Vatican II: A sure compass for the Church today

The Year of Faith commemorating the opening of the Second Vatican Council has now begun. In an article for Faith Today, Fr Adrian Graffy explores the enduring legacy of the Council and asks what the Council requires of Catholics today.

‘The Second Vatican Council was the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century. There we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.’

These words were written by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter for the beginning of the New Millennium (Novo Millennio Ineunte 57). The same words are quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in the letter which announces to the Catholic world the Year of Faith, due to begin on 11th October to celebrate fifty years since the opening of the Council (Porta Fidei 5).

These two men know what they are talking about. Blessed John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, participated as a bishop in all four sessions of Vatican II, from 1962 to 1965. Pope Benedict, then Fr Joseph Ratzinger, was a young theologian who assisted behind the scenes. He was theological adviser to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, one of the most influential speakers at the Council.

The essence of Vatican II was a change of attitude. We were members of the ‘people of God’, that wonderful new way of referring to Christian believers. We were invited to see the good in others, looking to what we held in common rather than what made us different. This brought with it a profound change in our attitude to other Christians. They were no longer people in error, but ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ due to our shared baptism. Dialogues with other churches and with other faiths have continued ever since. The Declaration on Non- Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate 4) announced a new attitude towards Judaism which was simply ground-breaking. We were to treasure our relationship with the Jews since we share a ‘common spiritual heritage’ (4). We would no longer attribute responsibility for the death of Christ to all Jews of all ages. Only those in positions of power at the time could possibly share the guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus.

At the same time, the status of every Catholic changed. We recognised the priesthood of all believers, that all of us have a dignity which arises from baptism, that all of us are called to serve according to a God-given vocation, that all of us have responsibility for the Church, and that all of us are encouraged to pursue the universal call to holiness. This was not to denigrate or downplay the ministerial priesthood, but to recognise the distinct role of everyone in the Church.

The people of God, gathering in worship, were invited to a ‘full, conscious and active part’ in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14). The rites should be clear and intelligible, characterised by ‘noble simplicity’ (34). Those of us who are old enough will remember how the liturgy was opened up to us. I remember the thrill of hearing the readings and prayers in our own language. Liturgy became once again a catechetical tool.

The dramatic story of the four sessions of Vatican II shows a transformation in the world’s bishops, about two and a half thousand of them attending the Council. They were truly empowered by the Holy Spirit. A particular instance of such dramatic developments can be seen in the drafting and redrafting of the document on the Bible, Dei Verbum. As the various draft versions of documents were sent out, it became clear that the bishops had critical views on much of this material. They knew the Church as it was in their own local communities.

Many were fed by the ressourcement, the return to the sources, the study of biblical, liturgical and patristic texts, which had been pursued with great vigour since the nineteenth century. They realised there were new ways of presenting the truths of faith. At the opening of the Council on 11th October 1962 Blessed John XXIII said: ‘One thing is the deposit of faith, the truths that are contained in our respected teaching, and another is the way in which they are proclaimed.’ (6.5)

The Council laid foundations for greater collegiality, attempting to complete what Vatican I had left incomplete. How can the College of Bishops work with the Bishop of Rome as the supreme authority in the Church? The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, grapples with this issue in chapter 3. Before the Council ended Pope Paul VI instituted the Synod of Bishops, which has served as an instrument of collegiality since the Council.

An extraordinary innovation was the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, which addressed many of the practical issues of living as the Church in the world, such as marriage and the family, economic life, and war and peace. John XXIII guided the first steps of the Council, but when he died in 1963 only one of the four sessions of the Council had taken place. It fell to Pope Paul VI to take the great work forward. He set the tone in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, with its repeated emphasis on dialogue. During the four sessions of the Council and indeed in the interim periods, when much of the work was done in commissions and committees, there were rough and tense times. But by December 1965 the Fathers of the Council had given practically unanimous approval to the final forms of all sixteen documents. Even contentious issues such as religious liberty, in the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, and the new relationship with the Jewish People, in the Declaration Nostra Aetate, were approved with the overwhelming support of the Bishops.

The Year of Faith provides the opportunity to rediscover Vatican II, to look back on the fundamental inspirations of the Council, and to identify what parts of the Council’s great legacy are still awaiting implementation.

This article was published in Faith Today, October 2012: See the article in its original print format (PDF).

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