When Vatican II solemnly opened on Oct. 11, 1962, at St. Peter’s Basilica, it rang as a harbinger of change and was hailed as “the most important religious event of the 20th century,” such that people talked in terms of “pre-Vatican” and “post-Vatican,” not as sweeping as BC-AD, but indicative of its magnitude and momentousness.
Now, who remembers? Did the hierarchy? Did fireworks light up the sky on Oct. 11, 2012?
Still, its golden jubilee has drawn commentary, adding to the tons already written. Its scope is so extensive that ordinary mortals can take it only one point at a time and try to see how the parts fuse with the whole.
There are ways to approach Vatican II. The first is appraisal according to its three-fold goal: spiritual renewal, updating (aggiornamento), and promotion of Christian unity. The goal that caught the world’s imagination was “updating,” to “connect” to the modern world—well put by Pope John XXIII. What! “Several inches of condemnation and one of praise; is that the way to talk to the modern world?”
The second is a scholarly, theological approach in which each of the 16 Council documents are scrutinized, preferably for implementation, as their analysis and interpretations have been combed in the past five decades. FYI, the 16 deal with: the Nature of the Church, the Church in the Modern World, Revelation, Liturgy, Ecumenism, Religious Freedom, the Church and Non-Christian religions, Missionary Activity, Laity, Eastern Catholic Churches, Bishops, Priests, Priestly Formation, Religious Life, Christian Education, and Social Communication. Be prepared for labored reading.
A third approach is more palatable as a revelation of character is always absorbing. This will include roles and contributions of key players. Foremost is “Good Pope John” XXIII for even thinking and daring to mount an ecumenical council—earth-shaking for a distant, immovable institution. Pope Paul VI took over after Pope John died. Not to forget were the periti, theological experts including one Josef Ratzinger, 35, and others like Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner, who were treated like pariahs for their progressive views, and now drafted as consultants to mitered bishops and “red hats” who didn’t know their theology as well. Periti were credited for valuable breakthroughs in the discussion and writing of various documents. For example, John Courtney Murray, marginalized, became a major influence on Religious Freedom.
A movement’s buzzwords or key words can each be explored in depth. Hands down, “aggiornamento” was universally picked up. Its less known twin is “resourcement.” The interaction between the two gave rise to “continuity” and “discontinuity,” “reform” and “rupture,” revealing internal tensions among quarters.
Also entering the Catholic lexicon were “dialogue,” “lay empowerment,” “collegiality,” “signs of the times,” “inculturation,” “sense of the faithful,” “servant-priest,” “the people of God,” etc. Which ideas penetrated the life of the Church, and which just rolled off the table? The next approach may provide clues.
Back stories are always intriguing. Tensions have long existed between two persuasions: “progressives” and “conservatives,” or “semper idem” (always the same) and “semper reformanda” (always in need of reform). The conflict has been an undercurrent before, during and after Vatican II, and up to this day. It is hypocrisy to pretend it isn’t there. It is worth tracing as the legacy of Vatican II is buffeted by it. Compare the high hopes, expectations and euphoria of the 1960s to a depressing 2012 report card: B+ for renewal, C+ for reform, F “in too many places” (America, 8/13/12). Crucial questions must be answered: Has Vatican II moved forward, carried backward, or arrested to a standstill? And on what matters, to what extent, by whom, why?
Regardless, I hold high hopes for the last approach: an understanding and appreciation of the “Spirit” released by Vatican II. A spirit hovers; it flows; it lives; it can’t be confined. It’s not numbers; it’s not turf. “Something happened.” John XXIII “opened a window,” and even if some are closing it, the “spirit” moves in and out at will.
“Humanae Vitae” was the first boom that was lowered. Change in the liturgy was the first visible reform; its language has just been brought back “close to the Latin.” Restorationists may strike out Vatican II as “turning point,” but it remains a turning point in the womb of the Church. There may barely be reform, but there is renewal.
What was that spirit? It was a liberation, an awakening, an epiphany; a readiness to talk and discuss, to pray with non-Catholics in their churches, to write without fear, to seek God in all things. Who is to say that one person is closer to God than another?
It is time to revisit Vatican II—unless you are one of those who act as if “it never happened.”
Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor, book editor and occasional journalist. Comments to marda_ph @yahoo.com, fax 8284454.