The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) produced 16 documents – 4 Constitutions, 3 Declarations and 9 Decrees. They are found in the Abbot-Gallagher print edition published in 1966, which became available in digital form in 2012. The text of the documents, with a 40 page appendix of Papal speeches and a 40 page index, comes to a total of 793 pages.
I plan to produce a short summary of each Council document over the next number of weeks for the benefit of those who have not been able read the documents in full. My objective is to encourage people to learn more about the Council as the voice of the Church interpreting the signs of the times for the People of God.
The first document to be approved was Sacrosanctum Concilium, on the Sacred Liturgy. It was approved on December 4, 1963 with a final vote of 2147 in favor and 4 against.
This document explains itself in these words: Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (1 Peter 2, 9) is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, the full and active participation of all people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit. (n.14)
By way of promoting active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes. (n.30)
In the interest of promoting conscious and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy, the Council opened the door to a greater use of the local language in the liturgy. Having stated that the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites, the Council added, But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments or other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its use may be extended. This extension will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters (n.36)
The Council noted that the liturgy is made up of divinely instituted unchangeable elements, and elements subject to change (n.21). It left the way open for liturgical development in accordance with the creativity of local culture and traditions. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather she respects and fosters the spiritual adornments and gifts of the various races and peoples. (n.37) Provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is maintained, the revision of liturgical books should allow for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in mission lands. Where opportune, the same rule applies to the structuring of rites and the devising of rubrics (n.38)
The Council set up a commission to implement the changes it prescribed, and immediately the liturgy began to look different, especially the celebration of the Mass. The altar rail separating the people from the sanctuary was removed. The priest stood at the altar facing the people, and addressed them, and God, in a language the people understood.
At first the central prayer of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer, was still recited by the priest alone in Latin. But it soon became clear that the central prayer of the Mass had to be in a language the people understood in order to fulfill the goal of conscious and active participation decreed by the Council. Within a few years the entire Mass was being celebrated throughout the world in the mother tongue of the participating people.
During the years after 1963 the liturgical commission introduced other changes, with men and women as readers of the sacred texts in the liturgy, men and women ministers assisting the priest in distributing Holy Communion at Mass, altar boys and altar girls assisting the priest at the altar, and other changes that promoted the full conscious and active participation of the people.
The Constitution on the Liturgy is probably the Council document that most visibly impacted the life of the ordinary members of the Church. It stated in action what other documents would say in words, that by Baptism the ordinary members have a right and a duty to take an active part in the life and liturgy of the Church. The Constitution on the Liturgy was the Council’s way of saying to the ordinary faithful, “It is your Church, and it is your Liturgy. You must be actively involved in order to live up to your baptismal calling”.
Teresa was only 7 years of age when she and her young brother set out from Avila in Spain to go to North Africa in the hope of finding a short-cut to heaven by being martyred there. They had travelled about a mile down the road when they were met by one of their uncles who brought them back to their anxious parents.
The martyrdom venture was a failure, but it was already a manifestation of the vision and determination of a young woman who one day would be the first woman to be declared a Doctor (Teacher) of the Catholic Church.
Teresa was the third child in a family of nine. Her mother died when she was only 13, and she became very close to her father. At this early stage she decided to enter religious life, not because she was attracted to it, but because she thought it was a sure way to heaven. Her father was opposed to the idea, and told her to wait until he died and then she would be free to do as she wished.
Teresa waited, but not for long. At the age of 20 she left home secretly to enter the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila. She compared the pain of leaving her father to death itself. But he respected her decision, and Teresa was allowed to continue in the convent of 140 nuns. The following year she made her religious profession.
Sometime after her religious profession Teresa became seriously ill, and was subjected to lengthy medical treatment. As a result of poorly administered treatment her health became fragile and she suffered recurrent illness for the rest of her life.
Life in the convent was free and easy, and the young nuns were able to continue their social life, meeting their friends frequently in the convent parlor. At this time Teresa gave up the practice of mental prayer, using her poor health as an excuse.
One day a young cousin who was visiting Teresa told her that she was thinking of becoming a nun, “but a real nun following a strict Rule, not like the worldly nuns in this convent”. Teresa was shocked to be brought face to face with the lax life the nuns were living.
As a result of this experience, Teresa resolved to try to return to the original strict rule of the Carmelite Order. She was supported in this by some friends and relatives who were able to build a small convent and chapel for her. With three other nuns she took up residence in the new convent, and called it Saint Joseph’s. They followed the new Rule, which was really the earlier stricter rules, along with new regulations on poverty and penance for which she had received papal approval.
The new foundation met with immediate opposition, not only from the Carmelite nuns of the Incarnation convent, but also from the mayor and the magistrates of the town. They were fearful that a convent without endowment would become a burden on the townspeople.
Fortunately the outcry subsided fairly quickly, and Teresa became known as the mother of the reform of Carmel. Her nuns were cloistered, and lived in almost complete silence. They were poor and wore sandals instead of shoes. Because of this they became known as the discalced (shoeless) Carmelites.
For the next five years they lived in comparative peace. Then in 1567 Teresa received permission to establish more houses of her Order. This led to a flurry of activity, and in the next 15 years she established sixteen convents of the new Order throughout Spain.
These foundations involved punishing journeys in a small horse-drawn carriage across rough terrain and sometimes flooded roads. In addition to the physical demands there was also much opposition and many setbacks. All this took a toll on Teresa’s fragile health.
During this time Teresa continued her writing. She wrote her life story of several hundred pages, in which she recounts her remarkable experience of God in prayer. She wrote El Camino de la Perfección (The Way of Perfection) to help her nuns in living the life of the reform. In 1577 she wrote El Castillo Interior (The Interior Castle) explaining the stages in prayer from meditation to contemplation and on to the profound experience of mystical prayer.
Teresa was on one of her journeys when she fell into her final illness. She died in early October 1582, the very night that the Catholic nations switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar which involved dropping 11 days from that year. Teresa died on the night of October 4-15. Her feast day is celebrated on October 15th.
Forty years after her death, Teresa was canonized by Pope Gregory XV. In 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI. This title is conferred on someone because of great benefits the Church has received from their teaching. Teresa’s teachings on prayer, derived from her personal experience, surpass anything previously written. She was the first woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church.
October 11, 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, the 21st Ecumenical Council in the 2000 year history of the Catholic Church. The Council opened on October 11, 1962, and closed on December 8, 1965. It consisted of 4 sessions: October – December 1962; September – December 1963; September – November 1964 and September – December 1965.
Father John O’Malley in What Happened at Vatican II records that 2,860 bishops attended all or part of the 4 sessions. Between the opening and closing dates of the Council, 253 Council fathers died and 296 new ones were added.
Most of the previous Ecumenical Councils were convened to deal with a crisis either within the Church or between the Church and some outside force. They usually concluded with condemning some errors, and promulgating some new disciplinary regulations.
Vatican II was different. Pope John XXIII in his opening address to the Council took a more conciliatory and friendly approach. He said, “Nowadays the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”
Looking back over the past 50 years in the Church and the world, commentators are trying to assess the effects of Vatican II, and are asking, “Has anything been changed?”, and “What difference has it made?”.
My own assessment is that significant changes have taken place in the Catholic Church as a result of Vatican II. The most significant changes I see are changes in attitude, due to some structural changes, but particularly due to the awakening and empowerment of the lay membership of the Church. Here is a sampling of what the Council Fathers said about the laity in different sessions and documents of the Council.
“As sharers in the role of Christ the Priest, the Prophet and the King, the laity have an active part to play in the life and activity of the Church “(The Laity n.10). “Incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body by Baptism, and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are consecrated into a royal priesthood and a holy people” (The Laity n.3).
“Christ the great Prophet fulfills his prophetic office . . .not only through the hierarchy . . .but also through the laity. For that very purpose he made them his witnesses and gave them understanding of the Faith and the grace of speech” (The Church n.35) “It is to be hoped that many laymen will receive an appropriate formation in the sacred sciences, and that some will develop and deepen these studies by their own labors. In order that such persons may fulfill their proper functions, let it be recognized that all the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence” (Church in the World n.61).
“Finally the Fathers of the Council believe it would be most advantageous if these same departments (of the Roman Curia) would give a greater hearing to laymen who are outstanding for their virtue, knowledge and experience. Thus they too will have an appropriate share in Church affairs” (Bishops n.10)
Even though these decisions and recommendations of the Council are being implemented only minimally, already it is having an enormous effect on relations within the Church. The Catholic lay people are competent and they are confident. They are ready to take their rightful place in the governing of their Church.
Recently in dealing with the scandal of the sexual abuse of children in the Church, the competence of the lay membership was in evidence by their insistence on the need to set up safeguards for the protection of children. In contrast to the inadequacy, confusion and sometimes dishonesty of the clerical hierarchy in country after country, the lay Catholics showed their compassion, their concern and their decisive competence.
The Catholic Church can only gain by following the decisions of the Council in empowering the lay membership to full participation in the running of their Church. There was a time long ago when clerics had a monopoly of higher education, and perhaps that gave them the idea that they alone were competent to be Church leaders. The Fathers of Vatican II have made clear that clerics do not have a monopoly of education, and the Sacred Books are no longer the exclusive domain of the cleric.
Despite the decisions of the Council in favor of lay participation in the government of the Church, Canon Law still insists that the power of governance in the Church belongs to qualified clerics (Canon 129#1). Lay members may be allowed to cooperate (but not participate) in this power (Can 129#2).
This legal claim does not even pretend to be based on any teaching of Our Lord or of Divine Revelation. I have no doubt that it will be challenged when people come to realize the absurdity of a tiny minority in the Church claiming that they are a special class who alone are qualified to govern the Church because of their celibacy and their exclusive training.
In the meantime the Catholic laity empowered by Vatican II will continue to make their presence felt as they try to respond to the universal call to holiness (LG n.39) and to play their full and active part in the ongoing life of the Church. Entrenched powers have tried and will continue to try to roll back the tide released by Vatican II. I believe they will fail, because I believe the Spirit of God is for openness, inclusiveness and the sharing of gifts. And our lay Catholics, impelled by the Spirit of God, will continue to work to renew the face of the earth.