As I’ve perhaps recalled here before, a joke making the rounds a while back had it that certain people supposed “Vatican II” to be the nickname of the Pope’s summer residence. Apocryphal or not, that was a valid point.
Many Catholics, especially younger ones, have no memory (understandably) of the most important event in the Church in the century past and little or no grasp (not so understandably) of what Vatican II was all about.
Just 50 years ago, on January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII surprised a group of cardinals gathered at a basilica in Rome by announcing that he meant to convene an ecumenical council of the world’s bishops in order to… do what exactly? That wasn’t clear at the time, and for many it isn’t very clear even now.
Back in the 1950s, after all, most Catholics probably thought that the Church was fine just as it was. So what was an ecumenical council supposed to do? Good Pope John — he was beatified in 2000 — obviously also thought that the Church was fine, but he thought something else besides.
He explained what that was at the council’s opening session in October, 1962. The greatest problem of modern times, he said, was the widespread rejection of Christ. He didn’t go into a lot of detail, but it was plain to see that the problem was real: spreading secularism in the West, state-sponsored atheism in the Soviet Union, China, and other communist countries, and — just over the horizon, as it were — an imminent resurgence of fundamentalist Islam.
In view of this situation, Pope John said, the Church needed updating and renewal in order to be able more effectively to do its fundamental work of preaching the gospel. This, then — the updating and renewal of the Church for the sake of evangelization — was the reason for the Second Vatican Council.
The bishops labored at their task through four dramatic sessions held from 1962 to 1965. Pope John died after the first session, but work continued under the direction of his successor, Pope Paul VI. The final result was the 16 documents of Vatican II — not all of equal weight, of course, but several of true historic significance. Especially notable were the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).
Now renewal of the Church could begin. Unfortunately, it was hijacked almost at once by forces which saw Vatican II not as an invitation to renew the Church but an opportunity to turn it upside-down. In this misguided effort, the real Council often was concealed behind an imaginary something called the “spirit” of Vatican II.
After all these years, then, one of the biggest challenges facing Catholics is to seek out the real Second Vatican Council and put its teachings into effect. How? The place to start, as Pope Benedict XVI has often reminded us, is in those 16 documents. It is there that the mind of the Church and the action of the Holy Spirit can best be found.
Here’s some advice.
If you can locate a reliable course or a responsible study group on the documents of Vatican II, great. But don’t think you have to wait for that. Just sit down by yourself with the documents of the Second Vatican Council and — slowly, thoughtfully, prayerfully, a page or two at a time — read them. It won’t be easy going at the start, but you may be amazed and edified at what you discover there.