The Second Vatican Council was the twenty-first ecumenical (or “world-wide”) council in the history of the Catholic Church. It took place over the autumn months of 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965. During these four sessions, over twenty-five hundred bishops, theological experts, other officials and observers from all over the world gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. They gathered to debate the future of Catholicism. And their conversations changed things.
Vatican II was the gift of Pope John XXIII, who was elected in 1958. An older man, few expected much from him, so he surprised everyone when, shortly after his election, he announced his intention to call an ecumenical council. In the past, councils were called in order to respond to some threat facing the Church. At the time of Pope John’s announcement, no obvious heresy or danger loomed on the horizon. Instead, the pope suggested a more positive purpose: the council would be an opportunity for spiritual renewal among Catholics and constructive dialogue with other Christians and the whole world.
Most people today associate Vatican II with change—a kind of updating or modernizing of the Church. Indeed, Pope John used the word aggiornamento (“updating”) to describe his hopes for the council. But what made Vatican II so successful was that this aggiornamento came by means of a ressourcement (a “return to the sources” of our faith). Vatican II was able to engage the modern world in a positive way precisely because it was able to reclaim the riches of its own deepest traditions. It turned to the Bible, to the earliest liturgies, and to the great theologians of the past in order to renew the Church of the present.
The sixteen documents produced by Vatican II reveal the council’s most important themes. Some topics focused on the inner life of the Church, such as the call to empower the laity (which was not controversial) or the call for greater sharing of authority among the pope and his brother bishops (which was controversial). Some topics looked outside the Church. Ecumenism, or dialogue with other Christians, was strongly emphasized. This in turn encouraged a more positive engagement with non-Christian religions and with the wider world. Renewing the liturgy (which eventually led to the shift from Latin to local languages) and encouraging greater use of the Bible were also important. These themes are developed in the four most important documents of the council—the “constitutions”—which treat the liturgy, divine revelation, the Church, and the Church in the modern world.
Edward P. Hahnenberg, A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II. Franciscan Media. 2007.
Edward P. Hahnenberg, “Treasures of Vatican II: Our Compass for the Future,” Catholic Update. September 2005.
Catholic Update Guide to Vatican II edited by Mary Carol Kendzie. Franciscan Media. 2012
Edward P. Hahnenberg, Ph.D., is the Breen Chair in Catholic Systematic Theology at John Carroll University in Cleveland. He is the author of Ministries: A Relational Approach, A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II, and Awakening Vocation: A Theology of Christian Call.