By Steve Landregan
Special to The Texas Catholic
Ask the average Catholic “How did the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council affect the Church?” and the responses will include: “Mass began to be said in English.”, “Lay people began to read at Mass and help at holy Communion.” “The altar was turned around and the priest faced the people” and “what was the Second Vatican Council?”
Such responses tell us two things, first, the most significant effect of the actions of the council on the average Catholic resulted from the changes in the liturgy; second, to Catholics born after 1960 the council is ancient history. They do not remember Mass in a language other than English, they don’t remember when there were not permanent deacons; they never experienced Mass with the priest facing the altar not the people.
For those of us whose Catholic lives spanned both the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar church the opening of the council on Oct. 11, 1962 seems like yesterday. We remember photographs of thousands of bishops in white vestments sitting in bleachers flanking the center aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica. Our memories still hold the image of the benignly beautiful figure of Pope John XXIII, who looked like everybody’s grandfather, as he was carried in his portable seat… it was actually called a sedia gestatoria. We recall how strange it felt when we began praying the Our Father in English at Mass, the first use of the vernacular… with much more to come.
Those years that the council unfolded were times of excitement and hope for many but times of fear and apprehension for others. It is not only difficult, but painful to see what we had considered unchangeable change. Of course, the church had always changed, but not in our memories or the memories of our parents and grandparents, but then Pope John reminded us that “the Christian life is more than a collection of ancient customs.”
For the nearly 3000 bishops who participated in the council the experience was new and exhilarating. They lived, for the most part, in pensions with conferees from throughout the world. Experiencing the church universal in a unique manner at the council sessions, and in dialogue with other bishops, they soon recognized the reality that other cultures presented entirely different challenges for the church than did their own. The result was a new awareness and appreciation of the myriad pastoral challenges the Pope must deal with.
The council could be described as the church looking into a huge mirror to rediscover itself. Those discoveries were described in different terms, the church as mystery, the church as sacrament, the church as the people of God, the church as servant. Not all the reflection of the council was internal; it also looked outside itself considering how to engage the world, other Christians, Non-Christians and even Non-believers.
In introducing the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, Pope John Paul II wrote: “The principal task entrusted to the Council by Pope John XXIII, was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian Doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is just one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.