FIFTY YEARS AGO
Sunday the Church will celebrate the Conversion of St. Paul worldwide which will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Blessed Pope John XXIII announcing his intention to convene an Ecumenical Council, the first in more than one hundred years. Giving it the name, Second Vatican Council, good Pope John called all of the bishops from around the world to meet in Rome four years after his announcement. The announcement took place at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-walls in Rome on January 25th.
In calling the Council, the Holy Father announced that it was time to open the windows of the Church and allow some fresh new wind to blow through her. I was in the seminary at the time and the announcement of the convening of the Council which was relayed to us by the Rector was stunning news. What was the purpose? What changes might be occasioned? Who else would be invited? What would be the scope of the Council’s agenda/ Who would win the inevitable battle between the conservatives and the progressives in the Church? Would we continue to study philosophy and theology in Latin? Would we continue to pray only in Latin? Our professors made it correctly clear that there would likely be no changes in doctrine but there might be many in discipline: fish on Friday, strict Eucharistic fast and Friday abstinence, relationships with other Christian churches and perhaps a new openness to Scriptural interpretation which up to that time had mostly been a freedom allowed only to non-Catholic biblical scholars.
There are many interpretations of the effects of the Council on the life of the Church, some positive and some negative. My first cousin is visiting me today and she said, “I’ve got a bone to pick with the Council as the Church stopped teaching the catechism and substituted a ‘God is love’ theory that allowed almost anything to go. The children since the Council do not understand the faith.” That is one person’s idea but there is some scintilla of truth to be found in it. From a standpoint of the priests, I do not know a single one who was ordained prior to the Council who would ever want to go back to the ministry they once knew. Some ordained since the Council might but they did not experience what the Church was like in the late ’50′s and early ’60′s. For many younger Catholics the Second Vatican Council is as foreign as the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council was to us in the ’50′s. The active “shelf life” of most of the later Councils which did not attack and define heresies has been short.
It is my personal feeling and only that which has led me to think we would be in far worse shape as a Church that some feel we are now. We needed desperately “full and active participation in the Eucharist” and we have it. How many presently in Church would be there today if we had the normally painful experience of music and prayer in a language we did not speak, understand, or appreciate? Did we lose some of the beautiful musical patrimony of the Church – indeed, but it is still recoverable and capable of being appreciated when it is done well as it seldom was prior to the Council. We have greater respect and dialogue with our Protestant, Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers. We retained disciplines which helped people and discarded those which hindered many.
But have we lost some good things also? I think the answer is yes. I will reflect on some of those things in coming days but I do not believe them to be foundational. I doubt if I would have become a priest had Pope John XXIII not convened the Council and Pope Paul VI implemented it. I owe those men and the Holy Spirit who guided them soon to be thirty one years of priestly ministry.
Tags: Second Vatican Council