What were some of the changes that the Council brought about? Many of our attitudes, many of the things that today we take for granted, came about as a consequence of Vatican 2. There are far, far too many things that could be mentioned – and here are just a few.
1. The Church itself - Vatican 2 redefined, re-imaged the Church
Since the break-up of Christendom at the time of the Reformation ( 400 years earlier ) the Catholic Church had become very inward looking, had become reactionary and had withdrawn itself from the world. It had seen itself, referred to itself, as a ‘perfect society’. In reacting to what had happened at the Reformation, it had become a fortress Church – withdrawn, pulled up draw bridges, isolated.
The Council pushed the Church back into the world. It used ancient biblical images to redefine the Church – People of God, the Body of Christ, the Edifice of God, the sheepfold, the community of believers. Instead of portraying the Church as a perfect society, it redefined the Church as a community of those believers who are on a pilgrimage, sharing ‘the joys, the hopes and the anxieties’ of humankind.
The Council said that the Church was the People of God – it was a community of all the baptised, both laity and their pastors. “The Church is a priestly people, it is like a pilgrim in a foreign land, and it presses forward amid the persecutions of the world, announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes.”
If you re-image an organisation – you end up redefining those who make up the organisation. So we saw in Vatican 2 a new place for the laity. The Church was to be less clerical. All are equal members by Christian Baptism. Roles may differ, but Baptism is the key sacrament and makes all of us members of the Church. “All are called to be holy.” Prior to the Council if you wanted to be holy you left the world, you became a priest or entered a religious order. All can be holy in the world.
The role of women has changed. They are regarded as equal with men in the lay state. Women today however challenge the Church towards continuing progress and development. We have seen much more lay involvement in the Church. The laity are key to the Church’s mission, because they live in the heart of the modern world and work in its engine rooms. 99% of the Church is made up of lay people.
Since the Council there is a huge increase in ministries in the Church. Council reminded us that ministry is rooted in Baptism not Holy Orders. Today the laity is absolutely vital to every enterprise of the Church.
Perhaps the most obvious change of all came about in regard to the way in which the Church goes about worship. Prior to the Council, most saw the liturgy as the domain of the clergy or the priest. Over time, the liturgy had become clericalised. The laity had become passive spectators saying their prayers and devotions. The Council decreed in that famous text, that in regard to its worship, the Church desired nothing less ‘than the full, active and conscious participation of the faithful’. The Council ordered a complete revision of the way that all of the sacraments were celebrated. As a consequence – in 1970 – we finally got a whole new way of celebrating the Eucharist.
We can recall how altars were turned to face the people, and Latin was replaced with local language. At the time many thought that these were brand new ideas. They weren’t new at all. The Church was just going back to an earlier tradition of how it conducted the liturgy. Our liturgy today is a lot less clerical, for we now understand that liturgy is essentially the work of the people.
One area in which the Council brought about great change was in its understanding and relationship with other Churches. Prior to the Council it was hoped that Protestants would return to the ‘one, true Church’ and that the Orthodox schism would end. In the decades before the Council, Protestants had become more and more involved in what had come to be called the ‘Ecumenical Movement’. The World Council of Churches had been founded and there had been many mergers of churches. All of these moves expressed a hope for unity among the Christian Churches. But the Roman Catholic Church remained aloof from all of this.
And then came Pope John who called his Ecumenical Council. He immediately set about inviting the separated communities to send delegations. He showed how important they were by insisting that they be seated in the front of St Peter’s just across the aisle from the patriarchs and cardinals. Until Vatican 2, we as Catholics didn’t recognise the other Christian Churches. We saw them as heretics and schismatics. At Vatican 2 we recognised the validity of their Baptism and the Council demanded that we look upon these communities as ecclesial, and that the members of these churches were indeed ‘our brothers and sisters in Christ’. A revolution!
When Pope Paul VI took over the Council after John’s death, he spent a great deal of time in his opening speech at the Council’s second session on the subject of Christian unity. Christ willed and desired that his Church be one. The ecumenical movement and the desire for Christian unity continue to our own time. It is a work in progress. We must, as Christians, pray and work that all who believe in Jesus may be one.
Material compiled by Monsignor Paul Farmer of the Auckland Diocese