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The Year of Faith and Vatican Council II


Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi

Bishops of the world line the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica during the opening session of the Second Vatican Council Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo)

The Year of Faith called by Pope Benedict XVI begins Oct. 11, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and will end Nov. 24, 2013, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King. This special year also coincides with the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, referred to by Pope Benedict as “an authentic fruit of the Second Vatican Council.”

When Pope John Paul II introduced the Catechism in 1992, he noted that “the principal task entrusted to the [Vatican] Council … was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine.” This task of Vatican II is also reflected in the theme for the synod of bishops that will meet in Rome in October: “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” In calling for the synod and the Year of Faith, Benedict XVI is ensuring that the Church continues to implement and develop the important work that the council began five decades ago.


Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, the 21st ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, in Rome on Oct. 11, 1962. Announced Jan. 25, 1959, less than 90 days after John XXIII’s election as pope, Vatican Council II was the only such council convened in the 20th century and only the second since the Protestant Reformation.

John XXIII’s principal aim was to ensure that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively. In his opening homily at the council, he encouraged the council fathers to work out ways and means of expounding these truths in a manner more consistent with a pastoral view of the Church’s teaching office. In addition, he urged the council fathers to work for the unity that Christ so desired.

The Second Vatican Council met at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for four sessions, which took place over four years. At the beginning, 2,540 council fathers — bishops from every corner of the world — met in the nave of the basilica, joined by 1,000 superiors of religious congregations, official observers, theologians and other experts. Provisions were also made for the media, governmental representatives and official attendants from other Christian churches.

In contrast, there were only 750 council fathers at the First Vatican Council in 1869-70. That was still significantly more than the 259 bishops who, at various stages, attended the Council of Trent (1545-63). Trent was the last general council before Vatican I and was enormously important for the Church.

“The Council of Trent marked the beginning of an intense process of spiritual and pastoral renewal in the Church,” observed Pope John Paul II in a homily at the Cathedral of Trent, in northern Italy, on April 30, 1995. “Similarly, the Second Vatican Council, a true ‘grace of God and gift of the Holy Spirit,’ gave the Church of our time a renewed awareness of her mystery and her mission, prophetically spurring the entire community to renewal in obedience to the word of God, in order better to serve men and to bring them the Gospel message more effectively.”

Indeed, Blessed John Paul II’s greatest legacy was to help the Church interiorize both spiritually and practically the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. It is no accident that Karol Wojtyła took the name John Paul. Doing so indicated his commitment to the work of Blessed John XXIII, who received the inspiration for the council and convened it, and Pope Paul VI, who was the main craftsman of the council and brought it to a conclusion in 1965. Pope Benedict XVI, who served at the council as a theological advisor, has furthered this mission in his own pontificate. The council was formative for each of the popes since the council, and their magisterial teachings reflect that.


The results of the Second Vatican Council can fit into one paperback volume — 16 conciliar documents in all, including four significant constitutions. The near-unanimity of the passage of these documents, when voted upon in final form, is striking. What also merits note is the vast scope of the subjects treated at the council, from the liturgy to ecumenism, from priestly formation to religious freedom. These topics and more have been explained and developed over the past 50 years under the guidance of the successors of St. Peter.

To this day, the term “Vatican II” conjures up a variety of images, impressions and deep emotions. For some, the council deeply challenged the very roots of their faith. According to this line of thinking, nothing has been the same ever since. At the other extreme, the Church was perceived as not going far enough. In some theological circles, there is a cry for Vatican Council III to take care of “unfinished business” — namely, their own agenda of Church reform.

Yet, as the synod of bishops called by Pope John Paul II in 1985 declared, “The large majority of the faithful received the Second Vatican Council with zeal.” The synod’s report, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the close of Vatican II, also affirmed the legitimacy of the council and “the need to promote further the knowledge and application of the council both in its letter and in its spirit.”

Twenty years later, in his first Christmas address to the Roman Curia in December 2005, Pope Benedict spoke of two ways of interpreting the council: “On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”

The pope concluded, “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.”

It is often said that particular post-Vatican II changes or proposals in the Church are in keeping with “the spirit of Vatican II.” That may or may not be true with regards to specific issues. But what is absolutely true is that the Holy Spirit was actively present at the council and guided and inspired its 16 carefully written documents. In these documents lay the lasting legacy of the council awaiting anew our prayer, study and reflection. They need to be read not just individually but in their totality.

In approaching the council’s teachings, one must remember that Vatican II was, above all, a pastoral council and that each document has a pastoral tone designed to feed souls. The council was meant to be open to non-Catholic Christians, those of other living faiths and indeed the whole world.

Although no new dogma was decreed, the council put forth binding teaching in the many expressions of the ordinary magisterium — the authoritative teaching of the bishops in communion with the pope. This is why the council is so very important and cannot be ignored.


While the Second Vatican Council produced many important fruits, perhaps the greatest has been the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This document, which John Paul II called the “sure norm for teaching the faith,” is linked to the Second Vatican Council in many ways — symbolic and substantive. Promulgated 20 years ago on Oct. 11, 1992 — 30 years after the opening of the council — it is also one of the two points of reference for this Year of Faith.

It was at the synod of bishops in 1985, called to celebrate “the graces and spiritual fruits of Vatican II,” that the synod fathers first expressed the “desire that a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be composed.” They stated that the presentation of the doctrine must be both biblical and liturgical. With all that had gone on in the Church subsequent to Vatican II, the synod fathers decided that the time was right to create a summary of Catholic teaching for the universal Church.

Thus, the Catechism is both a response to and completes the work of the Second Vatican Council. It is reflective of the newness of the council, including all its documents, which it quotes extensively. At the same time, the Catechism includes references to the books of the Old and New Testaments and to other general councils. It also highlights the lives and teachings of the saints and the doctors of the Church. Although overwhelming at first glance (there are nearly 700 pages of text in the English edition), the Catechism is carefully organized and accessible to lay readers.

Like all catechesis, the Catechism is about giving “reasons” for our hope in Christ and recouping a sense of “joy” in being a Catholic Christian. It is about putting people in personal touch with Jesus Christ and his teaching in and through his living Church.

When calling the Year of Faith that will begin Oct. 11, Pope Benedict wrote, “All can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a precious and indispensable tool. It is one of the most important fruits of Vatican Council II. … It is in this sense that the Year of Faith will have to see a concerted effort to rediscover and study the fundamental content of the faith that receives its systematic and organic synthesis in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

The Year of Faith will be a great grace for the entire Church, and it will help each member of the Church understand anew, or for the first time, how it was and is that the Second Vatican Council sought to make the Church’s venerable teachings more understandable and meaningful in a world of rapid change.

MSGR. PETER J. VAGHI, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, is a member of Potomac Council 433 and a third generation Knight of Columbus. He is the author of a four-part Pillars of Faith book series, based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and published by Ave Maria Press (avemariapress.com).