The Catholic Church’s understanding of itself was expressed in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations) which was approved on November 21, 1964 by a vote of 2,151 in favor and 5 against.
The bishops at the Council begin by describing the Church as the new People of God formed by those baptized in water and the Holy Spirit and united around their Founder Jesus Christ as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (1 Peter 2, 9) (n.9)
This is a new approach. Traditionally the Church used to describe itself as a divine institution, beginning with the Pope, then the bishops, the priests, the clergy and finally the ordinary faithful. Here the Church begins by looking at the entire membership together, united by the faith and baptism that they share in common.
Recognizing that there are particular traditions and legitimate difference within the one Church (n.13) the bishops go on to discuss other Christian churches and other religions. They welcome the links the Catholic Church has with other Christian churches, and encourage the goal of unity for which Christ prayed (n.15).
The bishops then refer to those great religions which have Abraham as their father, and which are related to the Catholic Church in their worship of the One True God. They finally reach out to other religions and people of no particular religion, and encourage them to be faithful to the dictates of their conscience in the hope of attaining eternal salvation (n.16)
This approach is in total contrast to the traditional “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Outside the Church there is no salvation) of Saint Cyprian (3rd century), or Pope Boniface VIII’s definitive statement that “Every human creature must submit to the Roman Pontiff in order to be saved” (Unam Sanctam 1302 CE). There are those who say that the benign attitude of the Council to those of other religions or of no religion, has led to a steep decline in the missionary zeal of the Catholic Church.
Having surveyed other religions, the fathers of the Council returned to take a closer look at the People of God. They explain that the People of God is made up of two main parts, the hierarchy, who are the bishops, priests and deacons, and the laity who constitute more than 99% of the membership. The main difference between them is that the hierarchy has received the sacrament of Holy Orders, which gives them sacred powers.
The strange thing about these sacred powers is that they are given to the bishops, priests and deacons because they are servants of the People of God. At the same time, only those who have these powers are qualified to govern the People of God. (n.18) The hierarchy are clearly stated to be the servants of the faithful, but there is no suggestion that they should be in any way accountable to the people they are ordained to serve.
Just as Saint Peter was the head of the apostles, so the bishop of Rome is the head of all the bishops. Each bishop at his ordination receives his sacred power immediately and directly from God, but he can exercise that power only in communion with the bishop of Rome. (n.21)
The bishops at the Council go on to emphasize, six times in rapid succession, that bishops must act always in communion with the bishop of Rome, “who has full, supreme and universal power over the Church” (n.22). This repeated emphasis on Papal primacy puzzled me, but it may be the bishops’ way of reassuring the Pope they will not challenge his teaching or his policies, whatever their personal views.
This is quite in contrast to the early Church where Paul challenged the first Pope on his policy towards gentile Christians. Paul wrote, “I opposed Peter to his face because he was clearly wrong” (Galatians 2, 11). Such a challenge would be unthinkable today. Today the mere suggestion of a difference of opinion with the Pope could lead to a bishop’s early retirement from office. At the same time the Council clearly states that each bishop governs the local diocese entrusted to him not as an agent of the Pope but as vicar and ambassador of Christ (n.27)
Looking at priests, the Council says that they are the bishop’s helpers and as such are called to serve the People of God. In the globalized world of today the Council calls upon priests to “wipe out every kind of division so that the whole human race may be brought into the unity of the family of God” (n.28)
Deacons, the Council states, are “at a lower level of the hierarchy”, and are ordained, “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service”. The Council restored the permanent diaconate, recommending that it be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. (n.29) Allowing married men to be deacons was a significant change in Church order.
The document then devotes an entire chapter to the baptized laity, the vast majority of the People of God. The Council fathers recognize lay people’s part in the mission of the Church, and ask that they be given full freedom to exercise their gifts and talents in this service. “Upon the laity therefore rests the noble duty of working to extend the divine plan of salvation to all men of each epoch and in every land. Consequently let every opportunity be given them so that, according to their abilities and the needs of the times, they may zealously participate in the saving work of the Church” (n.33).
The Council document on the Church has three more chapters before concluding. There is a chapter on those consecrated men and women in the religious life. There is a chapter on the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Church. And there is a chapter on the universal call to holiness.
“The Lord Jesus, the Divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of his disciples, regardless of their situation… Thus it is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (n.40)
The universal call to holiness is a distinguishing mark of this Council. Previous Councils gave the impression that their objective was to preserve true doctrine, to prescribe rules of conduct or to condemn errors. This Council document makes clear that the Church is about something more fundamental, that the Church’s main concern is about holiness for all.
The list of Catholic saints could give the impression that holiness is the preserve of bishops, priests and those consecrated in the Religious Life. This document on the Church opens the door to all the faithful, and says to them: You are all called to be saints. By faithfully carrying out the duties of your state in life you too can reach the heights of holiness to which God is calling you. Holiness is for all. (n. 41)
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.
Today October 1, 2012, is the 115th anniversary of the passing of Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, in the Carmelite Convent in Lisieux, France. Sister Therese Martin was only 24 years of age at the time of her death in 1897. Just 28 years later she was solemnly declared a canonized saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI.
I got to know Saint Therese by reading her life story, written by herself, when I was about 12 years of age. I still remember the book, well-bound, solid, with clear print. There were 200 pages of Therese’s own words, divided into 11 chapters. I was enthralled by her story because, unlike the kind of saints we usually heard about, Therese’s family life sounded very much like our own, with its joys, its tensions and friendly rivalries.
At that time I took Therese’s life story at its face value. I thought she had written it for people like me so that we could know her and perhaps be inspired to imitate her “little way”. I had no idea that I was the victim of what I might call a pious deception.
The book that I was reading was not a life-story in the usual sense of the word. It was actually composed of three different documents written by Therese for three different persons in three different years.
Therese’s life story was first published in 1898 with the title, The Story of a Soul. The first chapter began as if Sister Therese was confiding the story of her soul to Mother Marie de Gonzague, the Prioress of the Convent at the time. The real story is more complicated.
Therese was the youngest of 9 children, four of whom died in childhood. The remaining five, all girls, entered the convent. Leonie, the third oldest, entered the Visitation convent. The other four, Pauline, Marie, Celine and Therese, all entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. The last to enter was Celine in 1894.
During the convent recreation one evening in January 1895 Therese was with her sisters Pauline and Marie entertaining them with stories of incidents from her childhood. Marie remarked “What a pity we don’t have these stories written down”, and then said to Pauline, who was Prioress at the time with the title Mother Agnes of Jesus, “Ask Sister Therese to write down her childhood memories for you”. Pauline turned to Therese, who was laughing, and said: “I order you to write down all your childhood memories”.
Therese was surprised at the order and asked, “What can I write that you don’t already know?” But she humbly accepted the task. One year later, in January 1896, she handed a copybook filled with her memories to Mother Agnes. It began with the words, “It is with great happiness that I come to sing the mercies of the Lord”. This was the first document written by Therese.
In April of that year, on Good Friday morning, Therese suffered a lung hemorrhage, the first warning of the illness that would eventually take her life. Some months later she confided to her sister Marie that she believed she had not got long to live. Marie knew that her sister was close to God, and asked her to write down for her some of the secrets she had learned from conversing with Jesus. Three days later she received her reply on three sheets of folded paper in small writing. This little gem is the second document written by Therese.
In March of 1896 Therese’s sister Pauline was succeeded by Mother Marie de Gonzague as Prioress of the community. Therese’s health continued to get worse, and all the medical signs indicated that 1897 would be her last year on earth.
Pauline still had the book of Therese’s childhood memories, but regretted that they contained very little about her life in the Carmelite community. So in June 1897 Pauline approached Mother Marie de Gonzague. She suggested that the Prioress order Therese to write something about her life as a Carmelite so that they would have material for her circular (an obituary notice circulated to all the Carmelite convents on the death of a member of any community). Mother Gonzague agreed, and next day she asked Therese to continue writing her memories.
Therese was extremely weak from her illness, but she tried to find strength each day to write something about her convent memories. These were addressed to Mother Marie de Gonzague, beginning with the words, “You have told me, dear Mother, of your desire that I finish singing with you the mercies of the Lord, a song I began with your dear daughter Agnes of Jesus”.
Although frequently interrupted and weakened by her illness, Therese succeeded in writing more than 50 additional pages. In these pages she shared her understanding of the Scriptures, her struggles with the human element in community living, and her inner trials of faith. This is the third document produced by Therese.
After Therese’s death on October 1, 1897, Pauline asked Mother Gonzague for permission to publish all three documents. Mother Gonzague agreed, but on condition that all would appear to be addressed to her. Pauline agreed, and one year later, on September 30, 1898, the three documents, carefully edited and skillfully woven into one, were published in French as Histoire d’une Ame (The Story of a Soul). The story became a best seller, going into millions of copies in 50 different languages.
The Carmelite writer, John Clarke O.C.D. explains that only with the publication in 1973 of the Process of Canonization of Saint Therese, we have precise information about Therese’s writings. As a result we now have a genuine autobiography of Saint Therese faithful to the authentic texts which came from Therese’s own hand and clearly indicating to whom they were addressed.
Some may be upset that there was a certain amount of pious deception in the first edition published in 1898. I believe it was well-meaning, and did not diminish or distort the person of Saint Therese or her little way.
People may take comfort in knowing that similar deception went into the composition of the Bible itself. In the book of Genesis we have two different Creation stories woven into one. We have two different Flood stories woven into one. In the first 4 books of the Bible we have the work of at least 3 different authors skillfully inter-woven to appear as the work of just one writer.
The Irish have a saying, “A story loses nothing in the telling”. The purpose of the story is to deliver a message, and when the message is from God the message will always come through, for “God can write straight on crooked lines”.