Fifty years ago Thursday, the fourth child from a family of Italian sharecroppers convened a epochal meeting of Roman Catholic Church leaders designed to “open the windows” of the nearly 2,000-year-old institution and let some of the modern world’s “fresh air” inside.
Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council, now remembered as “Vatican II,” began Oct. 11, 1962, with pomp and ceremony. It concluded more than three years later under Pope Paul VI with a transformed church, a church still struggling to digest – and in some cases accept – the changes that the conclave approved. Now, Pope Benedict XVI, who participated in the council as a young theological adviser then known as Father Joseph Ratzinger, is using the anniversary to launch a “Year of Faith” to call attention to evangelization, to summon Catholics to study the Bible and, many say, to reconsider the good and ill effects the changes have had on the world’s largest Christian church.
“The years pass,” Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, said in a statement released Tuesday on the Vatican Information Service in Rome, “but the power of Vatican II remains, with all its cargo of hope that the entire world may come to know the Gospel of Christ. Our intention is to offer Christians a further reason to feel that they are part of one church, which knows no frontiers and which daily renews her faith in the Lord through the commitment of her life.”
The impact of Vatican II, still being debated a half-century later, changed the face of a faith now claimed by 1 billion people worldwide, including 77.7 million Americans. Supporters say Vatican II delivered the badly needed “fresh air” promised by Pope John XXIII, but many of the council’s changes are still sharply contested by conservatives within the church, even as activity and support in Western Europe has plummeted.
The Second Vatican Council also has singularly failed to quiet a string of debates among the faithful over some fundamental questions, such as the role of the laity, especially in women, in the church, the division of power and doctrinal authority between Rome and national churches, and the words the faithful say at Sunday Mass.
The Vatican II anniversary comes at the time of a closely watched battle of wills between the Vatican and socially activist American nuns under the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
The former head of the Maryknoll order, meanwhile, warns that Benedict’s move to rein in the political activities of the American nuns shows a more general unhappiness of many in the church hierarchy over “excesses” that have followed in Vatican II’s wake.
“The [Vatican II] Council that was declared to open the windows is now being reinterpreted as closed shutters, protecting the church from the gale-force winds of a world searching for spiritual authenticity,” John C. Sivalon, the former superior general of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, wrote in a recent commentary critical of the campaign against the nuns.
Benedict, considered at the time of his election in 2005 a staunch conservative determined to reverse the church’s declining fortunes in his native Germany and the West, has said his “New Evangelization” plan is “directed principally at those who, though baptized, have drifted away from the church and live without reference to the Christian life.” He called on bishops assembled in Rome for a synod on the subject to ponder today’s challenges, including what he said was a “crisis” in the institution of marriage.
“There is a clear link between the crisis in faith and the crisis in marriage,” the pope said.
Vatican II also revamped Catholics’ relationship to the Mass, to the Bible and to people of other faiths, most notably perhaps the Jews, who are no longer held responsible for Christ’s death, but rather would come to be seen as “elder brothers” in the universe of faith.
Vatican II “marked a special moment in the history of the church and its relation to other religions, especially to Judaism,” Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Washington Times in a statement. The council “repudiated the centuries-old Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism and the Jewish people. This change in theological attitude was the result of a profound reckoning of the soul on the part of the leadership of the Church.”
Facing the modern world
The person who started that “profound reckoning,” Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the sharecroppers’ son, was by then no mere layman.
Now known in Catholic circles as the Blessed John XXIII, he conceived of the council as a way to complement the work of the first Vatican Council of 1869-1870.