Before the Cross | Celebrating Vatican II's enduring impact, unfinished business

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column


If you're in your 60s, as I am, chances are you remember something about the Second Vatican Council that you didn't read in a book or learn about in religion class many years later. Many consider Vatican II, which was formally opened 50 years ago by Blessed Pope John XXIII, as the greatest religious event of the 20th century.

The council's teachings have had an enduring impact on the life of the Church, especially its self-understanding as the sacrament of Christ's continuing presence and work in the world. Karol Wojtyla (Blessed Pope John Paul II), who as archbishop of Kraków was an active participant in the council's deliberations, wrote that Vatican II's "essential purpose" was the enrichment of Christian faith.

Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), who attended the council as an adviser (peritus), insists that the council was not a break with the past or a bold new venture. It was a deepening, and strengthening, of the faith handed down to us by the apostles. And it was a renewal of the religious fervor, or zeal, that motivates Christians in every age to "discern the signs of the times" in order to more effectively proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to diverse peoples in changing situations and circumstances.

If you remember anything about the Second Vatican Council, you probably recall the excitement that it caused among Church leaders and others outside the Catholic Church. We all listened carefully to reports of what was being discussed by more than 2,300 bishops and other invited participants in what was indisputably the most widely attended council in Church history.

The Second Vatican Council was intended by John XXIII to be a "pastoral" council rather than an occasion for promulgating new dogmas. Still, during the council's four sessions from Oct. 11, 1962, through Dec. 8, 1965, Vatican II produced 16 documents consisting of four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations. The council's teachings, which are still being studied, clarified and implemented, were intended to enrich our understanding of the faith so that we can proclaim it to the modern world with renewed conviction and enthusiasm.

Perhaps the two areas of Church life that have experienced the enduring impact of Vatican II most profoundly are 1) the increase in biblical study, with its profound implications for our understanding of Church teaching, and 2) the renewal of our Church's liturgy, which continues to enrich the way we worship God, especially in the Sunday Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council invited all Catholics to become more familiar with God's Word as it has been given to us in sacred Scripture. The council also taught that "full, conscious and active participation" in the Eucharist is essential to a vibrant Christian life.

Perhaps the council's most enduring impact is the agenda of "unfinished business" that remains after five decades of discussion, debate and documentation. Clearly, the Synod on the New Evangelization taking place in Rome this month is a continuation of the Second Vatican Council's "essential purpose" to enrich the faith. We also have much work to do in adult formation (especially Bible study), authentic renewal of the liturgy, Christian unity and interreligious dialogue, social communications, renewal of religious life, lifelong priestly formation, missionary activity, lay leadership development and the safeguarding of religious freedom.

Fifty years ago, the Holy Spirit breathed new enthusiasm into the Church during the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. Were mistakes made in implementing the Council's teaching? Of course. In every age, the Church relies on sinful and imperfect human beings to carry out Christ's work in the world.

Still, Vatican II propelled us down a journey of faith, a pathway to the future that, in full continuity with the teaching of the apostles, opened our minds and hearts to new challenges and opportunities for evangelization, worship and service to others in Jesus' name.

May the same Holy Spirit guide us today, and always, as we work to discern the signs of the times, enrich the faith and make Christ present to the world community.

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