The Second Vatican Council Continues to Bear Fruit After Fifty Years

Second Vatican Council - Closing Mass

Pope Paul VI is carried on the “sedia gestatoria,” a ceremonial throne, during the closing liturgy of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Square on December 8, 1965. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Fifty years ago today, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1965, the Second Vatican Council came to a close. On the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Council, October 11, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI began the Year of Faith, which was a grace-filled time of spiritual renewal in the Church. Now for the anniversary of the conclusion of this holy assembly, the Church appropriately begins a Jubilee Year of Mercy.

During the Council, I had the privilege of being a young seminarian in Rome, so I had a fairly up-close experience with this most momentous event in the history of the modern Church. As bishops from across the world gathered with the Pope in prayer, reflection and discussion, there was a palpable excitement. Our own bishop, who was greatly involved in the work of the Council, had a practice of inviting us students to lunch during the course of the Council sessions. After spending the morning in theology class, it was invigorating to then hear the summary reports of what the Council Fathers spoke about that morning.

So what was the purpose of this sacred assembly? What are its fruits? As we look back on this 50th anniversary, have we accomplished what the Council set out to do or does more remain to be done?

In his own reflections on the Council, Pope Benedict, who as a young priest was an advisor to the ecumenical gathering, observed that “there was the Council of the Fathers – the real Council – but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council apart, and the world perceived the Council through the latter, through the media” (Address of February 14, 2013). Like the experience of the recent Synod of Bishops on the Family (October 2015), this phenomenon hindered an authentic understanding and interpretation of the Council over the years.

The focus of the Council, Blessed Paul VI said in his closing address, was the Church – “her nature and composition, her ecumenical vocation, her apostolic and missionary activity” – as well as the state of the human person in the modern age. During this time of conciliar introspection, there was a very real sense that the Church was undergoing a moment of renewal, rededication and recommitment.

One of the words used by Saint John XXIII in calling the Council was “aggiornamento,” which means “bringing up to date.” He did not mean by this a rupture in the Church’s teachings, but renewal that was anchored in history, in the two thousand year living continuity of the great Apostolic Tradition.

As Pope John made clear in his opening address, “The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be safeguarded and expounded more effectively,” and that the Christian faith “be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms.” With respect to contemporary societal and cultural challenges, he continued, the desire of the Church “is to show herself to the world as the loving mother of all mankind; gentle, patient, and full of tenderness and sympathy for her separated children.”

These objectives of the Council were affirmed by Pope Paul in his closing address and throughout his papacy, including his call for “a new period of evangelization” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 2). In these words and in the tangible work of the Council as found in its published documents, we can see the roots of the New Evangelization.

The Council continues to bear fruit in the New Evangelization, yet there have been challenges along the way. In the years following the holy assembly, all kinds of aberrations surfaced under the banner either of an outright rejection of some of its positions or an asserted “spirit of the Council” that promoted the erroneous idea of discontinuity between the Church’s teaching before the Council and anything that followed after. In addition to poor catechesis and poor witness, a flood of liturgical and pastoral exaggerations brought great harm to the faithful and the vitality and communion of the Church.

The proper understanding of the Council, as confirmed by every Pope from John to Francis, is one of continuity in and strengthening of the Catholic faith. In the meantime, as we have seen, a tsunami of secular influence has swept across the cultural landscape, taking with it such societal markers as marriage, family, the concept of the common good and objective right and wrong. Consequently, more remains to be done to implement the work of the Council, which is the work of the New Evangelization.

Our task is to present faithfully and in its entirety the received teaching, going out to others as missionary disciples to confidently re-propose the Good News of Jesus Christ, his Church and his teaching, communicating our own joy of being definitively and completely loved by the Lord and inviting others to know that love as well. This is how we implement the Second Vatican Council, and this is how Christ and his Spirit renew the world.