October 11 might have seemed like just another Thursday to most people, but in reality it marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most important game-changing events in the recent history of the Catholic Church.
The Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II, was officially convened in Rome on Oct. 11, 1962. The council, called by Blessed Pope John XXIII, lasted three years and brought sweeping changes to the church, including an increased focus on the role of the laity, the study of Scripture, and ecumenical outreach.
It is probably best known as the council that “changed the Mass” because afterward, people were allowed to worship in their own languages instead of the previously universal Latin. Other changes were implemented, such as the priest facing the people during Mass.
In the years since the council, reaction to the changes it brought has been a markedly mixed bag. Traditionalists decry changes to the liturgy and say it has made worship less sacred, while more liberal Catholics complain that not enough change occurred.
According to Catholic News Service, Pope Benedict XVI told a group of bishops who participated in Vatican II that the council’s call for renewal did not break down or erode church tradition.
Pope Benedict said the council marked a time that was “vivacious, rich and fruitful.”
“Christianity must never be seen as something from the past, nor lived with one’s gaze always looking back, because Jesus is yesterday, today and for all eternity,” he told the bishops. “This renewal does not mean a break with tradition; rather it expresses a lasting vitality.”
Pope Benedict said renewal doesn’t mean people should water down the faith or bend it to the whim of trends or fads. Instead, he said, the council called the faithful to strengthen their knowledge and witness of the Gospel so they can bring its message to today’s world.
Church leaders, religious and laity from the Diocese of Charleston said the council transformed the church in many important ways.
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone said the council was important to the life of the church because it forced Catholics everywhere to look at new ways of spreading the Gospel and living out its message in a rapidly changing world.
“Pope John XXIII wanted the richness of tradition and the doctrine of the church to be clearly guarded, and he knew the Gospel of truth would never change, but he also knew that the way we proclaim it has to be adapted to the times in which we live,” he said. “He saw the necessity of dialogue with other Christians and other faiths, because people have to be able to interact with each other.”
Bishop Guglielmone said too many people focus only on the changes to the liturgy that emerged from Vatican II, when really they were just a very small part of the council’s work. The move to renew the liturgy, he said, had already begun under the tenure of Pope Pius XII, and many of the changes would eventually have happened anyway.
“I think many people who criticize the Second Vatican Council are going by what they have heard or what they think they know, and haven’t really read the documents,” Bishop Guglielmone said.
Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, diocesan secretary of education, said Vatican II was important because it offered the faithful new ways to relate to their faith, to sacred Scripture, to the liturgy and the world at large.
“It didn’t restructure the church, or say it was something different from what it was before,” Sister Pam said. “Instead there was a new emphasis on the universal call to holiness, a call to transform the Earth, to evangelize and be active in mission, to make the world a better place.”
She said the council’s emphasis on sacred Scripture was a breakthrough because for centuries Catholics had traditionally not read the Bible directly.
“There had been caution about individual reading and studying of Scripture, largely because of the historical perception that the Protestant reformation had been driven by private interpretation of Scripture and then it seemed like every time you turned around, somebody had a new interpretation of the Bible,” Sister Pam said. “Vatican II said maybe we have been overly cautious and in some ways deprived people of the richness of Scripture. It encouraged people to learn the richness of the Scripture text itself through exposure to it during Mass and in personal reflection.”
Dorothy Bambach, a member of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in North Myrtle Beach, readily calls herself a member of the baby-boomer generation. She attended Catholic schools for 16 years and experienced firsthand the changes of Vatican II. Most potent in her memory is the switch from Latin to English at Mass, which she said made the liturgy more accessible and meaningful to lay people. She would like to see the spirit of the council continue to be active in today’s parishes.
“I have enjoyed the changes that were made 50 years ago, and feel our leaders should continue in this manner of making Christ’s message meaningful for us and our children,” she said. “Our Lord’s message is for all time and eternity. We should be guided to reflect on the message and Gospel as it applies to our times, challenges and sensibilities.”
Ursuline Sister Julienne Guy was studying at Creighton University during Vatican II. She remembers one of the biggest changes was the optional switch from the order’s traditional long habit to a modified one with shorter skirts and a shorter veil. While some people today complain that many nuns no longer wear traditional habits, Sister Julienne said the change made sense to her and to other sisters who were focusing on new ways to relate to non-Catholics and to share their faith with the world at large.
“The church was closed to non-Catholics, closed up within itself, and then Pope John XXIII said we needed to open up the windows and let in a little fresh air,” Sister Julienne said. “He made us look at ourselves and renew ourselves, and I think we’re much better off today because of it.”