The fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council is certainly an invitation to reflect on how that historic council has influenced both Church life and one’s personal life.
The truth is, of course, that the effects of the Council have not been exhausted. The full ramifications of this grand assembly will not be worked out for a hundred maybe hundreds of years. The recent introduction of a new translation into English of the Roman Missal shows that even after fifty years the Council’s decrees are still being implemented. It was two hundred years after the Council of Trent that the dioceses of France finally implemented that council’s mandate on the establishment of seminaries. So Vatican II (but hopefully not the spirit of Vatican II) will be inspiring and guiding the Church for centuries to come.
Clearly the changes in the liturgy have influenced the life of every Catholic. Greater Scriptural emphasis, daily homilies, prayers in the vernacular, offering of the cup, sanctuary alterations, musical variations, lay participation, priestly con-celebration, the restoration of the diaconate, and significant changes in all the sacramental rites and divine offices are, frankly, developments which the dioceses of the world are still implementing. Chesterton might quip that it’s not that liturgical reform has been tried and found wanting; it has been found demanding and not tried.
Many can look back on liturgical excesses that marked those years immediately after the Council (one publication offered 150 experimental liturgies each with a new canon) but the new rite, well understood and well done, should convey the Divine and the human, the heavenly and the incarnational, the priestly and the communal, aspects of the Gospel message quite well. Nostalgia must yield to enrichment.
The Catholic attitude toward other Christian churches, other ecclesial communities, and non- Christian religions is another dramatic adjustment that many reading this column will have experienced in their lifetime. Before this Council, Catholics rarely even attended and even more rarely participated in non-Catholic worship services. Perhaps quietly siting in the rear of a Protestant church at a funeral or a wedding might have been tolerated, but the singing of a hymn or answering Amen to a prayer was risky.
The Second Vatican Council has graciously acknowledged that the same Divine Truth which shines fully through the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church may be perceived as well, sometimes in great part, in the teachings of the other Christian churches. The Catholic Church also has recognized that some rays of Divine Truth may also be glimpsed in the other great world religions. Clearly the Protestant churches and certainly the Orthodox churches share with Catholics the same Bible, much of the same moral code, most of the ancient Creeds, some of the same sacraments.
To this extent, these Churches share in Catholic unity and are to be respected and encouraged to follow this common heritage to the fullest. The non-Christian religions employ a great deal of human wisdom regarding prayer and charity. This too reflects the activity of God in history and is to be respected and encouraged. While the conversion of some believers is certainly a Catholic goal, the growth of all believers is a Vatican II mandated pursuit and the basis of authentic ecumenism.
The universal call to holiness, a particular Vatican II expression, applies equally but differently to the clergy, the religious and the laity. Perhaps since the Middle Ages the monastic model of sanctity has been held up as the ideal for all Catholics. Quiet prayer, Scriptural mediation, liturgical involvement, retreats, study and works of charity have been the marks of the great saints and the dedicated parishioner. Holiness was other-worldly, supernatural, transcendent.
And this was true for many in the Church. But the Second Vatican Council has made it clear that the specific mandate of the Catholic laity is the transformation of the secular world. Certainly the Church needs Religious Ed teachers, and extra-ordinary ministers of Communion, and Bible study participants.
But the true vocation of the Catholic lay person is to be a catalyst for justice in the marketplace, for truth in publication, for peace in world affairs, for honesty in relationships, for fairness toward all classes, for integrity within the family.
Clericalism can plague the laity as much as the ordained. Lay persons are not called to be mini-priests; they are called to be secular advocates for the Kingdom of God on earth.