Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the opening session of Vatican II. For a country that is predominantly Catholic, I’m surprised at how little has been said in the media about this very important event, especially at a time when the Catholic Church is going through such ferment.
Vatican II is one of several ecumenical councils—assemblies mainly of Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals—that have been held over several centuries. Of these ecumenical councils, three are particularly important: the Council of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II.
The Council of Trent was convened in 1545 and stretched into 1563, organized mainly to condemn Protestantism and to define Catholic doctrines. It declared that the Catholic interpretation of the Bible was final and that anyone who gave his or her own interpretation was a heretic. It issued several decrees on numerous issues ranging from original sin to the sacraments, from a reaffirmation of clerical celibacy (which began only in the 12th century) to a ban on duels. The Council of Trent also upheld the system of indulgences, the veneration of the Virgin Mary, saints and relics—sore points which had been major factors that sparked the Reformation and Protestantism.
There were clergy within the Catholic Church who wanted more reforms and they were able to make some gains, such as forbidding the sale of indulgences, and more safeguards around the moral behavior of the religious (including the convents), but the Council of Trent ended up giving more authority and power to the Pope and the cardinals. It was after this council that the Catholic Church began its index librorum prohibitorum, lists of censored books. The Council of Trent also reserved for the Pope the sole authority to issue the final imprimatur or approval for the Catholic Church’s catechism.
Vatican I was convened in 1868, this time to condemn the rise in Europe of Enlightenment ideas and liberalism, and to declare papal infallibility, that is, that all doctrines of faith or morals defined by the pope ex cathedra can never be in error. The declaration of papal infallibility was controversial and 60 members of the opposition actually left Rome to avoid having to approve the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, which contained this declaration. The issue later led to a schism, mainly German Catholics, who formed an Old Catholic Church in protest.
The Council of Trent and Vatican I were clearly reactions of a church that felt besieged by a hostile world. Pope John XXIII’s opening address at Vatican II on Oct. 11, 1962, raised hopes of a new era in Catholicism. The Pope acknowledged the importance of the Catholic Church’s past, of “solemn and venerable voices, throughout the East and the West, from the fourth century to the Middle Ages, and from there to modern times.” At the same time, the Pope also observed: “Side by side with these motives for spiritual joy, however, there has also been for more than nineteen centuries a cloud of sorrows and of trials…. In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin…”
The Pope could not have been more explicit in giving his opinion: “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”
Vatican II resulted in sweeping changes within the Catholic Church. Perhaps the best way to explain what Vatican II meant is to describe the spirit of Catholic life before and after 1962. I belong to the generation that went through that transition and can name some of those changes that had the greatest impact on people.
Before 1962 we were taught a catechism which emphasized what not to do. We prepared for confession with a printed guide for the examination of conscience: mortal sins in bold print, venial sins in light. I remember a religion teacher who kept harping about attending Sunday Mass, and told the story of a good little boy who never sinned but missed Mass one Sunday, was killed in an accident and went straight to hell because that was a mortal sin.
It was an unforgiving church for believers, and it was even harsher about “nonbelievers,” with a view that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church. Being ethnic Chinese and Catholic was difficult. We were forbidden from offering incense to the dead, and told not to go to temples because they were dens for satanic worship. I was fortunate that my mother, despite being a colegiala, dared to defy these prohibitions and told me she thought the veneration of Catholic wooden statues or santo was even worse than offering incense to ancestors.
I tried to be a good little boy, even became an altar boy and memorized the entire Mass in Latin, both the priest’s and the congregation’s texts. The priest said Mass with his back turned to the congregation. It was all very male, women were not allowed to assist at the altar; and all very solemn, mysterious… and distant.
After Vatican II we began to have Mass in English and Filipino, with the priest facing us. There was more lay participation, including women assisting with readings and later in college, I was to meet the new sisters who had left the safe confines of their convent to work with the poor.
It did take time for changes to come about. The index of forbidden books was abolished only in 1966, but in school we were still constantly warned about dangerous books (one of my priest-mentors did not like Freud), and for several years there were still postings in our school bulletin board of a Catholic classification of films that paralleled our grades: A for general patronage, B for adults and C for condemned films.
I realized how much more had to be done when I was touring China in the 1990s with a group of Chinese-Filipinos. I noticed how the younger ones, devout products of Catholic schools, were still terrified about the images in the temples, which one described as demonic.
It’s curious that in the Philippines, we only hear the term katolikong sarado to mean those who cling to old Catholic practices and beliefs. In Spanish, there are the terms catolico cerrado and catolico abierto. I like that second term, even if we never hear katolikong bukas in the Philippines.
Vatican II was an opening, pagbubukas, to the world, allowing fresh air into the Catholic Church. It was Catholics learning to dialogue with and listen to people of other faiths. It was Catholics learning that salvation came from faith and good works, and that sins of omission, such as not providing just wages, could be far more grievous than missing Mass.
Reading John XXIII’s opening address 50 years later, I felt it was a continuing invitation to Catholics to better understand and appreciate the Church fathers (and, lately, mothers); and, strengthened by those legacies, to move forward with courage and to engage the world.
* * *