At Vatican II, 50 years ago, Catholic leaders gathered to change their church and its world outlook

In a massive display of solemn ecclesiastical pomp, hundreds upon hundreds of elaborately robed leaders of the Catholic Church strode into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome a half-century ago Thursday. It signaled the start of a historic three-year assembly that would change the way members of the world’s largest Christian denomination viewed themselves, their church and the rest of the world.

It was the first day of the Second Vatican Council, more popularly known as Vatican II, which was designed to assess the church’s role in a rapidly changing world. Leading the prelates who had assembled beneath St. Peter’s soaring dome was Pope John XXIII, who said frequently that he convened the council because he thought it was time to open the windows and let in some fresh air.

For many Catholics accustomed to a church in which their priests turned their backs on worshippers and uttered the Mass in Latin, a language that few parishioners understood, the air came in at gale force.

As a result of Vatican II, priests started celebrating Mass in the language of the countries in which they lived, and they faced the congregation, not only to be heard and seen but also to signal to worshippers that they were being included because they were a vital component of the service.

“It called for people not to have passive participation but active participation,” New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond said. “Prayer is not supposed to be a performance. We’re supposed to be actively participating.”

The changes took effect Nov. 29, 1964, the first Sunday of Advent. At St. James Major Catholic Church, the reformatted service came as a shock to many worshippers, said Aymond, who was an altar boy in the Gentilly church’s first English-language Mass.

Because he had been an altar boy for years, young Gregory knew all the prayers in Latin. But, he said, that was no help. “I was lost,” he said. “I had to keep looking at the book to find the prayers. I didn’t know what was coming next. It was the first time I had heard the Scriptures proclaimed in English.”

The changes didn’t stop when Mass ended. As time went by, many nuns shucked their voluminous habits in favor of clothes similar to those worn by the people they served. And men and women in religious orders started taking on causes, even risking arrest, when they spoke out in favor of civil rights and workers’ rights and against the war in Vietnam.

Such changes represented an about-face from the church’s defensive approach to the world before Vatican II, said Christopher Baglow, a theology professor at Notre Dame Seminary.

“It wasn’t that the church wasn’t committed to human dignity before Vatican II,” he said. “With Vatican II, the church began to look closely at the ways with which modern thinkers tended to promote human dignity and showed how they and the Gospels are complementary.” [More]


John Pope/The Times-Picayune