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.
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."
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