Shortly after his election to the papacy on October 28, 1958, Pope John XXIII invited the Catholic Church to open its windows and let in some fresh air. He longed for the Holy Spirit to blow through the Church in new and exciting ways so that the Church might be refreshed, renewed, and ready to interact with the modern world. On January 25, 1959, the Holy Father announced his intention to convene an ecumenical council that would bring the Church's teachings up-to-date, not by changing them but by expressing them in language that modern people could easily understand and appreciate.
Between 1962 and 1965, the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, produced sixteen documents. Each document is the culmination of hours of study and preparation by theologians and experts; difficult and sometimes heated discussions among the 2,600 bishops who attended the Council; and draft after draft of painstaking corrections to ensure the preciseness of every word. In the end, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Vatican II has presented the Church with a rich treasure chest brimming with vivid, eloquent Catholic doctrine to help today's Catholics better understand the Church, the world, their faith, and themselves.
The Four Diamonds of Vatican II
Four Vatican II documents shine like diamonds among the Council's treasures: the four “constitutions,” namely, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), The Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), and The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Guadium et Spes).
Dei Verbum presents the Church's teaching on Divine Revelation. In clear and pleasing language, the document explains the nature of God's self-communication to humanity; the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium (the Church's teaching office); the content, inspiration, inerrancy, and interpretation of Sacred Scripture; and the vital role of the Bible in the life of the Church.
In Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II Fathers meticulously examine the Catholic Church. As a multifaceted reality, the Church is both mystery and human history, the people of God and a hierarchical institution, the united Body of Christ and a diverse entity made up of laity, clergy, and religious. Lumen Gentium explores these aspects of the Catholic Church and much more.
The Church's sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium explains, offers Catholics access to Heaven on earth, for in the Eucharist, Jesus is really present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The document offers a profound reflection on the liturgy, the Eucharist, and the other sacraments, meditating on their depth and grandeur and suggesting reforms to guide Catholics into full and conscious participation in the Church's liturgical life.
Guadium et Spes comments on the state of the modern world and the Church's place in it. Discussing everything from atheism to the arms race, from culture to marriage and family life, this document paints an authentic portrait of the modern world with all its possibilities and problems. Further, it unfolds the mystery of the human being and identifies Christ as the center of all human longing and the only solution to the world's troubles.
Gold for the Laity
In The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam Actuositatem), the Vatican II Fathers directly address the laity, which has a special obligation and opportunity to permeate the world with the Spirit of Christ. Lay people, Apostolicam Actuositatem instructs, are called to evangelize in word and deed, witnessing with their lives to the new life of Christ within them and carrying the Gospel to people, places, and situations only they can access. They are responsible for renewing the secular world and infusing Christian faith and values into every aspect of society, their professions, their social organizations, their governments, and their families. In its final exhortation, the document proclaims, “It is the Lord Himself, by this Council, Who is once more inviting all the laity to unite themselves to Him ever more intimately, to consider His interests as their own, and to join in His mission as Savior.”
Brilliant Gemstones for Clergy and Religious
Four Vatican II documents describe the crucial ecclesiastical roles of bishops, priests, brothers, and sisters and offer recommendations to renew hierarchical and religious life. The Decree on the Pastoral Office of the Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus) discusses the pastoral duties of bishops within their own dioceses and the universal Church, emphasizing the bishops' participation in Jesus' priesthood, kingship, and prophetic office and suggesting possibilities for fruitful episcopal cooperation. The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) speaks to priests about their ministry “in the person of Christ the head”; their essential spiritual and moral qualities; and their relationship with bishops, other priests, religious, and laity. The Decree on the Training of Priests (Optatam Totius) focuses specifically on the formation of men for the priesthood, detailing the doctrinal, spiritual, and moral training seminarians should undertake on their journey into clerical life. Finally, The Decree on the Up-To-Date Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis) encourages religious communities to embrace a spiritual renewal that will inspire them to cherish the spirit and traditions of their founders; perfect the evangelical councils of chastity, poverty, and obedience; and witness to Christ in the modern world.
Silver Goblets of Friendship
Vatican II sought to promote unity among all Christians and cooperation with non-Christians through mutual understanding and dialogue. Four documents work toward this goal. The Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum) assures Eastern Rite Catholics that their liturgies and traditions are a valuable asset to the universal Church. The document also extends a hand of friendship and a prayer for unity to Eastern Churches still separated from the Holy See. In The Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), the Vatican II Fathers express a longing for “one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal and sent forth to the whole world...” as they propose basic principles and suggestions for dialogue and cooperation among Christians. The Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) emphasizes God as the common origin and destiny of human beings and recognizes the elements of truth found in other faiths while firmly maintaining the need for missionary activity so that all people may receive the Gospel and embrace the fullness of truth found in Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Lastly, The Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) emphatically asserts both the existence of the “one true religion” of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church and the necessity of human freedom in seeking and choosing the truth. No one, the Vatican II Fathers maintain, can be forced to accept or reject the faith against his or her will.
Colorful Tapestries to Spread the Faith
The remaining three documents of Vatican II, The Decree on the Means of Social Communication (Inter Mirifica), The Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis), and The Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes Divinitus), focus, respectively, on spreading the faith through modern means of communication and media, educating children and adults, and promoting missionary activity. All three documents emphasize the serious necessity of handing on the Catholic faith in all its color, fullness, and complexity.
Digging into the Treasure Chest
The documents of Vatican II are a veritable treasure chest of Catholic doctrine for the modern Church, and the best thing Catholics can do is open the chest and dig in. Lay readers unfamiliar with Church documents should begin with Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium, and Apostolicam Actuositatem, which are the most accessible of the lot and offer exceptional instruction and inspiration for the laity. These documents are not difficult in vocabulary or style, but they are dense and rich in doctrine and beauty. They are not meant to be read quickly for information but savored and contemplated slowly in small portions and with open hearts and minds so that the Holy Spirit can blow into the Church and into every Catholic, just as Pope John XXIII hoped and prayed so many years ago.