Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Every Catholic Needs To Know About Vatican II

Many Catholics have heard a lot about Vatican II and yet are ignorant about the basics of the council. This post may serve as a first-step in overcoming some of those gaps in knowledge, but please don't let it be your last, if you need to know more.

Over the years the Pope, Bishops, and leaders of our Church frequently reference Vatican II.  On Monday, Pope Francis said:
"As children of the Church we must continue on the path of Vatican Council II, stripping ourselves of useless and harmful things, of false worldly securities which weigh down the Church and damage her true face."
Once again, we have an importance reference to the Church and the changes that happened in Vatican II. If we don't have a proper reference point of understanding what happened, we will struggle to see the important issues the Church is still trying to tackle in renewing the Church's structures and work.


Whenever I talk about Vatican II with others, I begin by asking them what Vatican II did. They almost universally respond by talking about the changes in the liturgy. While these are the most visible changes, they are not the most important things to come from Vatican II.

Vatican II was the 21st ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church. All other councils were called because of some crisis or problem that the Church needed to address. For instance, many heresies (Arianism, Gnosticism, etc.) were addressed by proclaiming what the orthodox ("right teaching") teaching of the Church was.

Vatican II was different because the Church didn't need to address any major crisis. It was called by John XXIII more as a pastoral council than a doctrinal one. That doesn't mean it didn't give us doctrine, but rather that it was aimed more at helping Catholic live out the teachings of the Church. Therefore, It's main purpose was to help apply the truths of Christ to modern-day life.


When John XXIII called the Council, the world was shocked he did so. 'Why' was the question.

John XXIII’s theme for the Council was put forward in a document to open the first session. (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia) “Mother Church Rejoices”. The Church is called to teach, govern and sanctify. But, unlike most other councils of the Church, there was no crisis in doctrine that proceeded it. There was also no need for dogmatic definitions. What the Church needed was for to apply the teachings the Church already had to the present and foreseeable future.

So, he wanted the Church to examine itself and ask the question of “what do we need to do to make our faith deeper and more lively.”

There was a deep need to have doctrine stated in a relevant way, but in a way that did not change what was being taught. It's formulation and presentation needed updating without leaving any truth behind.

John XXIII's vision of the council was:

  1. Awareness - The Church is aware of itself
  2. Renewal - After we become aware we reform (note you cannot reform what you don’t know about)
  3. Dialogue - Dialogue with the world at large.


Paul VI became pope during the council, after John XXIII's death. After the council, John Paul II became pope. During the implementation of the council, there was one major question - how do we go about implementing the teachings in the council? Both Paul VI and JPII had to struggle with this question. Benedict XVI and Francis have done so also.

Some saw in Vatican II an opportunity to "update" the Church's doctrine. They wanted the Church to change the moral teachings on contraception, sex, etc. They also wanted doctrines such as the all-male priesthood, etc to change.

This caused an upheaval and confusion in the Church that has lasted until our day. Every parish and diocese was greatly effected by this confusion. Many people left the Church, not knowing what was going on, others simply drifted along. During this time religious education was very poor and generations of Catholics since have been poorly formed, including my own generation.

On the bright side, the Church has begun to correctly implement the teachings of Vatican II more recently. There has been a re-capturing of the truth found in the teachings of Vatican II and a proper balance to it all. We are doing much better at educating the people and I believe a corner has been turned. While we still have a long way to go, there is great reason to be hopeful that we are headed in the right direction.

Now, what specifically did Vatican II teach? Well, to get it all I urge you to pick up the documents and read them. You can buy books and commentaries on Vatican II or you can even get them from the internet. Here is the Vatican's website with all 16 documents.

Some of the major themes / teachings include:
  • Aggiornamento - this is a word that means to "bring up to date". This doesn't mean the Church's doctrine changes, but how we teach, communicate, and apply it might. It can be seen as a way of trying to read the signs of the times and adjust where we are willing and able to.
  • Ressourcement - this word means a "return to the sources". The Council Fathers balanced the updating with a retrieval of some of the lost practices of the early Church. RCIA is a fruit of this effort.
  • The universal call to holiness - everyone is called to perfection in the spiritual life.
  • Renewal in the Church - it begins by understanding God and the nature of the Church as well as our imperfection.
  • Changes in liturgy - the liturgy is our source and summit of the spiritual life.
  • Dialogue with the world - when we engage the world and culture with the truth of Christ, we can help renew both.
  • Call for the laity to "reform the temporal order".
There are many more, but these are a quick summary points. I hope this encourages you to study more for yourself.

Of course, the most visible changes were in the prayers/actions we have at Mass. Some of the major changes to the liturgy include:
  • Using the vernacular (language of the people)
  • The priest facing the people during the Eucharistic prayer
  • The call to "active participation" of the entire congregation (though some mis-interpreted this as a call to change many things not intended to be changed).
  • Call to catechize more about the liturgy to help the congregation grow in understanding of the action of the liturgy and therefore faith in Christ.
  • Greater use of Scripture. We have an extra reading since Vatican II.
Liturgical renewal began long before Vatican II and is actually still on-going. We have seen such ongoing changes with the new translation of the Roman Missal and the wider use of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (Latin).

There are four major documents in Vatican II, called 'Constitutions'. One is on the liturgy, one is on the Church, one is on Revelation, and the last is on The Church in the Modern World. These four documents are the most important. But, there are others that are very important as well. Some of the other topics in the documents include:
  • marriage
  • family
  • culture
  • social life
  • economics
  • political community
  • moral basis of authority
  • Sacraments
  • media
  • Eastern Rite Catholic Churches
  • Ecumenism
  • Office of Bishops
  • Religious
  • Priestly formation
  • Christian Education
  • Non-Christian Religions Laity
  • Religious liberty
  • Missions

JPII said his pontificate was dedicated to properly implementing Vatican II. Benedict XVI said his pontificate was an extension of JPII's and then Francis said the same about Benedict.

Therefore, to understand the Catholic Church's needs today, we must understand Vatican II. We can rest in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church. Through prayer and study may we all grow together in holiness and faith as we journey with our pastors on this road to truth, goodness and beauty.

If you want to read more you ought to go straight to the documents. But, you can find some good commentary here:


johnny b said...

Thanks for this post.
I've always wondered how it came about that priests stopped facing the altar. Was this in the actual documents stating that they should?
Wondering in Nebraska.

Marcel said...

Most of the reform of the liturgy happened in documents that come after Vatican II. This is the case with the posture of the priest. It is not touched upon in Sacrosanctum Concilium, but is promulgated in later documents which came after Vatican II.

It started with Inter oecumenici §49 - where readings were to be done facing the people.

Then in §91 - "The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people."

It actually came from a different movement.

The normal orientation of the priest was to celebrate facing East. In many churches this would be with their backs to the congregation. In others, they would face the congregation. So, it is more about the East than it is about the people. This is where it all began and now we are turned around and focusing on the wrong thing, to be quite honest.

George @ Convert Journal said...

Another wonderful post, as always Marcel! The bullet "The priest facing the people during the Eucharistic prayer" jumped out at me too.

Fr. Fessio (Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. - Editor in Chief of Ignatius Press) has a good, 2 part piece called The Mass of Vatican II where he notes:

"The Council did not say that Mass should be celebrated facing the people. That is not in Vatican II; it is not mentioned. It is not even raised in the documents that record the formation of the Constitution on the Liturgy; it didn't come up. Mass facing the people is a not requirement of Vatican II; it is not in the spirit of Vatican II; it is definitely not in the letter of Vatican II. It is something introduced in 1969."

The Council did not say that Mass should be celebrated facing the people. That is not in Vatican II; it is not mentioned. It is not even raised in the documents that record the formation of the Constitution on the Liturgy; it didn't come up. Mass facing the people is a not requirement of Vatican II; it is not in the spirit of Vatican II; it is definitely not in the letter of Vatican II. It is something introduced in 1969.

"And, by the way, never in the history of the Church, East or West, was there a tradition of celebrating Mass facing the people. Never, ever, until 1969. It happened occasionally in Germany, in between the wars; it was done sometimes at the castle where Romano Guardini would have his group of students meet; it was done in Austria near Vienna by Pius Parsch in a special church, in what he called a 'liturgical Mass.' That's an odd expression, a 'liturgical Mass.' The Mass is the liturgy."

"But in any event, I can say without fear of contradiction from anyone who knows the facts that there is simply no tradition whatsoever, in the history of the Church, of Mass facing the people. Now, is it a sin? No. Is it wrong? No. Is it permitted? Yes. It is required? Not at all. In fact in the Latin Roman Missal, which is the typical edition that all the translations of the Missal are based on (not always translated properly, but at least based on it) the rubrics actually presuppose the Mass facing East, the Mass facing the Lord."