It is over 50 years since the Second Vatican Council closed in Rome on 8 December 1965.  Few of the nearly 2500 Catholic bishops from around the world who filed into St. Peter’s Basilica on the 1st day (11 October 1962) had much idea of what they would achieve over the next few years.

The decision of Pope John XXIII, announced on 25 January 1969, to call an ecumenical or general council of the Church took most people by surprise.  There had been no general council of the Church for nearly 100 years, since the first Vatican Council in 1870.  Previous councils in the history of the Church had been summoned either to combat some heresy or to define some new dogma of faith, as the first Vatican Council had done, when it defined the infallibility of the Pope.

Why then was there a need for a general Church council?  It did not seem there were any new heresies to condemn, or any new dogmas in need of definition. (Some had ideas about defining Mary as the Mediatrix of all graces).  In 1960, the Church seemed to be in good shape.  It was still the era of Church triumphalism.

Many, therefore, if not most Catholics – even those who would have been regarded in those days as “informed” – expected relatively little from the Council.  They mostly thought that the Council would come up with a re-statement of traditional Church doctrines, with perhaps a little tinkering around the edges.  One Australian bishop famously declared that the whole thing would be over in about six weeks!

There were even those who thought that Vatican I’s definition of papal primacy and infallibility rendered any future council unnecessary.

Pope John XXIII who, because of his advanced age, had been considered no more than a “caretaker” Pope, used the image of opening the windows, to let some fresh air into the Church.  He expressed his intention that this would be a pastoral council, not with any agenda to condemn errors in the Church and in the world.  He made a significant distinction when he said that “the substance of ancient doctrine… is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”

John XXIII died in June 1963, between the first and second sessions of the Council and it was left to his successor, Paul VI, to carry the Council through to its conclusion, three sessions later, at the end of 1965.  What had begun with such modest expectations is now seen as probably the most important single religious event of the 20th century, and one of the most significant events in the whole history of the Church.  Vatican II had a profound impact on the life of the Catholic Church and on Christianity as a whole.

It taught that the Church should not be seen primarily as just a hierarchical institution or organisation to which we belong, but as a mystery or sacrament.  It is a mystery of communion of people with God in Christ, with a unity created and sustained by the Holy Spirit.  In the words of Paul VI, it is “a reality imbued with the presence of God.”

The Church also understands itself now, as a result of the Council, as the People of God, with the laity as much a part of the Church as clergy and religious, and all with responsibility for the mission of the Church.

We are now less inclined to think only of the Roman Catholic Church, when we say the word ‘church’, for the Body of Christ embraces all baptized Christians.  We recognise that God works outside the Catholic Church and even outside the Body of Christ.  The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World taught that we have to be prepared to discern the presence of God “out there”, and respond to it instead of seeing the world as something to be confronted and rejected, we recognize it as part of God’s good creative work, and try to read “the signs of the times”, to find evidence of God’s presence and activity in establishing his reign.

As a result of the Council, the Catholic Church has become the leading promoter of the ecumenical movement, which hitherto we mostly shunned.  The document on Religious Liberty taught us we have to respect the “outsider” and defend his or her right to worship God in accordance with their own conscience.

The Council renewed the liturgy of the Church, calling for “full conscious and active” participation, and thus increasing congregational involvement and a fuller understanding of the rites. 

It emphasised the importance of the Scriptures, the Word of God, and gave approval to the work of Catholic biblical scholars, many of whom had been previously under a cloud.  The late Cardinal Martini in his “deathbed interview” said that the Council gave the Bible back to the Church.

Some 50 years on, despite the remarkable liturgical, ministerial and spiritual renewal that the Council inspired, there is also a good deal of uncertainty, disappointment, conflict and alienation.  One cannot deny the existence of polarisation within the Church.

There are those who regard the Council as a disaster.  They point to the fact that whereas prior to the Council there were crowded churches, seminaries, monasteries and convents, now instead there is a serious shortage of priests, nuns and seminarians.  This could however be seen as a good example of the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” line of reasoning: because B follows A, A must be the cause of B.  One could also argue that if John XXIII had not been inspired by the Holy Spirit to summon the Council when he did, at the beginning of the 60s, a decade marked by political, social and cultural upheaval, the Church would be in a much more parlous position.

Even among those who accept the importance of the Council, there is wide variation in the way it is interpreted.  Some stress the continuity between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church, while others emphasise the discontinuity .  The truth is that it is not a case of either/or but of both/and.  There is continuity and discontinuity.

There are many things about the pre-conciliar Church which remain at the heart of Catholic faith and practice.

But it is obvious that the Catholic Church is very different today from what it was in 1960.

It would be wrong to say that the Council substantially changed the Catholic Church, but it is equally wrong to reduce the Council’s input to just changes in terminology or some minor adjustments.

There are those too who deplore what they see as a move towards “restoration” by those in high positions of authority in the Church – the winding back of post-conciliar developments and the failure to follow through some of the Council’s major directions.  Thus, the Council Fathers clearly wanted a move away from a monarchical to a more collegial concept and practice of governance.  This is still very much unfinished business.

Fifty years is not a long time in the history of the Church.  The process of reception of the Second Vatican Council is still a work in progress.

Those who question the importance of the Second Vatican Council in the life of the Church might well reflect on the words of Pope John Paul II.  Before his elevation to the papacy, while still archbishop of Krakow, Poland, he published a book called “Sources of Renewal: the Implementation of Vatican II, in which he wrote: “Through the whole experience of the Council, we have contracted a debt towards the Holy “Spirit, the Spirit of Christ which speaks to the Churches.  During the Council and by way of it, the word of the Spirit became particularly expressive and decisive for the Church.”  

We also are reminded by the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (n. 10) that, with all the changes in the Church and the world, “there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

See also Vatican II made Simple by Fr. Bill O'Shea (the link gives a description and an order form)