a brawl with my brother or a lingering mental image of Mary Ellen Gallagher once again stained my immortal soul beyond deliverance.

So my window of salvation was pretty narrow and unless I got run over by a bus on a Saturday night between St. Lawrence O’Toole’s Church and home, I was destined for the everlasting flames. I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t, so I figured it would be a lot easier and less time-consuming if I just didn’t.

Years later when I returned to the flock, boy was I surprised. Things were different. It wasn’t my uncle’s church anymore. The Second Vatican Council put a new face on Catholicism, reworked the worship, dusted off the Bible, and lifted up its members to the astonishing awareness that you, I, and the little kid gobbling Cheerios in the cry room are the People of God.

Vatican II was the latest of 21 ecumenical councils that refined and defined the nature, scope, and mission of the Catholic Church throughout history, a kind of periodic ecclesiastical reboot

Begun on Oct. 11, 1962, by Pope John XXIII, the jovial, rotund Italian who is now beatified and up for sainthood, Vatican II gathered bishops, advisors, and consultants from around the world—2,450 strong—and hammered out 16 documents sometimes described as the greatest expressions of Catholic teaching the world has ever known.

The council’s driving force was best expressed in Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism): “Christ summons the church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The church is always in need of this, insofar as she is an institution of [people]. Thus, if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated—to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself—these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.”

Full, conscious, active

Changing language is really tough; just ask an immigrant trying to learn the lingo of a new land. My second week in Mexico I knew my limited Spanish—¿Dónde están los baños? and Dos más cervezas, por favor—wasn’t getting the job done. The early church struggled when the original language of the liturgy, Greek, was dumped for the common tongue of the people, Latin. A vestige remained, the Kyrie (Lord, have mercy), but for the people of the Roman world to understand and participate, the vernacular was needed.

The same was true for the 20th-century church. Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) observed that “the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people.” The vernacular Mass, which emerged from the inspiration of the council, recognized the dignity of every language, whether it was Spanish, Swedish, or Swahili, and made our native tongues holy.

Bringing home the language of the liturgy drew people closer to the source and summit of their faith, but more was needed.

The original disciples gathered—sprawled is a better word—around the table of the Lord’s Supper, and that became the model of the early church’s assembly. But when Christianity went legit in 313 A.D., when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, they moved the whole shebang into civic assembly buildings to accommodate greater numbers—and maybe boost the collection. These royal courtrooms, or basilicas, were built long and narrow because the architectural technology of the day limited the span of an arch. On one end was the entryway, and on the other was usually a raised platform for legal proceedings, speeches and ceremonies, and a rail that separated the dignitaries from the hoi polloi, much like in a modern courtroom.

That rail remained in our churches for nearly 17 centuries, drawing a line between the people and the action of the liturgy. It was a boundary you did not cross until Vatican II declared that “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations.” It was determined that nothing should stand between the people and the table at which they were invited to dine.

Large and in charge

Our bishop back then was Henry J. O’Brien, God rest his soul. Now, my dad had a friend who drove a car called a Henry J, and for most of my youth I couldn’t figure out whether the bishop was named for the car or the car for the bishop. At any rate, Bishop Henry J. ruled the roost. He drove around—or I should say he was driven around—in a long, black Cadillac, and when he showed up, all the priests scrambled to kiss his ring and show him deference.

He didn’t seem like a bad guy; in fact he was rather nice. I remember at our Confirmation, when I was about 11, he stood at the door of the church after Mass and greeted the confirmands. “The hope of the church!” he announced to each of us as we filed out, but the kid in front of me was upset because he thought the bishop called him the dope of the church. Hey, the kid didn’t even know the answer to question #6, “Why did God make you?”

But make no mistake, the chain of command was simple: God, the pope, and Henry J. O’Brien.

Vatican II reaffirmed that the pope is the boss. Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) declared that “the Roman pontiff has full, supreme, and universal power over the church,” professed certainty in “the sacred primacy of the Roman pontiff and of his infallible magisterium,” and pointed out that the bishops, together with the pope, “govern the house of the living God.” Well, there you have it.

But don’t get the wrong idea. The pope does not decree on a whim. The infallibility of the pope when teaching on faith and morals is seldom exercised. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to priests, told them that the pope isn’t an “oracle” and “is infallible only in rare situations.”

To safeguard the pontiff’s thoughts while shaving from making their way into the church’s infallible doctrine, Lumen Gentium also shored up the power of the bishops’ conferences to act in “collegiality” with the Holy See. The two must always be one so that the office of teaching and of governing the church “can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college [of bishops].”

Girl power

Lumen Gentium goes on to state that the rest of us, the faithful, “are by Baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God” and “sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ.” Wow! Nobody ever told us that we were the People of God. The entire second chapter of Lumen Gentium, named “The People of God,” is dedicated to just us folks.

The council gave us an extraordinary role to play in the ongoing practice and leadership of the church, teaching that the People of God “should openly reveal to [the bishops] their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ. They are ... permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the church.”

Yikes! That means you and I have a share in and a responsibility for leadership in the church. The establishment of Catholic practice moves not only from the top down, but from the grassroots to the papal apartments. Here’s how it works.

There was more to being a Catholic back in the day than pay, pray, and obey. We also played. Altar boys took the occasional hit from the altar wine and used their cassocks for Halloween costumes. But no one ever thought that girls could become altar boys. I mean, really.

The Code of Canon Law states that, while lay “persons” could assist in various liturgical functions, only lay “men” were allowed to be instituted as acolytes, serving the priest at the altar. So forget about it, right?

Well, not exactly. After Vatican II girls and women started showing up on the altar wearing liturgical robes and hauling the water and wine. Some folks were shocked, others delighted. Bishops for their part generally looked the other way. Altar girls were a “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice that became widespread in our parishes. The reasoning was that the girls weren’t “instituted” as acolytes anymore than the boys were. Still, it was pushing the limits.

This went on for years. Then in 1994, Pope John Paul II decreed that altar girls were OK in his book and it was a done deal. The system worked. The desire of the People of God was made known through the bishops to the Holy See and it became the practice of the church.

OK, so women still can’t achieve the “Big O” of Catholicism: ordination. Or, as one fifth-grade wag answered when asked how many sacraments there were: “Seven for boys and six for girls.” But the roles of women in the liturgy and in the community expanded.

Hundreds of parishes in the United States are run by women in the ministry of parish life director or pastoral coordinator. Thousands more are run by women delegated to the task by smart pastors who want to save their sanity. “It is fitting that [women] are able to assume their proper role in accordance with their own nature,” it says in Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). And “it will belong to all to acknowledge and favor the proper and necessary participation of women in the cultural life.”

Dust off the old Bible

When I was a kid growing up Catholic, I loved the Bible. Ours sat on a shelf in the living room next to the television. I never actually read anything in it, but the pictures were spectacular.

We weren’t encouraged to read the scriptures. I mean, look what happened when Martin Luther read it. We couldn’t have that again. Besides, the 1899 Douay-Rheims American Edition, the only Catholic Bible available, was written in old-fashioned English with all the thees, the thous, the hasts, and the wasts. So who needs that, right? Plus, we had been taught everything anyone ever needed to know about the Bible: “Thou art Peter,” and “This is my Body.” Every self-respecting Catholic had those two verses in his pocket, and that covered about everything.

Well, that all changed with Vatican II. Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) urged Catholics “to learn by frequent reading of the divine scriptures the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ ... for ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

Six years after the close of the council, the New American Bible was published and widely acknowledged as a primo English translation. The post-Vatican II lectionary, the Bible readings for Mass, provides a much wider selection of passages than the old one to promote a greater familiarity with scripture. And what parish doesn’t have a Bible study group or two? So now there are at least some Catholics who can thump the Bible chapter and verse with the best of the Baptists.

Protestants rescued

But what about the Protestants? Heck, they were all going to hell back in my day. It was kind of sad, really. I mean, all my friends who were Protestant, some of them who didn’t use swear words like I did, or smoke cigarettes behind the school, or siphon off vodka from their father’s stash and replace it with water. No matter. They didn’t stand a chance because only Catholics went to heaven.

I remember one day coming home from catechism, where I had once again been taught the unhappy destiny of the denominationalists, and asking my devout Irish mother, “Is it true that all the Protestants are going to hell?” “Well,” she said, “that’s what the church teaches.” Then she added, “but I don’t believe it.”

They didn’t invite Mom to Vatican II, but she would’ve made a good addition. Lumen Gentium declared that Protestants “are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them, too, he gives his gifts and graces whereby he is operative among them with his sanctifying power.” The ink wasn’t dry on the document before you could hear the hammering and sawing of expansion work coming from above the clouds. Make room, Catholics. We’ve got one big busload of Protestants on the way.

Unitatis Redintegratio speaks of the “one and only church of God” but acknowledges that “serious dissensions” caused large groups to abandon the communion, disagreements “for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.” Now, generations later, all baptized believers, no matter what their affiliation, are to be embraced as brothers and sisters “in communion with the Catholic Church, even though this communion is imperfect.”

Inspired by Vatican II, Catholics from the pope on down dove head first into the ecumenical movement and began working for the restoration of Christian unity. Does this mean that all the Protestants are going to line up to kiss the pope’s ring wearing Mother of God T-shirts? I doubt it. Ecumenism, a word that means “to inhabit one house,” is not about changing the other guy but growing together in mutual charity, respect, and understanding. That’s a far cry from sending them all to hell.

Oh, and don’t forget the Jews and the Muslims. The council holds them in esteem in several places because they are “Abraham’s seed” and “along with us adore the one and merciful God” (Lumen Gentium).

That’s a big load off Jewish shoulders. Let’s face it: We’ve been dumping on them for centuries. They were fair game, even for my devout mother. She’d always start out with the disclaimer, “I’m not prejudiced,” then she’d add, “but you know those Jews...” and then she’d start stacking up the stereotypes. But Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) “decries hatred, persecutions, [and] displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” Excuse me. I need to call my mother.

That leaves the Hindus, the Buddhists, Baha’is, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, Christian Scientists, Amish, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Moonies, Scientologists, and the Church of What’s Hap’nin’ Now. Evidently there’s room for everybody. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” it says in Nostra Aetate, and that often the teachings found in them “reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all.”

Rights and freedoms

“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable!” Vatican II? Nope. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act II, Scene II. But Gaudium et Spes could give The Bard a run for his money. “Man has been created by God,” it says, “for a blissful purpose.” The council celebrated the sacred dignity of humanity beyond anything ever before. It placed humanity at the center and apex of creation, hallowing the human conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man where he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths."

And all these dignified people now have the freedom to choose any religious path they wanted. Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom) taught that all human persons have a natural and inalienable right to be free in seeking religious truth, in living and worshiping according to their own religious convictions, and in bearing witness to their beliefs without human interference. Tell that to Mrs. O’Houlihan next time she complains about her kids who don’t go to church and haven’t had their children baptized yet.

When I was growing up, being Catholic meant that you went to church on Sunday, ate fish on Friday, didn’t swear, and really tried to steer clear of sinful sex stuff. Your mission in life was to get all your sacraments and die in the state of grace. Other than that, what you did was your own business.

Not so, said Vatican II. The council taught in Gaudium et Spes that Catholics are gravely mistaken “who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations.” The sacred dignity of human life defines the duty of every Catholic to work diligently “for fundamental decisions to be taken in economic and political affairs ... which will everywhere recognize and satisfy the right of all to a human and social culture” in conformity with that dignity.

What came from that was Catholic stewardship, the understanding that the things we have are given to us by God to be used for the welfare and benefit of all. The poor, the needy, the vulnerable, the lowly, all have a legitimate claim to our time, our energy, our money, our resources, our presence, and our attention. And we’re talking about a serious obligation here. “The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.” Catholics were called upon to make the shift from the more internal focus of the pre-Vatican church to the outward mission and responsibilities expressed in Gaudium et Spes.

So Good Pope John convened the council 50 years ago because he wanted to open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air. Vatican II did more than that. Mass in English, taking down the rail, sharing power with the people, cracking open the Bible, saving the Protestants, and affirming the sacred dignity of all human life opened up a whole world of participation and shared responsibility for the People of God.

The church was no longer the exclusive realm of the priests and the sisters; it belonged to us all. Sunday mornings at church became a happening that involved everybody. People got to know each other. Home-grown ministries sprouted in parishes like dandelions on a spring lawn. Oh, it hasn’t been perfect. There is still much to be done. But the legacy of Vatican II is that it can be done, and God knows just the people to do it.


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