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Vatican II for Gen-Xers
By Renée LaReau
For this generation, the Council is ancient history. Here's a crash course to unpack it.


Why Have a Council in the First Place?
Mass Class
Our Brothers and Sisters
The Church and the World
Vatican III?
Vatican II Fast Facts


I once read a magazine article that offered tips for preparing to mingle at an upcoming cocktail party. “Enrich your store of conversational topics,” the author wrote earnestly. “Be conversant in current events, movies, books, food and psychology, but avoid talking about politics or religion.”

The author then encouraged readers to practice talking about the above topics—a suggestion I found to be a little over the top. The image of a cocktail party, however, did cause me to consider the critical amount of knowledge one needs to partake in a lively conversation on a given topic.

Let’s just say for a minute that you were at a cocktail party, that politics and religion weren’t verboten and that someone started talking about the Second Vatican Council. Would you have any opinions or thoughts to share, or any names or dates to bandy about? Admittedly, the subject of Vatican II isn’t likely to pop up in most casual cocktail party parlance as one heads for the crudités table with a drink in hand. The cocktail party concept, however, is good to use as a gauge for one’s level of knowledge of Vatican II.

In other words, it is good to be conversant, or able to engage in a five- to 10-minute conversation about the Second Vatican Council with someone if the topic ever arises. My hope is that you will feel comfortable doing so after reading this basic guide to the who, what, when, where and why of the Council, as well as some of its basic teachings. I also hope that, after perusing this piece, you will be inspired to delve deeper into the Council’s teachings and fascinating history. But for now, this brief guide will supply enough information to serve as, well, an appetizer of sorts.

Why Have a Council in the First Place?

When Pope John XXIII was elected at the age of 76 in the fall of 1958, he was expected to be an interim or transitional pope. In other words, people expected him to maintain the status quo and to conduct business as usual.

What a surprise it was, then, when only three months later John XXIII met privately with a group of cardinals and announced his intent to convene an ecumenical council, meaning a legislative gathering that was worldwide in scope. His announcement was met with stunned silence from the cardinals.

Calling for an ecumenical council was a major undertaking, and a possible indication that sweeping changes for the Church were on the horizon. Many of the cardinals at that time thought of the Catholic Church as a flawless institution and resisted the idea that anything inside the Church was in need of change. Pope John XXIII explained, however, that his intent was not to change any of the doctrines of the Church, but rather to modify the way they were presented—to better equip Catholics to live and worship in a rapidly changing world.

In the past, popes had convened ecumenical councils only to refute errors or condemn heresies. For example, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was convened in response to the Protestant Reformation, and the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), which defined papal infallibility, was convened to counteract the principles of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution of 1789.

But John XXIII’s purpose in calling the world’s bishops together this time was different. To illustrate his intention to one particular cardinal, he walked over to the nearest window, thrust it open wide and said that the Church needs to let in some fresh air.

He would later expand on this idea, saying, “We are not to be museum keepers, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” In other words, John XXIII intended not to change major doctrines and teachings, but to update the way they were presented, thus honoring the Church as a dynamic, living, breathing entity.

He had previously spoken about this approach as looking at “the signs of the times” in order to meet today’s needs. He often used the Italian word aggiornamento, which means “a bringing up to date.” The image of the open window and the term aggiornamento have served as Vatican II’s signature symbols ever since.


Mass Class

The Council opened in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 11, 1962, and would proceed for three subsequent autumns. The first Council document to be promulgated, and probably the one that has directly affected the greatest number of Catholics, was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, or as it is known by its Latin title, Sacrosanctum Concilium. (See Vatican II Fast Facts.)

It was the Council’s liturgy document that called for Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular instead of Latin, for increased participation by the assembly, more singable music and wider use of Scripture in liturgy.

It may seem obvious to us now that the Mass should be celebrated in a way that people understand it, but the proposed shift to the vernacular sparked a heated debate in the first of the Council’s four sessions. To some bishops, changing the liturgy from Latin—the language of the elite (the clergy)—into the people’s native language was to place too much power in the hands of the people in the pews.

In the end, however, those in favor of the vernacular won out, and Sacrosanctum Concilium stated that celebrating Mass in one’s native language “may frequently be of great advantage to the people” (#36,2). This decision crystallized another of the most important teachings to emerge from the Council: The Church is the whole People of God and not just the hierarchy, clergy and religious.

In other words, laypeople are just as important and vital to the life of the Church as those who live a vowed religious life. Because of renewed understandings of the laity and the liturgy, the Council fathers said, “all the faithful should be led to take that full, conscious, and active part in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (#14).

Other reforms recommended by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy included an increased emphasis on Scripture in the Mass. Presiders were called upon to craft their homilies based upon the Sunday readings. (Prior to the Council the sermon topic often hinged on the whim of the presider.) The selection of readings was expanded from a one-year cycle to a three-year cycle, notably making wider use of the Old Testament, which was rarely used in the preconciliar Mass. The three readings we now hear proclaimed by the lector and presider at each Sunday Mass (an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading and a Gospel reading) are a direct result of the liturgy document at the Second Vatican Council.

Even the public proclamation of the Scriptures by a layperson is a result of the Council’s teaching that the laity should participate in a wider variety of ministerial roles in the Mass. Before the Council the only roles available to laypeople were those of usher or altar server (and these were filled only by males).

Sacrosanctum Concilium also called for more active participation of the congregation in liturgical music. Prior to the Council, the congregation sang very little, usually relegating the music to a trained choir.

Other liturgical changes the Council fathers called for included the reinstatement of the prayers of the faithful during Mass, which had been a part of the Church’s liturgy in the early centuries.

In addition, they called for the reinstatement of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), which had been a part of the Church’s early history but had fallen into disuse. In the years leading up to the Council, adults who wished to become Catholics simply received private instruction from a parish priest in lieu of today’s elaborate, liturgy-based process that takes place in the context of a wider faith community.

Discussion of liturgical issues was the hallmark of Vatican II’s first session, as was the fact that it was the only session that Pope John XXIII lived to see. He passed away on June 3, 1963, of stomach cancer. When the ensuing three sessions were convened, it was the newly elected Pope Paul VI who was at the helm and was equally committed to seeing the Council through to completion.

Our Brothers and Sisters

The Council’s later sessions proceeded with a much wider audience than the first session had enjoyed. The media, suddenly grasping the historic, watershed nature of what was unfolding in Rome, turned out in full force. Also of note was an increase in the number of Protestant observers at the Council, which reached 80 by the Council’s end in 1965. But the presence of these non-Catholic observers wasn’t the only indicator of a change in attitudes toward other faith traditions, both Christian and non-Christian.

Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism) and Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) showed marked changes in the Church’s attitudes toward other faiths. Coming from a once insular institution that had insisted that there was no salvation outside the Church and that the Catholic Church was the one true Church of Christ, the open-mindedness that characterized these teachings was remarkable.

Unitatis Redintegratio affirmed that the Church includes all Christians and is not limited exclusively to the Catholic Church, while Nostra Aetate acknowledged that the truth and holiness of non-Christian religions was the work of the same one true God. Nostra Aetate also marked a pivotal moment in Catholic-Jewish relations by stating that the Jews were not to be held responsible for the death of Jesus. It was the sins of humanity that were responsible for Christ’s death, Nostra Aetate said, not the Jewish people.

These words were notable considering that, leading up to the Council, Jews were referred to as “perfidious” in the Good Friday Catholic liturgy. In addition, some Catholic grade school and high school textbooks had previously taught that it was the Jewish people who killed Jesus, a belief the Church now holds to be erroneous.

The Church and the World

The Church’s view of its relationship to the world is articulated in the Council’s longest document to be promulgated: Gaudium et Spes, or the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The most important part of this document is its tone, which sets the stage for the Church to embrace the world as a graced community rather than a den of iniquity, as an entity to be lived in the midst of rather than fearfully avoided.

The first part of this document expounds on what it means to be human and a follower of Christ, and reflects on the Church’s role in the world, while the second part details the Church’s teachings on peace and justice. It was Gaudium et Spes that advocated for restraints on war and legitimized nonviolence for Catholics: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation” (#80), the document said.

It was the chapter on marriage and family in this particular document that later laid the framework for the contraception discussion after the Council. That debate came to a head in 1968 when Pope Paul VI authored the document Humanae Vitae, which, among other things, condemned artificial means of contraception.

This teaching, however, was not articulated so specifically during the course of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Pope Paul VI took the topic off the table at the Council, since he had delegated that issue to a special birth-control commission (whose recommendation he overruled in 1968).

Vatican III?

In the wake of Vatican II, there is no doubt that the Council brought about a fundamental paradigm shift, both in how the Church perceived itself and how it perceived the world. More important than the documents themselves was a new spiritual groundwork that over the course of time has already changed and will continue to alter the face and heart of Catholicism.

Until that spirit is fully realized in the work of the Church, however, it is unlikely that there will be another ecumenical council anytime soon. For now, our work as Catholics is to acquaint ourselves further with the Council’s vision and teachings, and to work to make them a reality.

As we continue with this holy work, we should keep in mind some wise words quoted by Blessed John XXIII in his first encyclical: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, freedom; in all things, charity.”

Vatican II Fast Facts

WHEN: October 11, 1962, to December 8, 1965.

WHO: Pope John XXIII (pope from October 28, 1958, to June 3, 1963) first convened the Council, and Pope Paul VI (pope from June 21, 1963, to August 6, 1978) oversaw the Council’s completion and adjourned it. The Council was attended by nearly 2,500 bishops from all over the world, from Europe to Africa to Asia. Other attendees, by the Council’s end, included nearly 500 theologians, 80 observers from Orthodox and mainline Protestant Churches and 52 lay auditors (29 men and 23 women, including 10 women religious). Vatican II was also the first Council attended by reporters and journalists, though they were not allowed to attend the actual Council sessions.

WHERE: St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome.

WHAT: Vatican II was an “ecumenical council,” which means that it was a gathering of all the bishops of the whole world, rather than a local or regional gathering. There have been 21 such councils in the Church’s history.

HOW: The Council proceeded in four consecutive autumns from 1962 through 1965, and, with much lively discussion and debate, reached agreement on 16 major documents. Almost all speeches were delivered in Latin.

WHY: Pope John XXIII convened the Council to renew the Church and to look at the “signs of the times” in order to dialogue more effectively with the modern world. He used the metaphor of opening a window to let in some fresh air.

DOCUMENTS: Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, edited by Austin Flannery, O.P. (Costello Publishing, 1996). This gives the complete text of all of the Council’s documents with an informative introduction.

So, what’s with the Latin titles? The Second Vatican Council promulgated 16 documents, each of which has a Latin title, usually the first two or three words of the Latin text. The title translated into English is more descriptive. The Council document on the liturgy, for example, is titled Sacrosanctum Concilium, literally translated “sacred council,” and its English title is the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The longest of the Council’s documents is called Gaudium et Spes, which translates as “joy and hope.” Its English title is the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Born in 1974, Renée M. LaReau is the author of Getting a Life: How to Find Your True Vocation (Orbis, 2003). Her writing has appeared in U.S. Catholic, America and The National Catholic Reporter. She writes from Columbus, Ohio.


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