Vatican II: A Half-Century Later, A Mixed Legacy
At Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, 50 years ago this week, the newly elected pontiff stunned the world by calling the first Catholic Church Council in nearly a century — the Second Vatican Council, or what’s known as Vatican II.
Pope John XXIII called for the institution’s renewal and more interaction with the modern world.
As a result of Vatican II, the Catholic Church opened its windows onto the modern world, updated the liturgy, gave a larger role to laypeople, introduced the concept of religious freedom and started a dialogue with other religions.
“It was a time of a new hope, when everybody was proud that we are able to convoke such a council, and having a real renewal of the Catholic Church,” says Hans Kung, who was the youngest theologian at Vatican II.
Pope John XXIII waves a hand in blessing during the opening day of Vatican II, on Oct. 11, 1962. The newly elected pope surprised many Catholics by convening the gathering, the first of its kind in nearly a century.
But the changes provoked a backlash, and many Catholics today say the council’s renewal momentum has been stopped in its tracks.
Over a three-year period, more than 2,000 bishops from all over the world, assisted by thousands of advisers, issued 16 landmark documents.
No new dogma was issued, but the council transformed the church from an exclusive to an inclusive institution. Before the Second Vatican Council, altars were turned so the priests celebrated Mass with their backs facing the congregation.
Vatican II decreed that altars should be turned around, and priests faced the newly recognized people of God — that is, the entire community of Catholic believers, not just the clergy or church hierarchy.
“For my generation, Vatican Council II was really a revolution,” recalls Vatican analyst Marco Politi, who was in high school at the time. “There was a new way to have relationships with the Jews. There was a new way to look at the other Christian confessions. There was a new way to handle the relationship with Islam. And there was a new liturgy.”
Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, says the liturgical changes had a deep impact on churchgoers.
“I remember my grandmother being so happy that the Mass was in English because she could understand it,” he says. “She grew up with the Latin.”
The Second Vatican Council allowed priests to celebrate Mass in the local language, thus making a key sacrament more accessible in the contemporary world.
At the time of Vatican II, the Rev. Thomas Reese was studying at a seminary so isolated from the world that students were unaware the council was taking place. But its effects, he says, were abrupt.
“One week, if you eat meat on Friday, you’re going to go to hell. The following week, you can have meat on Friday,” he says. “The church changed.” [More]