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Where that first council – named, like its successor, for the Vatican Basilica in which it was held – concentrated on internal theological matters, most notably a definition of papal infallibility, the Second Vatican Council was called to help the Catholic Church deal with a modern world. In nine decades, the world had undergone two world wars and had invented incandescent lighting, the automobile, the airplane and nuclear weapons. By the time Vatican II began, space had been breached – first by the Sputnik satellite, then by the first Earth orbit of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

The beginning of the second council was less than auspicious: The first sessions – after a protest from cardinals who didn’t know all the participants as well as they might desire – were devoted to determining who would be on each of the various commissions studying issues identified for the council. Organizing work continued through June 1963, when John XXIII succumbed to peritonitis and a stomach cancer diagnosed only three weeks before Vatican II first convened. Fifteen days after the pope’s death, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, archbishop of Milan, was elected pontiff, taking the name Paul VI. He reconvened the council that fall.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, said the move “promoted ‘full and active participation,’ which led to the Mass being translated into the vernacular, or local language, and celebrated as a dialogue between the celebrant and the congregation.”

One of the more prominent changes was the approval of a “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” which urged that “all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations.”

Archbishop Aymond also noted another major result of the council, saying it “reshaped the church’s relationship with other Christians and other religions. Ensuing dialogues have built bridges of understanding and strengthened relationships with Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Protestants and others.”


Not everyone in the pews received the teachings of Vatican II in the same way. Many Catholics, particularly in the United States and Europe, took a much dimmer view of Rome’s claims to central authority, leaving some lay members — and their children — confused.

“Being born post-Vatican II meant, for me, being raised by parents who themselves had not received a solid education in the faith and therefore did not know, understand or agree with many of the Catholic Church’s teachings” on issues such as the Eucharist, sexual morality and abortion, said Melissa Moschella, a researcher at the James Madison Program for American Ideals and Institutions of Princeton University.

On the other hand, she said, the teachings of Pope John Paul II – who participated in Vatican II as Bishop Karol Wojtyla – and Pope Benedict brought her back to a more orthodox faith and understanding of what she asserted the council was about.

George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, contends that “Vatican II will be remembered as a critical moment in the transition from the church of the Counter-Reformation to the church of the New Evangelization – a church that knows that it is a mission, and that everyone in it is baptized into a missionary vocation.”

A best-selling biographer of Pope John Paul II, Mr. Weigel added, “The most important ecumenical development since the council has been the development of a new ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, which is the serious ecumenism of the future. There’s not much of a future in the older ecumenism, as liberal Protestantism has become ever more porous doctrinally and morally.”

The 50th anniversary of Vatican II falls in the same week in which a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports that, for the first time in the nation’s history, self-identified Protestants have fallen below 50 percent of the population.

Regis College theologian Margaret Lavin said the debates sparked by Vatican II show no signs of slowing, with 50 years just a small slice of history for an institution dating back two millenniums.

“The major crisis in the church right now is we’re not talking to one another,” she said in a recent interview with the Toronto Star. “We’re screaming and shouting at each other and naming and blaming one another.”