In October 2012, the Church will observe the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Like any anniversary, this is a time to both look back and look ahead.
Among those who took a leading part in the council was a young bishop named Karol Wojtyła, who later became Pope John Paul II. When he was archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyła referred to the council as “the seminary of the Holy Spirit,” adding that it is “historically a thing of the past, but spiritually still in being.” In other words, this momentous gathering of bishops from all over the world was not just a gigantic strategic planning meeting for the future of the Church, but was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, continues to shape the life of the Church going forward.
BUILDING ON, NOT BREAKING WITH THE PAST
Many remember the years just after the Second Vatican Council, but few people actually read the council’s 16 documents. All too often, the importance of the council was reduced to one little phrase: “the changes.” One change that everyone noticed was that, beginning in 1969, Mass was no longer regularly celebrated in Latin, but rather in one’s native tongue.
The council is also associated with less formality in the Church. Catholics were told that, thanks to the council, the Church would now be more open to the world that is, to the spirit of the times. Priests were to be regular guys; sisters donned lay clothes; family life began to change, often drastically; and strict doctrine was often replaced by a variety of theological opinions.
To be sure, the Second Vatican Council did open the door to various practical changes in the life of the Church and called upon all Catholics to engage the world more robustly. But sometimes that was taken to mean that the council constituted a complete break with the past. Everything prior was deemed by some to be old and outdated. Everything going forward was new and fresh and of the Holy Spirit. In fact, a phrase was coined to express this point of view: “the spirit of the council.” We were sometimes told to pay little attention to what the Vatican II documents actually said and instead be more attentive to the council’s “spirit.”
Actually, there is a better way for us to appreciate the council. Pope Benedict XVI calls it a “hermeneutic of continuity.” What he means by this phrase is that the best way to delve into the authentic meaning of the council is to see its connections with Christ, the Scriptures and the whole of the Church’s tradition. The Second Vatican Council doesn’t represent a break with the past, but rather an organic development flowing from all that the Church has believed and taught through the centuries. You can see this clearly if you consider how many times the Second Vatican Council refers to the councils that preceded it, as well as the teachings of popes and doctors of the Church, ancient liturgical texts, and masters of the spiritual life.
A JOURNEY THROUGH HISTORY
In their wisdom, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council understood that the best way to respond to the modern world was to understand and treasure the heritage of the Church more deeply. The council’s document Gaudium et Spes makes it clear that we are best equipped “to read the signs of the times” by opening ourselves to the fullness of the Church’s tradition and to the person of Christ.
Let’s think about it this way: What if we, as members of the Knights of Columbus, suddenly stopped talking about Father McGivney because he lived a long time ago under very different conditions? What if we said that our principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism are old-fashioned and should be traded in for new principles? Or suppose we radically reorganized the insurance program so that it bore no resemblance to Father McGivney’s original vision? What would become of the “new and improved” Knights of Columbus? Of course, the Order has changed with the times so as to meet new needs and varying conditions but always those changes have been in continuity with our deepest roots.
In a similar way, the Catholic Church has been journeying through history for some 2,000 years and, obedient to the mandate of Christ, has proclaimed the Gospel in every epoch, culture, language and place. To be sure, the Church has grown, and her teaching, worship and discipline have developed but organically. What is new is integrated with what went before; we don’t get to “remake” the Church’s teaching with each passing generation.
This has nothing to do with being “liberal” or “conservative.” In fact, those terms, which are borrowed from politics, have done a lot of damage to the Church’s unity. St. Paul reminds us there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). The Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church have set forth the teaching of the Church in a way that is complete, reliable, life-giving and beautiful. In the Year of Faith that lies ahead, let us open our hearts to Christ and to all he teaches us in and through our beloved Church.