Fifty years ago on Thursday (Oct. 11), hundreds of elaborately robed leaders strode into St. Peterâs Basilica in a massive display of solemn ecclesiastical pomp. It signaled the start of a historic three-year assembly that would change the way members of the worldâs largest Christian denomination viewed themselves, their church and the rest of the world.
It was the first day of the Second Vatican Council, more popularly known as Vatican II, which was designed to assess the churchâs role in a rapidly changing world. Leading the prelates was Pope John XXIII, who said frequently that he convened the council because he thought it was time to open the windows and let in some fresh air.
For many Catholics, the air came in at gale force.
As a result of Vatican II, priests started celebrating Mass in the language of the countries in which they lived, and they faced the congregation, not only to be heard and seen but also to signal to worshippers that they were being included because they were a vital component of the service.
âIt called for people not to have passive participation but active participation,â said New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who chairs the Committee on Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. âPrayer is not supposed to be a performance. Weâre supposed to be actively participating.â
The changes didnât stop when Mass ended. As time went by, many nuns shucked their voluminous habits in favor of clothes similar to those worn by the people they served. And men and women in religious orders started taking on causes, even risking arrest, when they spoke out in favor of civil rights and workersâ rights and against the war in Vietnam.
Such changes represented an about-face from the churchâs defensive approach to the world before Vatican II, said Christopher Baglow, a theology professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.
âIt wasnât that the church wasnât committed to human dignity before Vatican II,â he said. âWith Vatican II, the church began to look closely at the ways with which modern thinkers tended to promote human dignity and showed how they and the Gospels are complementary.â
With Vatican II, the Catholic Church sent out the message that it was part of the modern world, said Thomas Ryan, director of the Loyola Institute for Ministry. âNot against, not above, not apart, but in the modern world,â he said. âThe church sought to engage, not condemn.â [More]