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Vatican II and the Church Vatican II Changed the Catholic Church – And The World

By Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Adu Addai

Pope John XXIII

Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Adu Addai

Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Adu Addai

Elected in 1958, Pope John XXIII saw the need for an updating of the Catholic Church and to seek Christian Unity. He called a Council in 1959, but died before it ended. Pope John saw that while the Catholic Church had strong life in certain respects, it had remained somewhat inward-looking and static for 400 years since the Council of Trent. His death-bed message included: “The moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.” Pope John epitomized individual holiness in the Church. Widely experienced, he knew both Church and people’s needs. Preparing for the Council, he used phrases like opening windows, and that we are not museum-keepers but gardeners to help things grow. He saw the Council as both urgent and essential. St. Pope John’s inspiration, which created a world-wide surge of hope, was completed by his successor Pope Paul VI. But a small minority -  mainly in the Roman Curia - were opposed to the Council from its announcement 50 years ago (25 January 1959) and well beyond its conclusion in 1965.

Blessed Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI’s substantial achievement was to steer the Council to a closure albeit with some uncertainties, but eventually with a moral unanimity despite the small minority opposition. He promulgated all its sixteen documents and closed the Council on 8 December 1965. There can be little doubt that Pope Paul was aware of residual opposition and felt it necessary to address the Roman Curia in uncompromising terms: Whatever were our opinions about the Council’s various doctrines before its conclusions were promulgated, today our adherence to the decisions of the Council must be whole hearted and without reserve; it must be willing and prepared to give them the service of our thought, action and conduct. The Council was something very new: not all were prepared to understand and accept it. But now the conciliar doctrine must be seen as belonging to the magisterium of the Church and, indeed, be attributed to the breath of the Holy Spirit. (Paul VI to the Roman Curia, 23 April, 1966)

What is The Second Vatican Council?

By Roman Catholic reckoning, before the Second Vatican Council there had been twenty General Councils, each called to ascertain the mind of the whole Church on a particular issue.  Many hold that ‘conciliarity’ is fundamental to the health of the Church.  Vatican II was such a meeting in Rome. On Thursday (Oct. 11), hundreds of elaborately robed leaders strode into St. Peter’s Basilica in a massive display of solemn ecclesiastical pomp. 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. For many Catholics, the air came in at gale force. There was no clear-cut plan, but the Council rapidly became a movement for the renewal of the Catholic faith for a new era.  The Council was instrumental for renewal in the self-understanding of the Church, its inner life and its relationship to other Christian traditions, other religions and the world. Those participating in or who lived through the time of the Council felt a profound, exhilarating sense of renewal and virtually experienced a new Pentecost. Pope John XXIII set the tone when opening the Council: The Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of truth inherited from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and the new forms of life introduced into the modern world. It was held in four sessions between 1962 and 1965. Some 2,500 Bishops took part and the Council produced 16 documents.

Major Documents

Principal among the sixteen are the “Four Foundational Constitutions” from which other documents effectively depend. The liturgical changes (Sacrosanctum Concilium) were the first fruits of Vatican II and even forty years later remain its principal association with Vatican II for many Catholics. The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) broke important new ground. It is strongly believed that two documents On Revelation (Dei Verbum) and On the Church (Lumen Gentium) contained the most significant of the Church’s teachings. These two documents were given the highest ‘rank’ of Dogmatic Constitution and form the foundation for Vatican II.

Why the Council?

Just a few years after upheaval of World War II, with the Cold War coming to a head in the Cuban Missile Crisis, with historic revolutions taking place in technology, science, politics, economics, and culture, the Church found herself in a position similar to that of John the Baptist. He lived differently than his contemporaries, putting God first in every way, and he spoke with the authority of a prophet. He did this in the name of fidelity to the God who called him and fidelity to the vocation that God entrusted to him. He had a message, a lifestyle went with it, and a baptism of repentance that attracted great crowds. He could not be ignored. Everything about him provoked the question: “Quid dicis de te ipso? What do you say about yourself?” (Jn 1:22). This is precisely the question put to the Church at the time of Vatican II: Can you give an account of yourself, of your convictions and values and way of life, at a time when these are increasingly at odds with the surrounding culture and increasingly treated as irrelevant? Could a Church that was so old, that had been there all along the way and evidently did not prevent the unprecedented assaults on human dignity of the twentieth century, make a credible case that it has something positive to offer? If, in looking to the past, this Church must acknowledge that its own members contributed to division among Christians and to a defensive, even hostile stance in relation to science and the modern democratic states, can this Church dare to say that it is not only not part of the problem but has a solution to offer? Is it not audacious for this Church, and thus contrary to the humility that it professes, to say to the world, in the words of Pope Paul VI: “I have that for which you search, that which you lack” (Ecclesiam Suam, 95)? The Church’s response to the crisis of humanity as it manifested itself in the middle of the twentieth century parallels what John’s Gospel says about the Baptist: “He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (Jn 1:7-9). The first words of the Council’s central document on the Church begin with this theme. Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church (Lumen gentium, 1). The Church’s mission is to point to Christ. She does this most effectively by reflecting His eternal light, and that light shines especially conspicuously in times of darkness. In his encyclical convoking the Council, Humanae salutis, Pope John XXIII envisioned that the Council would result in “vivifying the temporal order with the light of Christ.” The brutalities of the twentieth century had demonstrated what can happen in the name of progress and development that deliberately exclude any reference to God and set themselves against the Church. This could only constitute an urgent call for the Church, who knows when men do not acknowledge God neither are they able to acknowledge human dignity or set any limits to their own power and action. What was needed was a counter-demonstration. I see this as a prophesy being fulfilled today.

The Status of Vatican II

The Councils of the ‘Modern Era’: Trent (1545-63), Vatican I (1869-70) differ from each other and from Vatican II, but the latter is of no less, if not greater, importance. Trent was dominated by the challenge of the Protestant Reformation, but for various reasons, it came too late to heal the breaches. Called by Pope Paul III, with less than thirty bishops initially attending, Trent continued to be plagued in its prolonged duration by church politics under the five popes who reigned in its 18 years duration. Despite interruptions, transfer to Bologna and back again to Trent, it was finally concluded with over 200 bishops by Pius IV in 1563. It produced valuable and overdue reforming work and was the backbone of the ‘Counter Reformation’. Vatican I, for political reasons, was short-lived and is recalled principally for the decree on Papal Infallibility and the skewed ecclesiology which John XXIII believed must be corrected. In calling Vatican II Pope John noted that a Council was not needed to restate Catholic Christian teaching and no Council dealt with it entire. But Vatican II was unique in as far as the Church examined itself and produced an important statement on its nature and function. The Council provides the most solemn articulation of the Catholic tradition available, until another Council is convoked. Vatican II provides a renewed expression of the faith within the Catholic tradition and is the teaching of the Catholic Church. Aspects of subsequent Synods, which were not fully collegial must also be carefully considered. Now what matters in the end is the successful achievement of the Council’s intentions. Should this not happen, I fear increasing irrelevance for the Church. More than fifty-five years after the close of the Council, there is increasing reason for this fear.

Effects of Vatican II

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. According to New Orleans Archbishop, Gregory Aymond, Vat. I“It called for people not to have passive participation but active participation. Prayer is not supposed to be a performance. We’re supposed to be actively participating.” 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. It helped the church paid attention to humanity. For Christopher Baglow, a theology professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. “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.” With Vatican II, the Catholic Church sent out the message that it was part of the modern world, Not against, not above, not apart, but in the modern world. The church sought to engage, not condemn. The council documents say there must be a conversation between the church and the world, Aymond said. “The church, by its teaching and by its discipleship, has something to say to the world. At the same time, the world is saying something to the church.” “We can’t just say we’re not going to be involved in these conversations,” he said. “As the church, we have to be in conversation with others who agree and disagree with us.” This shift included the Catholic Church’s attitude toward other religions. Before Vatican II, Catholics weren’t supposed to visit other denominations’ houses of worship. Catholics looked down on other religions and thought of them as condemned to hell. But one document from the council acknowledged that these disparate faiths had a common belief in God, said Ryan, who described it as nothing less than “a revolutionary approach.” Perhaps the biggest of these changes came in the church’s approach to Judaism. Before Vatican II, Jews were stigmatized as the people who killed Jesus Christ. That changed with the council, when the Catholic Church acknowledged its Jewish roots and Jews’ covenant with God, Ryan said. “It had the effect that the sun has when it comes up and interrupts the night,” said Rabbi Edward Cohn of New Orleans’ Temple Sinai, whose best friend as a child had to get permission from the archbishop to attend Cohn’s bar mitzvah. “It was no less dramatic than that. It provided an entirely new day. It changed everything.” Not all the changes brought about by Vatican II have been welcomed, and many would say there haven’t been enough changes regarding the status of women. Although Vatican II was a catalyst for a great deal of change, it didn’t happen in a bubble, Aymond said. The 1960s was a decade of change, with protests against racism, war, sexual behavior, the status quo and authority in general. “If that’s going on in the world and in society, that’s bound to affect the church because we’re both a divine and a human institution,” Aymond said. “Vatican II isn’t about replacing what the church is,” said Baglow, the theologian at Notre Dame Seminary. “It’s about helping it be more vitally what God intended it to be in the first place.”

Pope Francis and Vatican II today

Now, more than fifty years after the Council, there is a renewed interested in the Council’s teachings, assisted by Pope Francis’ evident concern for all the People of God, and his actions that reflect the Council’s teachings on the governance of the Church. At times over the past half-century even to speak positively about the Council was to incur suspicion in some quarters. With the many concerns facing the Church, it would be well to recall the words of Blessed Pope Paul VI, speaking soon after the close of the Council to establish its status: Just before 2013 Christmas, Francis surprised an audience of cardinals and monsignors by denouncing the various “diseases” of the Curia—its “pathology of power,” its “rivalry and vainglory,” its “gossiping, grumbling, and backbiting,” its “idolizing of superiors,” its “careerism and opportunism.” Although he has introduced some new people into the Vatican government to carry out his vision for the Church, for the most part he must work with the singular community that he inherited. His comments came in a long interview in which He has criticized the church many time since his pontificate for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized. He articulated his vision of an inclusive church, a “home for all” — a striking contrast with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who envisioned a smaller, purer church.

Contemporary Circumstances Challenges

Some essential reforms are being reversed. After great initial hopes and some progress, many key reforms have not been implemented. Among them is the most basic reform of “collegiality” in Church governance has not only failed to materialize. The centralization - has reached unprecedented levels. Many original teachings are becoming obscured partly because there is now limited living memory of the Council and because elements in the Vatican seem to be imposing one-sided interpretations of both Council texts and of the fathers’ intentions.

What we must to do as Renewal Members

  1. The whole purpose of the Council, Pope John insisted, was to respond to the problems of mankind by bearing witness to the light of Christ. As leaders in our various communities we must do this forcefully.
  2. The challenge we face today is to present the word of God in such manner as seems entirely fitting to the men of today. In other words, the Renewal leaders need to show how, and why Christian God is relevant to man’s questions, to his search for fullness of meaning, and to his aspirations for a better world more worthy of human dignity. We need to let them know that God is the solution. This is what would constitute the pastoral character of Vatican II.
  3. As leaders we indeed to condemn a number of errors of our world today - these are not so much errors against revealed truth but errors opposed to the truth about the human person and human dignity. For example, the we condemn racism, genocide, slavery, and the curtailment of religious liberty.
  4. As renewal leaders, we need to draw light from a Gospel passage: Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (cf. John 4:5-42). Today, there are many people, like the woman of Samaria beside a well with an empty bucket, with the hope of finding the fulfillment of the heart’s most profound desire, that which alone could give full meaning to existence. We need to help them find water. We must orient the search well, so as not to fall prey to disappointment, which can be disastrous.
  5. Like Jesus at the well of Sychar, the renewal leader also feels obliged to sit beside today’s men and women. We need to render the Lord’s present in their lives so that they could encounter him because he alone is the water that gives true and eternal life.
  6. As leaders, we are called to engage in the affairs of the world and direct them according to God’s will, the unique capability that we have to bring Christ’s divine message of salvation to every aspect of life.
  7. Renewal leaders are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, we in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness how we can bring Christ’s message to the whole world.


Although the Second Vatican Council took place in the 1960’s, it has lost none of its relevance more than half a century later and should still be centre place in the consciousness of the Church. As St John-Paul II wrote on the eve of the new millennium:

…there [in the Council] we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning