Anniversary: Church faces evangelization on Vatican II 50th

Second Vatican Council convenes 50 years ago. Photo by Lothar Wolleh released through Wikimedia Commons.THURSDAY, OCTOBER 11: A procession of hundreds of bishops from around the world will parade in Rome today in imitation of one of the many aspects of the Second Vatican Council, better known around the world as Vatican II. While that historic council established many new milestones—including improving relationships with Judaism and other world faiths—the biggest headline from Vatican II for the world’s billion Catholics was: The Mass henceforth would be celebrated in each country’s common language. As a result, among other things, millions of people forgot the ancient Latin phrases and many years of editing and revision began. Changes in the wording of regional texts for the Mass continue to this day.

Today, the Catholic Church marks the 50th anniversary of the convening of the Council. As a young theologian, Pope Benedict XVI attended Vatican II and saw the revolution of the Roman Catholic Church first hand. Today, he launched the “Year of Faith” and will host a three-week summit to examine the Church’s “New Evangelization.” (Get a visual of the summit with help from the Catholic News Agency.) In attendance at a solemn Mass today will be just a few of the surviving fathers of Vatican II. Through the intervening decades, they have seen the successes and failures of the Council’s decisions. While the Church sees many of its truths as timelness, they all know that the Church of the 21st century faces huge problems unforeseen in 1962. By the end of the summit, attending bishops hope to leave with ideas on how to overcome what they see as one of their greatest challenges: secularization. (The Bangkok Post reported on the opening of this new summit.) Leaders aspire to encourage Catholics to “overcome the syndrome of embarrassment” about faith and overcome outside influences in areas like marriage and family.

Catholics still debate the outcome of Vatican II: Some argue that it left Catholics unsure of how to pass on the faith to their children, while others—like Pope Benedict—remain steady in defending conservative aspects of Catholicism, even trying to curb some of the changes that came from Vatican II. On the subject of the New Evangelization—a popular Catholic phrase that refers to adapting the faith in unique ways to each of the world’s many local cultures—Benedict comments, “Our role … is to cooperate with God.” Popular culture may brush off traditional ideals of Catholicism, but the pontiff maintains that Christians will only truly experience joy if they understand the responsibilities that come with their faith. (The Guardian recently published a story on Benedict’s perspective of the outcome of Vatican II.)


The Italian word for “bringing up to date,” aggiornamento, defined one of two goals for Vatican II. For the first time in nearly 2,000 years, the Church was looking into itself, critically re-examining and studying its traditions and practices. (Wikipedia has details.) One goal should be unity within the church coupled with a compassionate reaching out to other world faiths and cultures. Pope John XXIII stressed the importance of acknowledging other religions while also teaching Christian doctrine as accurately as possible.


A total of 16 documents, containing approximately 100,000 Latin words, were completed by the end of Vatican II. Access Vatican II documents at the Vatican online archives or at the EWTN Global Catholic Network. Wonder about “Vatican I”? That council was held almost 100 years before Vatican II, but was cut short when the Italian Army entered Rome.

Catholics immediately saw changes in liturgy. In addition to the change in language, another big change was the orientation of priests and altars in Catholic churches around the world. For the first time, priests were supposed to face the people throughout the central portion of the liturgy, instead of standing at altars with their backs to the congregation.

The issues unaddressed by the Council—or underaddressed—have also affected the Church today. For example, critics charge that the Council did not go far enough in opening Church law to checks and balances. Had the Church truly become more open at Vatican II, critics argue, then some of today’s tragic sexual and financial misconduct within the Church might have been avoided.

Can a new council better direct the Church in the future? Only time will tell. (The Washington Post explains more, as does the Irish Times.)


Pope Benedict’s Year of Faith runs through November 2013, calling all parishes to find some way to reaffirm the Nicene Creed. (Looking for a 50th Anniversary Conference to attend? Check out the list, which includes several universities worldwide.)

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