The Holy Spirit often works in surprising ways. He certainly caught Catholic Church leaders off guard when, on January 25, 1959, He inspired Pope John XXIII to announce his intention to convene an ecumenical council. The Pope had been elected only three months before, but he was willing to allow the Spirit to use him to bestow great gifts on the modern Church.
Pope John officially summoned the council on Christmas Day, 1961, with the Apostolic Constitution Humanae Salutis. The Holy Father often said that the time had come to bring the Church “up-to-date” and to “open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.” Now, this did not mean that the Council would, or could, change the Church's age-old teachings. The Council's task was, rather, to make those teachings more accessible and understandable to the modern world. The Pope also expected the Council to promote unity between all Christians; examine the Church's position in and responsibility toward the world; and help the Church better recognize and respond to the world's concerns and needs. He prayed that the Council would be a new Pentecost and that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church through a fruitful period of renewal.
Many bishops were less than enthusiastic about the Council. They figured they would just be restating, yet again, traditional theological formulas and issuing, yet again, warnings to the modern world. The Pope urged the bishops to move beyond this narrow view and take a more optimistic stance toward the Council. They ought to see it as an opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to work through them, he encouraged. They were in a unique position to restate the Church's doctrine in fresh, new words that would express the truth in a way that modern people would find meaningful and clear.
Ultimately, the bishops proved themselves up for the challenge. Over the course of four years, from 1962 through 1965, they produced sixteen remarkable documents that do indeed present the depths and riches of the Catholic faith by using up-to-date, understandable language; including dozens, even hundreds, of references to the Scriptures, the saints, and previous councils; and drawing from both pastoral experience and the insights of theologians and scholars. The Holy Spirit was truly at work, guiding the bishops as they discussed, debated, researched, wrote, and finally bestowed a great gift upon the Church and the world, namely, the documents of Vatican II.
Sadly, most Catholics have refused to accept this gift, for they have not read and studied the documents of Vatican II. Moreover, since they have not taken the time to delve into the riches these documents have to offer, they are often mislead by popular but faulty interpretations.
All Catholics need the documents of Vatican II for themselves. The Holy Spirit is holding out an invitation: “Come! Read! Learn the truth about God, about the Church, about the world, about yourselves.” These documents are readily available on the Internet. They are not overly difficult to read, nor are they dry or boring. In fact, they offer plenty of opportunities for prayer and meditation along with vital facts that every Catholic needs to know.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting introductions to each of the Vatican II documents. Each introduction will provide an overview of the document, an outline of the topics and ideas found therein, and a few tantalizing quotations to whet the appetite and encourage further exploration.
The Holy Spirit often works in surprising ways. He speaks through the documents of Vatican II, which are His great gift to the modern Church. Catholics need to open their hearts and listen.
Sources: The Compact History of the Catholic Church by Alan Schreck and “Second Vatican Council” at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Vatican_Council)