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 liturgy: The 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.