What Was Vatican II?

In January of 1959, Pope Saint John XXIII shocked the world when he announced the convening of the 21st ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. From 1962-1965, the bishops of the Church met to discuss the Church’s understanding of itself in the modern world, producing major documents of reform with changes to ecclesiology, liturgy, ecumenism, anthropology, and social responsibility.

In this episode of Catholicism in focus (here for email subscribers), I look at the inspiration behind these changes, putting the council in its context to understand why the reforms took place.

Here, I would like to take a minute to share a few of the things that changed with the council and why they were done.

The liturgyThe most obvious changes for the average Catholic was the Sunday Mass. From Latin to the vernacular, the priest facing the altar to facing the people, flexibility in music and allowing instruments outside of the organ, and increased involvement of the laity, the mass looked quite different in a matter of years. And while some of the things we do today are not actually the wishes of the council (if you’re interested, the document itself is not too long and quite good: Sacrosanctum Concilium) a number of the changes are the direct result of a critically different emphasis underlying the worship: full, active, and conscious participation on the part of the laity. Looking at the early Church, the bishops realized that the changes over time, solidified in the the 1600s, had lost an essential element of Christian worship. Focused solely on the transcendence and holiness of the mass, the Church had lost the foundational inspiration of the mass, namely, that it was a house meal of remembrance and fellowship. What Catholics were doing in 1962 looked nothing like the last supper or early expressions of the Eucharist, and some traditions, even though well-liked, actually detracted from the essential nature of the Eucharist.

The hierarchy of the Church: Ever since the very beginning of the Church, and all throughout our history, we have understood Jesus as the head of the body and the sole leader of our faith. How this body was organized on earth developed over time. In the very beginning, the roles of leadership were not clearly defined, and while scripture mentioned episkopos (bishop), presbyter (priest), and diakonos (deacon), these words take about 100-300 years to become clearly developed. Eventually, we see the Church being governed by the bishop—the fullness of the priesthood, prophetic voice, and kingly authority in a Church community—surrounded at the altar by his priests and helped in the community by his deacons. Deacons were not below priests, but a separate form of ordination with an alternatively important role. Over time, the permanent diaconate disappeared, the role of the bishop diminished (the Middle Ages considered bishops no different in ordination than priests), and the laity—out of which and for which leadership arose—fell by the wayside, placed at the very bottom of an upward ladder. The Second Vatican council did a number of restorative acts: 1) It restored the central authority and ordination of the bishop as the shepherd of his flock, 2) inverted the hierarchy by reminding us that we are one in our baptism, and that baptism, shared by all Christians, has primacy over ordination, and 3) restored the permanent diaconate and its integral role to the Church.

Relationship with the outside world: With the rupturing of the Western Church at the Reformation and the subsequent wars between Christians, and with the Enlightenment severing the secular world from the religious, the Catholic Church took up a defensive, antagonistic approach to non-Catholics. Filled with heresies and the source of violence, it was easier to adopt a “circle the wagons” policy, calling all non-Catholics heretics and maintaining that there was “no salvation outside of the Church” than it was to engage one’s enemy. One wonders, in the latter half of the second millennia, if anything else were possible anyway. By the 20th century, the world had changed and was ripe for a new perspective. Rather than hide from the world, the bishops, grounded in scripture, reminded the Church that we are all created in the image of God, all blessed with abundant grace, and all capable of knowing God intimately. Instead of hiding from potential problems, we, from our baptismal call to be priest, prophet, and king, were to go out into the world to evangelize through our lives. God did not speak simply through the magisterium of the Church, but through our consciences, other religions, cultural insights, and empirical study.

From these paradigm shifts, the result of a desire to brings things up to date with the sources as our foundation, the Church set forward a number of practical changes, suppressing some traditional practices that no longer carried forth the Church’s mission and elevating others that did so better. While it would take a series of books to identify them all and give proper explanation to each, my goal in making this video and writing this post is simple: as much as Vatican II angers or inspires people with its decisions on specific practices (Latin, veils, altar rails, reception on the hand, ecumenism, etc.) these things are inconsequential to the overall issue. We, as Catholics, are called to follow Jesus Christ. Trust me when I say that Jesus does not care about the color of our vestments or the shape of our churches. While those things can be important in providing an identity, facilitating worship, and organizing people, they are, at their best, passing expressions. We can never, ever, become a people attached to passing expressions. As difficult as change can be and as much as we might have liked one thing or another, when we assess the authority and faithfulness of a council and our desire to be in a Church based on its externals, we have lost the whole reason for being Church. Vatican II, while harsh for those who enjoyed the traditions of the Middle Ages, had at its very core the desire to makes its members better Christians. For me, the inspiration that guided the council and the overall paradigm shifts that came of it were exactly what our Church needed.

9 Comments on “What Was Vatican II?

  1. “…the overall paradigm shifts that came of it were exactly what our Church needed.” REALLY?! Are empty churches what the Church needed?! In addition, the number of candidates to seminary among the trads is 5 (!) times higher then those originating from the non-trad communities. Vatican 2 has caused massive disruption. Come on Brother Casey, let’s judge the tree by its fruits and do not kid yourself nor others. You have written much better and inspiring things… stick to it.

    • Are you suggesting that the decline of vocations in Western Europe and the US (compared to inflated and never before seen numbers of the 1940s and 50s) is a the result of Vatican II? If so, let me point out two things:

      One, those number are highly suspect and misunderstood. The number of men in seminaries now is the same as it was before the pre-war boom. The high numbers in the middle of the century were the exception, not the rule. Further, I don’t know what you mean by empty churches. In the Southern Hemisphere, East Asia, and the southern part of the United States, the Church is growing quite rapidly. In my home in NC, churches continue to get built, not closed, because we are growing so much. Statistically, there continues to be a growth in Catholics at a higher rate world wide than prior to the council.

      Second, most theologians and philosophers point to World War II as the most cataclysmic event to faith in world history. What Vatican II did was salvage what was a world already hemorrhaging faith, and was probably the thing that saved us from complete annihilation. A pre-Vatican II church would have faired much worse in today’s world.

      Always remember, Tradition in the Catholic Church is a big word. We can’t just go back to the 1950s, or even just the 16th century. We need a wholistic view, including the whole history of the Church. Vatican II did that.



      • I lived through all the changes. The greatest changes of Vatican ll was the introduction of the vernacular. Where do you hear Latin today? It’s a dead language. It might be used among some lawyers. For people to pray better they should understand the words in the prayers. Vatican ll accomplished this. God bless Brother.

      • @ Thomas. You lived through the changes? So did I. Where do I hear latin today? In all churches served by the highly rapidly growing part of the Catholic church called the traditional movement which today, represents about 10% of the faithful and about 50% (!) of candidates to seminary. I am talking about France, not much different in other european countries. Talking about dying, yes, the rest of church in Europe is definitely dying. Cfr, the average age of the clergy, no priest, no mass, no Church. Right? Incidentally, and I suspect you may not like this but the trad movement in the US is also growing at a truly fast rate.

      • I see you dislike numbers (and/or statistics) as I do. We also have that in common, good to notice. Please allow me to get my numbers straight. France has had this year about 80 priests originating from diocesan seminaries. Add to that about 30 priests who came out of non diocesan seminaries, i.e., trad ones including those from St Pius X. This means we have 30 priests originating from the trad portion of the Church which actually counts for about 10% of the faithfull. This in turns means that the trad portion generated three times as much priest compared to the non trad portion. And not five times as I wrongly stated earlier and to another distinguished Breaking the Habit reader. Above numbers are broad brush the same in most countries in Europe. Add to this some more (horrific) numbers (which I duly checked) In 1960, yes 1960 and not the 16th century (!) there were 40’000 priests in France. Today there are just over 10’000 of whom 60% (!) are in the 80 + (!) age bracket.

        If all of the above is not a full-fledged catastrophe, then I don’t know what is. Attempting to dismiss V2, ad-minima as a cause, if not the main cause, seems to me a very adventurous attitude indeed.

        Further, you are right in that “tradition” in the Catholic Church is not A big word: it is THE big word. It really is in essence the Church’s basic modus operandi. You also state: “We can’t go back to the 50’s”. Beyond the simplistic “going back” notion which is inspired by leftist/progressive thinking obsessed by keep moving towards the “singing and so much better tomorrows”, what if we got on the wrong road? What if, as so much evidence shows it, V2 has indeed been the opportunity for the smoke of Satan to creep into the Vatican? How can one brush this aside? Rather then “going back”, I suggest we call it a return to basics. Hopefully it will have served a lesson to those who believe there is a permanent need to reinvent the wheel and hot water.

        Peace to you Brother Casey and greetings from France.

      • I believe you have not understood my point as your statistics further push for what I say is a skewed view of history. A few things:

        1. Post-world war numbers of priests are not the norm. It was the highest number of priests the world had ever seen and was the exception, not the rule. Look at the number of priests entering seminaries in the 1890s to 1910s. They are not much different from what we have today, meaning that this level is not a catastrophe, but a regression to the mean.

        2. To point to Vatican II as the major cause for the world’s problems forgets the most catastrophic event in world history, World War II. It is solely responsible for the rise of New Atheism and the lack of faith in Europe.

        3. Speaking of Europe, what you describe is almost entirely a European/Western problem. Worldwide, the number of Catholics total continues to rise. Cathedrals may be empty in Europe, but they are filled in the southern hemisphere and large parts of the United States.

        Again, the numbers you cite are not wrong, they just lack a wide enough view of history to understand them, and focus only on the European experience. Compare them to the number of priests in Vietnam, Mexico, Sub-saharran African, and you will find a completely different story.



  2. I was raised pre Vatican II. Then from 1974 foward I had become a laisse faire Catholic with barely no attendance to the faith. Upon my return, I found all the changes. I miss my pre Vat II days, but I understand, I tolerate, but I also whine about the changes. I always believed that our attendence to Mass was to worship our Lord and nothing else. I thought that is what we were doing pre Vat II. You can find if you look, Latin Mass. I have no opinion on the Priest facing us now. The Communion rail, well, that should have stayed, receiving our Lord in my hands, I will never. But I follow my Church and its teachings. I only pray that we, as a church, will not change so much to purely attract are fallen Catholics or to increase church attendance or conversions. We know the attraction of changing with our changing world, but please, let not the church change for such reasons. The church of Christ, as the Words and Teachings of Christ will not change to suit societies norms. Nor should His church.

  3. Yes brother Casey u r right…our beliefs shouldn’t be based on the middle ages but the word tradition itself reveals to be passed from generation to generation.
    But I’m not in much of favor in appointing Eucharistic ministries and removal of veils(as told in the bible by St.Paul itself) .
    and what advantage did the lay people gain out of it.
    Don’t consider that i’m impudent to the teachings of the church , this is a doubt of a teen who is raised post Vatican II.

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